Dwight Braxton's palm is lost in the grasp of Pat Giambrone, whose fingers are as thick as the Italian sausages he makes in his market on the corner of South Fifth and Division in Camden, N.J. A few years ago Giambrone trusted Braxton with the day's receipts when nobody would trust him with a secondhand mouthpiece. "A guy from the bank called and told me a 'fugitive from justice' just walked in with my money," Giambrone recalls. "Can you imagine that?"
Can you imagine this? On Aug. 7, Braxton will defend his WBC light heavyweight title against Matthew Saad Muhammad at the Spectrum in Philadelphia and will make anywhere from $400,000 (his guarantee) to $700,000 (the maximum, counting his share of the gate). Braxton expects to make $2 million from a title unification fight with WBA champ Michael Spinks. Such a payday for a light heavyweight may seem like a dream, but for Braxton—who 4½ years ago seemed on the verge of a lifetime in prison—dreams die hard.
He had no formal early boxing training and no amateur career, he was old for a boxer (25) when he started serious training, and, most of all, at 5'6½", he was considered too small to be great. "His arms too short to box with Saad," was what the smart guys said before he knocked him out in the 10th round to win the title in Atlantic City last Dec. 19. "I'm an inch taller than Dwight," says his brother Tony, a 28-year-old junior middleweight. "But don't tell him I told you. He'd kill me." Tony is the fifth youngest of Dwight's nine living brothers. An older brother, Charles, died this year.
The 29-year-old Braxton fights much like another chunky Philadelphia area fighter, Joe Frazier. He crowds his opponents, chases them down if they run and punches them silly if they don't. Also like Frazier, he wears a kind of menacing half-smile as he stalks his man. "He's got that evil attitude," says his 22-year-old brother, Stanley. Braxton explains his visage thus: "It's kind of a cross between a grimace and a smile. If it's confusing to you, it's also confusing to my opponent."
Braxton hasn't yet absorbed the punishment that Frazier did. He's never been knocked down, and he's never really been hurt, though Saad Muhammad tagged him a few times. He isn't a true knockout artist—three of his last six fights have gone the distance and his 17-1-1 record includes seven decisions—but, rather, he relies on a punishing jab to wear down his opponents relentlessly. And he's hard to hit, both because of his stature and because he keeps moving, even though he's always attacking from short range. "He's a boxer who just happens to box in close," one of his handlers, Wesley Mouzon, puts it.
Braxton isn't as well known as Spinks, an Olympic hero, nor as popular as Saad Muhammad, who before his loss to Braxton had defended his title eight times—winning seven of the bouts by knockout—usually in spectacular come-from-behind fashion. Moreover, the impact of Braxton's victory over Saad Muhammad was lessened by the latter's claim that he had to lose six pounds to make the 175-pound limit the morning of the fight. "The jury still has to be out on Braxton," says Mort Sharnik, a CBS boxing consultant. "But if he beats Saad this time we'll have to consider him a first-rate fighter."
Certainly the jury was out in the minds of two youngsters last week as Braxton posed for photos on Berkley Street, a ghetto area in Camden, where he once lived. "I know who he is," said one. "He's the guy fighting Saad Muhammad."
The story of Saad Muhammad (né Matthew Franklin) is well known in Philadelphia. He was abandoned on a street—Benjamin Franklin Parkway, hence his surname—at the age of four in 1959 and only recently discovered who his parents were. But, across the Delaware River in New Jersey, Braxton hasn't yet made a lasting impression. "They started to wonder when they saw a limo pull up one day," Braxton says of his new neighbors in Cherry Hill, "but mostly they leave me alone."
The house he's leasing, a brown and yellow split-level with a nice lawn, is on a quiet street in a quiet section of the town, which is about 10 miles east of Philadelphia, only five miles but light years from the places he called home in Camden. Braxton plans to buy a house for his mother, Alice Elaine Braxton, who still lives in Camden, and is looking for a house for himself in the Cherry Hill area, but he'll be spending much of his time in the Southern California town of Rialto, with his girl friend of three years, Tracy Thompson.
These days the Cherry Hill house is shared by five other men: Mouzon; Rock Newman, Braxton's publicist; two young fighters, heavyweight Conroy Nelson and light heavyweight Lionel (Country) Byarms, who sometimes spars with Braxton; and brother Stanley, an amateur junior middleweight. At any time during the day, Tony might drive over from his apartment in Camden. The cooking is done by Maryam Munir, a Muslim sister whom Braxton met at the masjid, the Islamic temple that Braxton attends. (His Muslim name is Dwight Muhammad Qawiy—but he hasn't gone public with it yet.)
Newman went to work for Braxton because he thought so little of him. He gave him almost no chance against Saad Muhammad and said so in his former job as a sports talk-show host on WOL radio in Washington. "I told my listeners that without a shadow of a doubt Saad would beat Braxton," Newman says. "I was so vehement about it that after Dwight won I felt obligated to put him on." They talked, stayed in touch and Newman came aboard seven months ago. It was Newman who suggested that Braxton present Saad Muhammad with a monogrammed crying towel and a bathroom scale at their June 30 press conference announcing the rematch. And it was Newman who got his eighth-grade-dropout boss involved in helping promote stay-in-school programs in Camden and Washington.
The addition of Newman to the entourage hasn't outwardly upset the low-key Mouzon, who has guided Braxton's career since late 1978 and was himself a promising lightweight until a detached retina ended his career in 1946, when he was 19. Mouzon is a member of the old school, as is his other handler, Quenzell McCall, who trained Percy Bassett, Leotis Martin and Bennie Briscoe and has primary responsibility for Braxton's conditioning.
"When Dwight's not in training, he does everything he's not supposed to do," Mouzon says. "He drinks a lot of beer, eats junk food, gets his weight up over 190. He'll live at McDonald's if you don't stop him. And he's got an unquenchable thirst. You've got to watch him to make sure he's not sneaking out for water all the time."
Braxton says he's on his schedule for shedding weight for Saad Muhammad, but he had to lose two pounds the morning of his last fight, a sixth-round TKO of Jerry Martin on March 21. Most of all, Mouzon worries about Braxton's temper, which erupted during a press conference in Newark before his fight with Rahway State Prison inmate James Scott last September. Braxton became so incensed at Scott's piped-in comments that he threatened to smash a loudspeaker.
"Dwight has changed a lot, no doubt about that," Mouzon told a visitor recently. "But his life-style and everything about him is still aggressive. You should be glad Rock was driving the car you were in and not Dwight. I think most of Dwight's problems are behind him, but sometimes I still have worries."
Braxton doesn't. Sitting in the back seat of his leased 1982 Malibu, he tells the tale of a child of the streets. He was born in Baltimore and moved to Camden when he was 11. From his father, Charles, came the well-developed arms, but little else—he went south to work as a lumberjack when Dwight's mother sought a new life in Camden. But for Dwight there was no outlet, no leadership. His mother called the juvenile authorities when he was 14 because he was cutting school and getting into fights. While he was in the station house he was nailed for a purse-snatching he says he didn't do. "It's what they call 'cleaning up the books,' " he says. "You get somebody in there for something, then pin a mess of other stuff on them, too, to clean up your books." Away he went to James-burg State Home for Boys.
"The prison system has no real sound programs, no group discussions, nothing that teaches you how to cope with society," Braxton says. "It teaches you how to survive, how to be slick, how to cover your back. You learn how to live in prison, but how does that help you when you get out?"
Not much, in Braxton's case. Each time Braxton got out, he went back in. He did time in Annandale and Bordentown, two other New Jersey reformatories, and when he was 19 he pulled a job that earned him hard time—armed robbery of a liquor store. He was given an 11-to 15-year sentence and served 5½ years (mostly at Rahway) before being paroled in March 1978. By then, Braxton had decided to turn his life around.
"My years were going by fast, and mostly all I'd seen was reformatories and prisons," he says. "The toll was showing physically. I told myself I was going to put a halt to what was happening. There's so much negativity in prison. That's what a guy like James Scott is all about, negativity. I tried to hang around positive people. People would say, 'You're a sucker to believe in anything, man. You got to get what you can.' I didn't buy that. I told myself when I got out I was going to live."
He kept that promise when he was paroled. He continued the boxing training he had begun in prison, and studied air conditioning repair. But any kind of job was scarce, and a friend encouraged him to pursue boxing full-time. "He believed I could do it," Braxton says, "and he made me believe it." Braxton believes the friend is now dead of a drug overdose.
Braxton trained at Joe Frazier's gym in North Philadelphia, and just getting there each day from his apartment in Camden tested his commitment. "One day I went with him on the route he took," his brother Tony says. "Between the buses and the subway and all that I said to him, 'Man, you do this every day?' When I started going to the gym, I knew I had to get a car."
Bill Savage, a former Philadelphia cop, handled Braxton for his first three pro fights, in 1978. Mouzon and McCall took over after the third bout, a loss to Johnny Davis in New York City, and Braxton hasn't been defeated since. Certainly, M & M gave him direction and refined his skills. But they couldn't improve on his courage, his tenacity, his natural strength, his stamina. "I've had some strong fighters, like Briscoe," McCall says, "but Dwight is without a doubt the strongest of them all."
Braxton got into trouble one more time after turning pro—an assault and battery conviction early in 1978. "It was a vendetta thing, no money was involved," Braxton claims. Mouzon and McCall pleaded his case with words and Braxton pleaded it with tears, and he was given five years' probation.
Because he was nearly broke, Braxton contacted Giambrone, who had helped out other kids in tight spots, and Giambrone provided an apartment and a line of credit, no questions asked. "When you've been dealing with people as long as I have in this business [since 1948], you can tell who's honest and who's not," Giambrone says. "I knew that Dwight was honest." Braxton squared up with Giambrone when he could; he still runs a tab at the store even though he can afford to pay. "He just wants to be a big shot," Giambrone says. Despite Giambrone's help, Braxton had to work at other jobs: He changed bedpans at a Doylestown, Pa. nursing home, ripped apart pipe for Du Pont, and pumped gas. A year and a half ago he was getting less than $5 an hour as a workman on the same Spectrum floor where he'll be making about a half million on Aug. 7.
The echo of the mean streets is never far away, even now. Last year, Tony, who spent only five weeks out of prison from 1973 to 1980, was hooked on heroin and asked Dwight for money to make a buy. Dwight admits that he has tried hard drugs, but says he was never an addict. "He gave me the money for the stuff but he told me to do something about my problem," says Tony, whose last fight was a controversial 10-round loss to Ernie Singletary in June. "He told me he was going to report me to the boxing commission, and that sure scared me. It helped get me off the stuff."
Brother Charles died just four months ago at the age of 35, a casualty, Dwight believes, of the electroshock and drug treatments he received 10 years ago at a New Jersey hospital. "He gave an insanity plea to avoid going to jail, but it backfired and they committed him," Dwight says. "Ever since the treatments, he had these real bad seizures all the time. Finally, that's what killed him." Braxton's usually inscrutable face shows pain. "You know, he was such a sweet guy. He used to call me Ice Cream because he said I was sweet and nice for taking care of him and giving him money. Ice Cream, can you imagine that?" Braxton has dedicated the Saad Muhammad fight to Charles, and the words ICE CREAM will be on his robe instead of his usual nickname, CAMDEN BUZZSAW.
"I used to feel like this was all a dream," Braxton says. "To have nothing one minute, and a lot the next. But when you think about it, it hasn't been an overnight thing with me. It was a long, hard road that started in prison. I grew with it. Whatever happens, I don't have any apprehensions about it."
To keep in touch with reality, Braxton has only to remember Feb. 2, 1982, Dwight Braxton Day in Camden. Key to the city, speeches, dedications, applause—the whole dream come to life. And when Braxton returned to his car that was parked on South Fifth Street, the windows had been broken.