Even by the standards of the traditionally harrowing backstories of rags-to-riches-to-rags prize fighters, the early years of the great light heavyweight, Matthew Saad Muhammad, are particularly heart-rending. He was a 27 year old man before someone told him his birth name, and recollections of his time on earth as Maxwell Antonio Loach remained hazy until the day he died in May of this year.
He could not recall the death of his mother or disappearance of his father, nor the time he and an elder brother spent living in poverty with an aunt in South Philadelphia: presumably his sub-conscious took an executive decision that no good could come from a child carrying around memories from such a start to life.
What he did remember was running after his brother when he was probably five years old. I say probably because his date of birth is known to the nearest three months rather than the nearest minute like most of us born in the second half of the 20th century. His brother’s legs proved too long and they soon disappeared from view. Little Maxwell was left lost, alone and helpless beside the busy Benjamin Franklin Parkway, a six-lane stretch of road that slices through the heart of Philadelphia and a stone’s throw from the steps Sylvester Stallone would immortalise in the Rocky movies.
He would later learn that this was the plan. His aunt couldn’t cope with the extra mouths to feed and the law of last in, first out decreed that Maxwell had to go. Found sleeping on the steps of the Cathedral Basilica by police and frightened into a near catatonic state, the Catholic Social Services in the form of a Sister Bernadette, were called and took him in. The nuns also named him: Matthew, meaning chosen one, and Franklin, after the Parkway. This appellation lasted longer than his original title, right through until a 1979 conversion to Islam.
Though thankfully lacking a comparable bite of tragedy, Álvaro López’s childhood is no less interesting. Born in a two room hovel under a plaza de toros in Zacatecas, north central Mexico, he always presumed it would be duelling with Bos Taurus in the bullring, rather than his own species in the boxing ring, that would lead to fame and fortune.
With this in mind, 12 year old Álvaro skipped school one Monday morning to enter the redondel and test himself against a beast that had been spared the estocada the day before when inclement weather cancelled that Sunday’s weekly fight to the death. Mercifully, the bull went easy on him and decided a short, sharp goring of the right shin would be sufficient to pierce any dangerous delusions of grandeur and send Álvarito out of the arena for good.
His parents then ratified the bovine’s judgement by moving to Stockton, California, and a relatively bull-free existence. They sent their only son to the local school but his English was limited and after six months of relentless teasing from classmates, Álvaro opted for a life driving farm machinery and picking fruit in surroundings straight out of a John Steinbeck novel.
It was love that drew Álvaro to the game. His sweetheart’s father, Jack Cruz, was a local boxing promoter whose eyes lit up when he saw the long-armed, rangy yet robust physique of his future son-in-law. It was a win-win situation for Cruz. If the Mexican farm labourer turned out to be a decent boxer he would be set to make a few bucks. And if not, at least he’d get to see the boy attempting to relinquish the innocence from the apple of his eye get beaten up every other month.
Predictably, Matthew’s route into the dark trade was more to do with survival than love. Now living with adoptive parents, his daily commute to school included daily beatings from the 13th Street gangs that menaced South Philly. Unable to beat them, Matthew joined them and began administering beatings of his own. Substance abuse and reform school inevitably followed and it was there he was encouraged to channel his aggression in the Jupiter Gym.
Temerarious styles meant neither man excelled in short amateur careers with Matthew losing four of 29, and Álvaro three of 16, bouts. Both were cut from a cloth not best suited to adorn the amateur game and these brief apprenticeships were served with an impatience that rendered futile any didactic intentions from managers or trainers. Indeed, in a 2011 interview, Álvaro laughed as he spoke of how his team tried to get him to work on jabbing and moving in and out of range. “You just want to go,” was how he described his mind-set in the ring.
By the time Álvaro made his pro debut a few weeks before his 21st birthday, his style may not have changed, but his name had. Following a victory in front of a predominantly Native American audience, his father-in-law decided to play to said crowd and announced that the full-blooded Mexican was in fact of Indian origin. When pushed for more information on which tribe exactly, Cruz blurted out, Yaqui, and the moniker stuck.
Matthew Franklin was still Matthew Franklin when he first met Yaqui López in a 12 round contest for the NABF Light Heavyweight title in 1978. He already had three losses and two draws on his record but was in the midst of an 18 fight winning streak in which he would claim the WBC world title. Yaqui was even more familiar with the bitter taste of defeat, largely down to very tough matchmaking early in his career, and when Franklin stopped him at the end of the bloody 11th stanza, it was the eighth time he had lost out.
The Mexican had earned the American’s respect, however, and Matthew promised the defeated man a shot at the world title if he ever held it. True to his word, barely a year on from claiming the WBC strap in the 1979 fight of the year war with Marvin Johnson, the recently converted Matthew Saad Muhammad gave Yaqui his opportunity in McAfee, New Jersey. Once again it turned out to be something a bit special.
It is not uncommon for boxing matches to abruptly change direction midway through the contest. The fact that you cannot cash your chips in early and that every fighter is just one punch from victory is part of what makes the sport so compelling.
What makes the about-turn in Muhammad Yaqui II unique, however, is that the pivot on which the bout rotated 180 degrees was not the traditional flash knock down or flurry of mean activity from the eventual victor. In fact, throughout the watershed moment, a brutal 8th round in which a weaker-stomached referee than Waldemar Schmidt may have called a halt to proceedings, the punishment being meted out to the eventual winner continued and even intensified to the point where it looked like his end was nigh. That these three minutes served as the launch pad for Muhammad’s victory simply beggars belief.
More than in any of his previous 58 bouts, Yaqui was adhering to a game plan that demanded lateral movement and snapping out piston-like left jabs in order to leverage his height and reach advantage in a concerted effort to control the tempo of the night.
But circumspection is a highly relative quality and even the most cautious of Mexican fighters tends to be as heedful of physical consequences as a suicidal lemming on a trip to the Cliffs of Moher. It is difficult to teach an old perro new tricks and when the leather of Muhammad’s gloves entered the vicinity of Yaqui’s nostrils, he reacted much like the Mexican bull had all those years ago when Álvarito taunted him with a red cape in Zacatecas: he looked to pierce skin and draw blood.
This he did as early as the second round in which he had Muhammad already backing and covering up. He may not have outright won the 3rd, 4th or 5th but he certainly didn’t lose them as a varied attack and a pace more akin to a welterweight contest kept the champion guessing throughout.
As they traded in the 6th, an uppercut from the gates of hell buzzed Muhammad and some complementary hooks to the body left the champ open-mouthed and hungry for air. A vicious, rising left hook to Yaqui’s own jaw in the 7th did nothing to stop his momentum and he rose confidently early and prowled to the neutral corner for the beginning of the 8th.
Up until this point in the contest, Yaqui had been gradually turning the screw throughout a masterful display. He switched from head to body, brawled then danced, probed with multiple jabs then suddenly led with a bomb. His performance appeared to be slowly but surely building to a crescendo that Beethoven himself would have been proud to compose. And if this bout had been a piece of classical music, the 8th round would undoubtedly have an fff notation alongside it to signify fortississimo.
The champion actually started off well. He marched down Yaqui and at ringside they spoke of the famed Saad Muhammad second wind that had carried him away from danger and safely home so often in the past. Sanguine rivulets of blood flowed slightly swifter from cuts between and over the challenger’s eyes and helped render him flat-footed against the ropes and shipping punches for the first time that night.
From that unfavourable position, a minute and a half into a round he was losing, he unleashed a furious attack of around forty unanswered blows. There were rights and lefts that both Muhammad’s zygomatic arches would have nightmares about for years to come. The champ grinned but he was fooling no one. This was the most visceral theatre of visible psychomachy since his childhood scraps on 13th Street and few watching on were backing his body to triumph. Had in-play online betting been around, there wouldn’t have been enough zeros on the internet to offer appropriate odds on him retaining his belt.
Yet when Yaqui finally paused for breath, presumably confident that his opponent would do nothing more threatening than breathe heavily into his ear and hang on for a few seconds of respite before being put out of his misery, Muhammad immediately came back to life. If this was a movie we’d all be panning it for the unacceptable levels of implausibility.
But it is there, see for yourself. Yaqui threw a couple of stalling hooks to keep him honest, and was moving forward and landing a fizzing straight right as the bell called time on the greatest three minutes of 1980, but somehow the course of the narrative had been irrevocably removed from his gloved fists. Though it was Yaqui’s round and he was still up on all scorecards and yet to be truly troubled, simply by staying upright, Muhammad had wrestled the initiative and belief and momentum from the Mexican.
Yaqui didn’t win another round. As an offensive force he was spent bar some sporadic bursts that caught the observer’s eye more than his opponent’s attention. Every report you read will tell you he punched himself out: that it was physical exhaustion that cost him. But it was deeper than that. A psychological exhaustion cloaked him like a wet quilt and his soul drowned before his body followed into the depths. Muhammad’s ability to withstand 24 minutes of his most articulate violence broke his spirit. All that was left for the champ was to finish off the tiring flesh and bone that circled, at times totally innocuously, away from him in the remaining seven rounds.
In the end he only needed six, with the lack of a three knockdown rule forcing the challenger to go down four times in the 14th before the referee had seen enough. Yaqui was as magnanimous in defeat as Muhammad was in victory as both men praised the other before the orphaned American took the opportunity to highlight an ongoing quest to discover his biological parents.
Yaqui went on to have a fifth and final crack at a world title but in once again coming up short he holds the dubious honour of being regarded as the greatest light heavyweight never to be a world champion. He still lives in Stockton where he has a gym and runs a program for at-risk kids with a history of gang involvement.
Muhammad successfully defended his title another four times before Dwight Muhammad Qawi stopped him in ten. He battled on for another eleven years but never reached the same levels again. Regardless, he’d done more than enough to deserve the Hall of Fame spot he was awarded in 1998. He personally invited Yaqui to the inauguration.
Life post-boxing proved tougher than anything Matthew faced in the ring and by middle age he was living in a homeless shelter in Philadelphia. True to form he battled through the darkest days, and when he succumbed to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis six months ago he was working for a non-profit as an advocate for the homeless. Until the very end, he continued giving more than he ever took.