BOXING fans can pick up each new book by Tris Dixon with confidence that it will be a good one. Warrior, Dixon’s biography of Mathew Saad Muhammad (Pitch Publishing), continues this tradition.
Maxwell Antonio Loach (the fighter’s original name) was born in 1954 and abandoned at age four on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia. After being found, he was taken to a Catholic orphanage. When asked his name, all he could answer was “Maa, Maa.” So the nuns named him Matthew with Franklin (the roadway where he was found) added as his surname.
Matthew found acceptance on the streets and served time in a juvenile detention facility. Eventually, he turned to boxing which gave him hope and aspirations. As Dixon notes, he’d never had either before. At age nineteen, he turned pro. He was likable, exciting, and handsome with a marketable origin story.
And he could fight.
Matthew had an unquenchable will to win. His fights were described as explosive, brutal, savage, grueling, gory, bloody, and enthralling. They were all of that and more. Think Arturo Gatti and multiply the image into a larger number.
Tom Cushman of the Philadelphia Daily News referenced Matthew’s fights as “Matthew Franklin specials.” Nigel Collins (later editor of The Ring) referred to his comebacks in ring wars as “spectacular resurrections.” It wasn’t uncommon for both Matthew and his opponent to visit the hospital after a fight.
The light-heavyweight division was deep in those days and Matthew was matched tough. In one 9-1/2-month stretch that began when he was 21 years old, he fought future champions Mate Parlov (twice), Marvin Camel (twice), and Eddie Gregory (later known as Eddie Mustafa Muhammad). He subsequently fought Marvin Johnson, Yaqui Lopez, John Conteh, and Dwight Braxton (later known as Dwight Muhammad Qawi) twice each in addition to trading blows with the likes of Richie Kates and Jerry Martin.
“Seven to eight weeks after the most brutal fight you could imagine,” promoter Russell Peltz recalled, “he’s in with another monstrous puncher. Two months later, he’s back again.”
Decades after fighting Matthew, Marvin Johnson looked back on their first ring war and acknowledged, “I still get a headache from talking about that fight. I can still hear bells and see shadows.”
In 1979, after beating Johnson in their second encounter to claim the World Boxing Council 175-pound title, Matthew changed his name from Matthew Franklin to Matthew Saad Muhammad. He was living the American dream. But over time, the dream would become a sad boxing stereotype.
“Too tough for his own good,” Bernard Hopkins later said of Matthew. “Didn’t duck any punches. Didn’t try to. People get heart mixed up with brains. I’m not saying he didn’t have brains, but his IQ of the sweet science was set on only one station.”
In keeping with the tradition of Philadelphia gym wars, Matthew also sparred like he fought. That added to the damage he suffered.
And as Dixon writes, “He had a heavyweight entourage on light-heavyweight wages.”
“I just gave it away,” Matthew said of his money. “I was friends with people. But in order for them to be around, I guess I had to give them some money. And that was it. I gave money to people who I thought needed it and it ran out.”
Matthew bought a house and was ripped off on the cost of furnishing it. There was a piano he couldn’t play and a pool he didn’t use because he didn’t know how to swim. The people he trusted to pay his taxes didn’t.
In 1981, Matthew’s birth family surfaced. After appropriate background checks, he embraced them. Soon, they joined the line of people who were getting money from him.
“They wanted things,” Michelle LeViege (Matthew’s wife at the time) told Dixon. “Can you buy me a car? Can you pay my rent? And Matthew kind of just recoiled. It was heart-breaking. I remember him saying, ‘I wish I’d never found them.’”
“They were more interested in what they could get out of Matthew than a family reunion,” photographer Paul Trace (a friend of Matthew’s) added.
Meanwhile, Matthew thought that, in the ring, he would always be able to fight through any kind of adversity. “The miracles would run out at some point,” Dixon writes. “It’s just, Matthew seemed to have an inexhaustible supply of them.”
“Some point” arrived when Matthew fought Braxton, who put two horrific beatings on him and stopped him twice after declaring, “I’ll bet his face will wear out before my arms do . . . He’s caught up in the Superman myth.”
Eventually, Matthew lost everything. “It was a horror show,” Dixon recounts. “When one thing went, everything went. The skills, the power, the punch-resistance, the title, the house, the family, the friends, the possessions. The wars caught up with him. The miracles had come at a devastating cost.”
Matthew began slurring his speech. His balance was poor. But he kept fighting. It was a sad spectacle. He fought until he was 38 years old. In his last 22 fights, he compiled an 8-13-1 record and was knocked out seven times. He was, in Dixon’s words, “used as dog meat by world-class fighters” and lost to lesser ones too.
“I don’t think he has a firm grip on reality,” Bernard Fernandez of the Philadelphia Daily News wrote. “He remembers himself the way he was, and he just doesn’t want to see the way that he is. Watch him fight. There’s nothing there.”
Adding injury to insult, in 1987, Matthew was hired as a sparring partner at the Kronk Gym. “The problem,” Dixon notes, “was that Matthew was just a durable old heavy bag for the Kronk squad.”
In his later years, Matthew drifted from city to city. His whereabouts for much of that time are hard to trace, although it’s known that he was sometimes in Philadelphia and sometimes in New Jersey. He took a job in construction as a roofer and occasionally trained fighters. Often, he relied on the kindness of friends to survive. He’d crash on a friend’s sofa for a while and, when the welcome wore thin, move on to another friend. In 2010, he entered a homeless shelter in North Philadelphia, a twenty-minute drive from the comfortable house he’d once lived in.
In March 2014, Matthew was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. He died from a stroke two months later at age 59. Death, Dixon writes, “spared him from an even worse decline than he’d experienced.”
Dixon is a good writer. Warrior goes beyond the standard boxing biography in painting a vivid portrait of Matthew as a fighter, Matthew as a person, and the boxing industry as a whole.
The book begins with a moving recreation of four-year-old Maxwell Antonio Loach’s abandonment as seen from the four-year-old’s point of view. There’s a poignant look at Matthew’s ill-fated marriage to Michelle LeViege. (Who comes across in the writing as a good woman). Several of Dixon’s fight descriptions are compelling to the point where I interrupted my reading to watch portions of the fight on YouTube.
And a final note . . . Dixon met Matthew in 2001. They became friends and Tris vowed to write his story. But there was a problem. “Back then” Dixon recalls, “Matthew and I were both struggling. Publishers didn’t want an unknown author to write about a forgotten fighter. Neither of us were in the position to help one another with anything but friendship.”
Two decades later, Tris’ promise to his friend has been admirably fulfilled.