“Unpolished skills but double-dip sizes of heart.” That’s how Bill Fleischman described Matthew Saad Muhammad’s beautifully messy victory over Marvin Johnson for the Philadelphia Daily News in 1977. Saad Muhammad’s signature bottomless well of resolve remains a marvel his technical skills and ability could never match.
The light heavyweight division produced only two dominant champions in the 25 years prior to Saad Muhammad’s emergence: Archie Moore and Bob Foster. Otherwise the weight class often represented an upper ceiling for most middleweights daring to tread north, and a haven for small heavyweights willing to cut weight. But light heavyweight began to deepen in the 1970s. Saad Muhammad and rivals like Johnson, John Conteh and Yaqui López heralded a vicious golden age in the late 70s and early 80s.
From 1976 to 1978, Saad Muhammad fought 14 times. Seven of those fights involved opponents who were top-15 or better in the division. “Miracle” Matthew, as they called him, belonged among the top, losing only to future world champions Marvin Camel and Eddie Mustafa Muhammad. Defeating Johnson in 1977 anointed Saad Muhammad the NABF champion and he twice successfully defended the trinket at home in Philadelphia. Álvaro “Yaqui” López, a hard-luck former title challenger fighting out of Stockton, Calif., stood next in line.
As a young child in Zacatecas, Mexico, López used to sneak out of his family’s cramped adobe garage to watch bullfights. As López later told it, at 12-years-old he managed to ditch school and taunt a bull at the bullring only to end up with a broken leg. López then moved with his parents to Stockton where they would get by picking seasonal produce. After dropping out of high school in 10th grade and earning money as a laborer, López met future wife Beatrice.
López quickly realized Beatrice’s father was Jack Cruz, a local fight promoter in Stockton, and begged her for an introduction. Cruz took López under his wing, entering him into an amateur tournament on a nearby Indian reservation against experienced opponents. One of the event’s promoter’s asked Cruz which tribe López belonged to and Cruz replied, “Yaqui.” The name then stuck for good.
From López’s 1972 professional debut to the first clash with Saad Muhammad in 1978, the fighter Northern California newspapers called “Indian Yaqui” notched 50 fights. Of his seven losses, two came in close challenges to WBA champion Víctor Galíndez, and another in a competitive bout against WBC champion John Conteh. The Rome crowd booed and jeered the first decision for Galíndez in 1977.
A numerically unimpressive ledger belied López’s burgeoning reputation as a road warrior. In two years he fought in Italy twice, Denmark once and in five different states. One place López hadn’t yet ventured, however, was Saad Muhammad’s Philadelphia.
Famed Philly promoter and Director of Boxing at the Spectrum J. Russell Peltz knew Saad Muhammad well, though the fighter went by Matthew Franklin back then. Local fans would have been familiar too, either from attending live or watching Saad Muhammad on PRISM, a regional network that often broadcast fights at the Spectrum.
López ended the 18-month win streak of another Philadelphian, Mike Rossman, in March of 1978 and Peltz floated his name to the press as a potential import for a card at the Spectrum in the meanwhile. Saad Muhammad’s recent win over Richie Kates thrilled Spectrum fans when he rose from a rattling knockdown in the 4th round to halt Kates two rounds later.
Fewer than 30 fights into his professional career, Saad Muhammad found himself split a few different ways amid managerial issues. Early manager Frank Gelb claimed to have Saad Muhammad under contract, while trainer and co-manager Nick Belfiore stood his ground and Scranton Times writer Bob Davis wrote of rumblings that rascally promoter Don King was in Saad Muhammad’s ear. Attached to it all was Rossman, who defeated Galíndez for his title one month earlier and whose father, Jimmy DePiano, feuded with Belfiore.
According to DePiano, Belfiore kicked Rossman out of his gym and spread rumors they weren’t paying rent. Belfiore countered that Rossman’s team grew to an unmanageable posse slowing his business. Saad Muhammad had work cut out for him with López indeed, but newspapers showed about as much concern for an eventual showdown with Rossman, his former training partner.
The ongoing commodification wasn’t lost on Saad Muhammad either, however; the fighter showed up at the Spectrum’s Ovation club for a pre-fight press conference sporting a cowboy hat and holster. His self-promotion officially grew beyond captivating in-ring accomplishments.
“I’m going Injun hunting,” Saad Muhammad told writers in attendance. And when they responded by telling him López was actually Mexican, he said, “I had no idea he was a Mexican. I guess maybe I better get up this hill before I start talking about the next one.”
López hadn’t seen Saad Muhammad fight before. “From what I’ve seen of Matt on film,” López said, “he will come to me. That’s why this can’t help but be a good fight.”
Saad Muhammad almost made everyone a fool through three rounds as he fought behind pesky double and triple jabs and the occasional threatening right hand. In the 3rd a left hook caught López and temporarily fried his neurons, causing him to aggravate an old injury in the same leg that old bull got to 15 years earlier.
Impressively, López recovered and trapped Saad Muhammad on the ropes the following round, scoring with heavy right hands. But Saad Muhammad’s miracles came in all sizes, and he endured the same onslaught that took out Mike Rossman. Then in round 5, Saad Muhammad re-established the jab as López clawed for momentum, breaking through when the Philadelphian slowed enough to be forced to exchange.
López said he couldn’t push off his right leg due to the earlier stumble but a gruff DePiano scolding Saad Muhammad for failing to show killer instinct in the moment. López was dangerous, he said, and nobody to be trifled with. And he was right.
On the broadcast viewers also learned Saad Muhammad was forced to lose three pounds the day of the fight in order to keep and defend the NABF belt, likely accounting for any inconsistencies in stamina. Either way the white of Saad Muhammad’s gum shield became more visible as rounds passed. As he became more stationary, shotgunning oxygen with every breath, López took advantage and sailed home some right hands.
López had no answer for Saad Muhammad’s rapid jab, though. In fairness, few fighters did. López’s left cheek swelled and reddened over time as it tended to, and in the 7th round Saad Muhammad opened a cut over López’s left eye. But the Philadelphian’s tendency to fade late in every round since the 4th was the chance López needed, and took.
Round 8 changed everything between them.
In 1838, poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson said during a lecture that war “brings men into such swift and close collision in critical moments that man measures man.” And round 8 signaled the opening salvo of their two-man war.
Saad Muhammad made an earnest attempt at staying disciplined, boxing behind a busy jab and stinging counters when López dared to surge forth. López caught Saad Muhammad with a right hand on the tail end of an exchange just under one minute in and the latter slunk to the ropes where López unleashed hell on his midsection. Saad Muhammad was in imminent danger of being stopped during a 45-second nonstop torrent of punches.
Leaning this way, bending the other way, Saad Muhammad managed to take the mustard off most the shots sailing toward him and soak up the rest. The crowd had seen this before and held their collective breath. A murmur rose as López slowed down, then chatter turned to jubilance as Saad Muhammad whipped jabs and widened his arsenal, hurting López with a left hook. His energy abruptly left him and López stormed back, clearly still affected. Exhaustion took over at the bell, but the violence of that round couldn’t be erased.
An air of urgency swept over the contest and both men stepped into their punches more in round 9, perhaps also a result of losing bounce in their step. Saad Muhammad struck lucky when López’s right eye, the good one, swelled shut completely after a string of jabs and hooks.
With one eye cut and the other nonfunctional, López fought behind a high guard and swayed to his right to salvage round 10. Before long Saad Muhammad again boxed and jabbed, sometimes appearing on the verge of losing control, betrayed by stamina. Two more rounds of punching was an unreasonable ask for either man, however.
All López could do was probe with jabs and reach with predictable right hands as Saad Muhammad’s smoother movement kept him safe. When the Philadelphian began using uppercuts and double hooks, López couldn’t see them to avoid them and for the final minute of round 11 dined on shot after shot. Just at the bell, referee Frank Cappuccino humanely called an end to the fight.
Immediately after the fight Saad Muhammad praised his own ability to stay calm when tired, but he suggested López deserved a title shot should he stumble across a championship. Later Saad Muhammad would credit López with teaching him “the art of true war” in this fight.
Too often evoking war is needless and unwarranted hyperbole in combat sports. Every so often, though, fighters approach an understanding of the term through trading punches. Saad Muhhamad and López awoken otherwise dormant things in one another, even if they both displayed them against others. Against each other the warring was particularly fierce.
Saad Muhammad had plenty of miracles left in him, including a few more for López. When he died from ALS at only 59 in 2014, Peltz said, “Saad Muhammad, the orphan who became world champion, gave you your money’s worth every time out and he did it during the light-heavyweight division’s finest era.”