RHD remembers boxing champion Matthew Saad Muhammad, Philly legend and homelessness advocate
May 1, 2014
Matthew Saad Muhammad, former light heavyweight champion and member of the Boxing Hall of Fame who in later years worked with RHD to become an advocate for people experiencing homelessness, passed away Sunday at Chestnut Hill hospital. He was 59.
The Philadelphia legend rose to become a world champion after he was abandoned on the Ben Franklin Parkway as a child. He was a spokesperson for RHD’s One Step Away, Philadelphia’s street newspaper, and hosted One Step Away’s annual Knock Out Homelessness fundraiser.
“Matthew gave people hope,” said Kevin Roberts, RHD Communications Manager and editor of One Step Away. “We were always honored that Matthew enjoyed working with One Step Away. He was a great gentleman, he carried himself with dignity at all times, and he treated people with respect. He was a wonderful advocate because of the way he connected with people, through a simple message that in so many ways summed up his whole life: You might be down, but you can get back up.”
The story of Matthew Saad Muhammad is one of the most classic and compelling in all of sports history. Born Maxwell Antonio Loach, his mother died when he was infant. An aunt took him in, but soon found that she couldn’t handle the addition to her family. So she abandoned him, leaving the five-year-old boy on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. In Catholic Social Services, the nuns who raised him gave him the name Matthew Franklin – Matthew, from the Bible, and Franklin, from the Parkway where they found him.
He bounced around to several schools, and often got into trouble. After a few scrapes, he went to the Juniper Street Gym in South Philly to learn to fight. There he found his calling.
He rose through the ranks with a crowd-pleasing, fast-action style, a big puncher who liked to fight and feasted on punishment. In 1977, in just his 21-st pro fight, he knocked out Marvin Johnson in the 12-th round in a brutal fight to win the light heavyweight title. He defended that title three times before meeting Johnson again for the WBC title in 1979 in another classic. Bleeding heavily from cuts above both eyes, he knocked out Johnson in the eighth round.
However, like so many boxers from that era, Saad Muhammad fell on hard times after his career was over. At one time he was supporting an entourage of 39 people. He said the people he trusted to safeguard his money took advantage of him.
“I had so many people whispering in my ear: Yo, Champ, do this. Yo, Champ, do that. They’d give me that ‘Champ’ bull,” Saad Muhammad said. “That’s why I fell on my behind. I had the wrong people around me, who abused me and used me.
“Money was flying everywhere. Friends of friends, their mothers, their fathers, their brothers. They were all happy to be around me, eating me alive, taking money from me. I’d always say: That’s all right, buddy! I was always so happy. Matthew Saad Muhammad was always up for it, with everybody.
“I gave a lot of money away. I had millions of dollars. I had savings. I had a bank account. But people I trusted ran away with my money.”
Saad Muhammad encountered RHD and One Step Away in 2010, when he lost his housing and checked into the RHD Ridge Center, at the time the largest men’s homeless shelter in the city. He asked the other men at the shelter not to tell anyone that a former world champ, a Philly icon, was among them — and the other residents kept Saad Muhammad’s secret. When he was ready to tell his story, he chose One Step Away as the vehicle. A story by Kevin Roberts and Jose Espinosa (also a resident at the shelter) titled “Fighting Back” graced the newspaper’s cover in July and went on to win an International Network of Street Papers award for Best Interview.
“He gave the guys there with no hope some hope,” said Catherine Canady, then a support counselor at Ridge. “If they felt that because they took a fall, they can’t get back up, he’s showed them that you can always get back up and keep going. He gave them some inspiration, a sense of worth, of dignity. His presence gave them hope.”
Saad Muhammad went on to make appearances and host events for One Step Away.
“I liked being an inspiration to kids,” Saad Muhammad said. “I wanted kids to look at me and say: This guy had a hard time coming up. Maybe I can be like him.
“People can better themselves. Even if you’ve had a hard time in life, you can succeed. You have to have heart, and be strong.
“You just have to keep getting back up.”