Dwight Braxton, who squandered seven of his first 25 years behind prison walls, became the WBC light heavyweight champion last Saturday. His victory in Atlantic City will go down as a 10th-round technical knockout over heavily favored Matthew Saad Muhammad, but the squat ex-convict—he stands only 5'6½"—will cheerfully tell you that he won this fight on a judge's decision.
"There is one man here who I have got to thank," the 28-year-old Braxton said at the press conference after the fight, "because if it wasn't for him I wouldn't be here."
The man is Peter J. Coruzzi, a criminal court judge in Camden, N.J., Braxton's hometown. The champion and the judge had met nearly four years ago in court when Braxton, who had been convicted of assault and battery, came before Coruzzi. Braxton had been released from prison after serving 5½ years for armed robbery, and only recently had launched his boxing career in which he had a win, a loss and a draw. He had never fought as an amateur.
"I had him in for sentencing," Coruzzi recalled. "The preliminary probation report recommended one thing only: incarceration. As a second offense it meant at least 15 years. But his two managers begged me to give him another chance. I remember him standing in front of me, tears streaming down his cheeks, and you know how tough he is. I saw something in him. Fighters, judges, robbers, we're all human. Perhaps we should all take a deeper look at our fellow man."
Braxton received five years' probation.
The judge was standing in a casino at the Playboy Hotel, two floors below where Braxton had dismantled Saad Muhammad. "When he walked from my courtroom he never lost another fight, never stepped one inch out of line," Coruzzi said. "I'm so proud of him I could cry." And he did.
(Last month, Coruzzi proved he was human, too. He was indicted on bribery, conspiracy and misconduct charges. He has been suspended, has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial.)
On the afternoon before the title fight, Braxton lay on a bed in his hotel room. It was warm in the room but he was wearing heavy long underwear. "People never gave me a chance for anything," he said. "They forgot that I had been fighting all my life—in the street because I loved it. and in prison just to survive, to get respect. They count me out and then I just go out and do my job."
He had built his record to 15-1-1 with wins over South Africa's Theunis Kok, then undefeated, and Mike Rossman and James Scott. The WBC ranked him No. 5; he was offered $50,000 to fight Saad Muhammad. "The money is an insult," he said angrily. "I made the same fighting Scott. But I took it. I'm no Olympic hero. I was a guy in and out of reformatories. Then at 19 it was the state prison. I said to myself: 'My life is going by.' When I was 22, 23, I'd think about it and cry at night. But I'm not crying now. You don't make no marks until you become champion. Saad Muhammad is just another test. Saturday is just an extra five rounds. I don't enjoy beating up people, but I will do what I have to do."
This was Saad Muhammad's ninth title defense and he was getting $425,000. His next was expected to be a $1 million payday in a unification title fight with WBA champ Michael Spinks. Last week Saad Muhammad's people had picked up a $150,000 bonus from Don King in exchange for promotional rights to the champion's next defense, plus refusal rights on two more. No one wanted him to take Braxton lightly.
"I don't see any problem," the relaxed champion said on Friday in his hotel room. "He's a lot like Joe Frazier in style. I expect a lot of pressure. I have to adapt to his style. I'm just in there with a tough kid."
But Saad Muhammad did have a problem: weight. He was up and running the boardwalk early Saturday morning. At 6 a.m. a security guard let him into the room where the official weigh-in was scheduled to take place two hours later. He was six pounds over the limit of 175. At 8:20 he was down to 177. At 9:55, only five minutes before he would have had to make the weight or forfeit his title, he made it, at 174¼. Braxton had weighed in at 174¾ and had returned to bed.
"The official scale was way off," complained Sam Solomon, Saad Muhammad's 65-year-old trainer hours before the fight. "We had one in our room that was certified and sealed and he was O.K. on that one, and on the two scales in the hotel health center. But they wouldn't let us use any of those."
A notoriously slow starter, Saad Muhammad was told to come out firing his jab to keep Braxton at bay. Because of his height disadvantage—Saad Muhammad stands 5'11"—Braxton figured to work in close, hooking the body with both hands.
In the opening round Saad Muhammad threw 44 jabs, although very few found Braxton, who did little more than test-fire the howitzers that had stopped eight of his last 10 opponents.
Then Braxton uncoiled. He doesn't try to jab at people, but through them, as though aiming for the back of the head or the spine. He delivers the jab like a battering ram, a savage jolt to the chest or a head-snapping bolt to the chin. Midway through the second round he hurt the champion with a heavy right to the head, and then rocked him again with a right uppercut near the end of the round. Another right hand riding behind a snapping jab hurt Saad Muhammad in the third. At the bell Braxton was busily working over the champion's head and body.
A savage jab had blood pouring from the champion's nose in the fourth, and he was rocked twice by right hands. By now Saad Muhammad had all but shelved his jab, which was proving useless against Braxton's well-planned assault. The champion had expected a heavy body attack; instead he was being torn apart by the jab and by right-hand rockets to the head. Saad Muhammad switched to heavier guns: He tried to load up for an overhand right, and he dropped his left as he looked for an opening for the upper-cut. All he accomplished was to leave himself open for even more right hands.
The pattern didn't change. Braxton rocked the champion in the sixth with a stunning counter-hook and wobbled him in the eighth with an overhand right that sent blood splattering two rows out. At the end of the eighth, Braxton peered at Saad Muhammad as though wondering what was keeping him erect.
His teeth bared, Braxton began the ninth by digging both hands to the champion's body; then he sent him reeling back into the ropes with a hook to the head. Moving in swiftly, the chunky challenger fired 27 punches without answer—although more than half missed—before Saad Muhammad could slip away.
The champion fought the 10th round as though he knew it would be his last. Battered early, in desperation he tried to fend off Braxton with a volley of weak jabs, only to be stung by a double jab. Digging deep within himself, Saad Muhammad found the strength for one more assault.
Braxton met him head on—both men firing as fast as they could reload, no quarter asked or given. Then a Braxton hook grazed the spent champion's chin, sending him stumbling backward until he sat down. Up quickly, Saad Muhammad took the mandatory eight count from referee Arthur Mercante, who permitted the fight to go just four punches more before stopping it. Adolfo Ritacco, one of the champion's cornermen, came leaping into the ring to signal surrender at about the same time. There were six seconds left in the round.
The scoring accurately reflected the fight. Judges Charles Spina and Tony Castellano had Braxton ahead in rounds 7-1 with one even. Judge Eva Shain had it 8-2.
Saad Muhammad was examined at a hospital and no serious damage was found. And the new champ introduced his favorite judge at the press conference. On this evening there was no doubt that justice had been served.