He had a worse chance, the Boardwalk wiseacres reckoned, than a silver dollar in an Atlantic City slot machine. He was a yesterday man with only one good hand. His last two fights had been near-fiascoes. What sort of shot would he have against Matthew Saad Muhammad, the 25-year-old WBC world light heavyweight champion who last year put the experienced Richie Kates into the hospital and who had won his title in April in a bloody bout with the redoubtable Marvin Johnson?
But at the Resorts International Hotel in Atlantic City last Saturday, it was Saad Muhammad who was reeling on the ropes in the 12th round, the left side of his face streaming with blood, and it was John Conteh of Liverpool, England, the no-hoper, who was standing in the middle of the ring grinning wolfishly.
At that moment it seemed that the only thing in doubt about the fight was when the referee would stop it. Conteh's cruelly precise left jab was destroying Saad Muhammad. Three of them, delivered jackhammer fast, had just caused the blood to spout afresh from a cut above his left eye. Saad Muhammad came back swinging wildly, almost unbalancing himself. But it was clear that he was half-blinded by his own blood.
Saad Muhammad, plain Matt Franklin until he won his title this year, has all the right antecedents of a contemporary champion: a bitterly deprived childhood in the slums of South Philadelphia, orphanhood, foster parents, street rumbles, reform school, jail. Then the dawning of the light and the discovery of Islam. And the name change.
"The old name did well," he said, "but I wanted to change it. I'm a brother. Now, when they holler out my Islam name, they'll know I'm a black man."
For the Conteh fight, Saad Muhammad trained at Muhammad Ali's old camp at Deer Lake, Pa. and he speaks reverentially of his first meeting, in July, with Ali. "He touched me," Saad Muhammad says. "He overthrew my heart. He told me, 'Remember, a Muhammad cannot lose.' "
Saad Muhammad, in fact, had not lost a fight since a controversial split decision at the hands of Eddie Gregory in March 1977. He had earned his title in about as hard a way as possible in a division suddenly crowded with good fighters.
Among whom, according to most experts, John Conteh should no longer have been numbered, though Saad Muhammad had paid him tribute before the fight: "I admire him as a former champion. He requires the best of me."
Then reality broke through. "Listen," he said, "I studied Conteh. He's that same Conteh, comes on like a billy goat. This man specifies on butting. Also, he has tactics like stomping on your feet. But, as his prime resource, he uses his head. And suddenly a guy is bleeding."
Bleeding. Before the fight, Saad Muhammad's first defense of his title, it seemed only his vulnerable brows could make him a loser. In his title-winning fight in Indianapolis, his face was a mask of blood when in the eighth round Johnson went down for a count of nine and the referee stopped it.
The eyebrows were stitched up and the fight with Conteh, originally planned for July 22, was postponed to give them time to heal. But that tightly stretched skin, so prone to split, looked certain to be Conteh's chief target.
Conteh was contemptuous of the allegations that he butts—a foul known in Britain as "giving the Glasgow Hello." "They have a referee in the ring, don't they?" he said.
Except for that terse rejoinder, Conteh looked, spoke and acted very differently from the cocky, handsome, obstinate, self-destructive kid who was a sporting idol in England when he won the WBC light heavyweight title in October 1974. He held the crown until May 1977, when he was stripped of it for refusing to defend against Miguel Cuello of Argentina.
Conteh was 28 this spring; his hairline is fast receding, but the most noticeable change about him is his subdued manner and a new voice that is so low that the flat Liverpool vowels are almost inaudible.
Conteh's biggest pre-fight worry centered on his right hand. At the peak of his career, almost four years to the day before the Atlantic City bout, he broke it badly in a 10-round win over Willie Taylor in Scranton, Pa. It was put back together surgically, but he broke it again in training. The injury accounts for the gaps in Conteh's record. Only one fight in 1976, only one in 1977. Then, last November, he hurt it again when, leaving a party in his Rolls-Royce, he hit six parked cars.
Since then he had fought twice. In April he drew with the veteran Jesse Burnett, and in June he defeated a somewhat obscure American, Ivy Brown. He was unimpressive in both bouts. And he barely used his right.
In the early probing rounds of Saturday's fight, it looked as if Conteh's right was going to be absent from this encounter, too, though the slow-footed Saad Muhammad, whose timing seemed erratic, gave him chances to employ it. It was the left jab that Conteh used most, but it was not until the fifth round that its effect became apparent.
Early in that round, Saad Muhammad seemed to be getting the measure of Conteh. For the first time he caught him with a solid right to the head, opened up a little cut on his cheek and corralled him in a corner. But Conteh was counterpunching with his left. When the bell sounded, Saad Muhammad walked over to his corner holding a glove to his brow, and as soon as the sixth started, Conteh again hit him on the forehead with a jab. The blood began to flow.
For the next six rounds, the fight was really between Conteh and Adolph Ritacco, the renowned cut man—this was his 29th title fight—whom Saad Muhammad had recruited against the wishes of his trainer, Nick Belfiore. Between each round Ritacco would do desperate patching; during each round, Conteh would mercilessly undo Ritacco's handiwork. Even though Conteh used his right hand with effect no more than a half a dozen times in the fight, his left seemed to be doing all the work necessary.
Saad Muhammad was to claim that Conteh had butted him in the second round, but he subsequently backed away from that charge, saying, "He somewhat beat me with his left. First, he made a lump, then he opened it up with jabs. But I had a good cut man."
And, in effect, it was the cut man who beat Conteh, patching, patching, keeping Saad Muhammad in the fight until, in the 14th round, the champ finally caught Conteh with a massive left hook that put him down for an eight count and then a right that dropped him for another count of eight. They were stunning blows to the heretofore overconfident Conteh, who only needed to stay out of range for a couple of rounds to win. As it was, the judges scored it 144-143 and 146-139 for the champion; referee Carlos Padilla had it 147-142.
Later, a heavily patched Saad Muhammad intoned, "I have a road to travel. I am the chosen light heavyweight in the world and I will never lose my title." Perhaps not, but he'd better keep Adolph Ritacco in his corner.