For weeks, Matthew Saad Muhammad had been assuring those who would listen that he had lost nothing in all the wars he had fought the last few years and that he would surely regain from Dwight Braxton the WBC light heavyweight title he had lost last Dec. 19. The stumpy ex-con from Camden, N.J. had pounded him remorselessly that day, finally knocking him out in the 10th round. But last Saturday night's war in Philadelphia's Spectrum was one too many for Saad Muhammad, as was painfully obvious from the first round to the sixth, when the end came, although it actually had come on that distressing December afternoon.
Braxton won every round on all three cards last week, staggered Saad Muhammad several times, bloodying his nose in the second round and then knocking him down in the third. In the sixth, Braxton jumped on him again. A left-right combination drove Saad Muhammad into the ropes, where he tried to cover, but the unrelenting Braxton unleashed punches in great fearful volleys, hooks and straight right hands.
Saad Muhammad lurched along the ropes. Braxton pursued. He buried a hook and a right to the body, then came up with a jarring left and right to the head. Saad Muhammad reeled. Another left and right drove him back, and still another sent him toppling against the ropes in Braxton's corner. Braxton pummeled him again, his short arms pumping like pistons. The suffering challenger tried to protect his head, but Braxton was in front of him and crashing punches home until referee Carlos Padilla mercifully waved him away at 1:23 of the round. He could have stopped it in the first round, for all that it mattered.
"The man beat me this time," Saad Muhammad said softly in his dressing room. "I can't take anything away from this man. He proved to everyone that he's the best."
Only 6,781 people showed up in the 19,000-seat Spectrum to witness "The Liberty Brawl" between Philly's own Saad Muhammad and the 5'6¾" champion from across the Delaware River. One of the intriguing aspects of the fight was the prospect of learning whether December's bout had been truly indicative of the fighters' merits, and, if so, whether Saad Muhammad was shot.
The prevailing suspicion was that he was and that Braxton had caught him on the fade. Saad Muhammad turned 28 on Aug. 5, two days before the fight, and Braxton is 29, but Saad Muhammad had had too many brutal fights against the toughest guys in his division, including Eddie Gregory (now Eddie Mustafa Muhammad), Yaqui Lopez and Marvin Johnson, and they had taken their toll. He had held the title for almost three years and had defended it successfully eight times. As he faced Braxton last week, his record was 32 wins—24 by knockout—four defeats and two draws. Braxton had never fought as an amateur (he began boxing seriously while spending 5½ years, 1972-78, in various New Jersey prisons for armed robbery) and had had only 19 pro fights, winning 17, 10 by knockout, while losing one and drawing one.
Saad Muhammad clung to the assertion that his loss to Braxton last December wasn't a fair test because, he said, he had taken the fight too lightly and wasn't prepared to do his best. In fact, on the day he fought Braxton, Saad Muhammad claimed he weighed 181 pounds, six over the light heavyweight limit, and had to shed the excess in only four hours—or forfeit the title.
After that fight, Saad Muhammad fired Sam Solomon, his trainer for 22 months, and hired Steve Traitz of Norris-town, Pa. to conjure up a way to defend against Braxton, who is aptly nicknamed the "Camden Buzzsaw." It appeared to work in an April 17 tune-up with Pete McIntyre, which Saad Muhammad won easily. But last Saturday night it was evident from the first bell that Braxton would again cut the 5'11½" ex-champ down to size.
Braxton controlled the fight's direction and totally manhandled Saad Muhammad. In short, it was a mismatch. Saad Muhammad had no reflexes, no timing, and while he came out jabbing in the first round—Traitz's brainstorm—Braxton had no trouble making a target of his head.
Braxton jolted Saad Muhammad with a hard right in the opening moments, and then laughed at him contemptuously. At the close of the round, Braxton slammed Saad Muhammad into a corner with a hook, and hurt him once more as he banged him along the ropes. Saad Muhammad was in trouble again in the second; he was throwing nothing off the jab, and was unable to defend against Braxton's sudden, impulsive attacks. Now Braxton bent Saad Muhammad against the ropes with a left and right, and then pounded him inside, first to the belly, then the head. "If I catch a guy on the ropes I'll beat him," Braxton would say after the bout. "I'm not going to let him go."
Occasionally, Braxton, whose trunks were longer and more fully cut than even those of former light heavyweight champion Archie Moore in his prime, stuck out his tongue at his opponent, which made for a ridiculous sight, but mostly he was a picture of fury. After Braxton bloodied Saad Muhammad's nose in the third round, he mashed him off the ropes, dislodging his mouthpiece during one violent sequence of punches, and then caught him with a volley that had the former champion skidding back on his heels as he fell to the canvas.
"Move! Move!" Saad Muhammad's corner shouted, and the partisan crowd echoed the appeal. But where? Wherever he went, Braxton was there. By the fourth, Saad Muhammad's corner was working frantically to stop the nosebleed, but at the first exchange of punches in the round the blood would flow anew. Covering up with his hands was futile. "Uppercuts get through the peek-a-boo," says Quenzell McCall, one of Braxton's trainers.
Braxton staggered Saad Muhammad again late in the fourth with two hooks that backed him into the ropes. Then a blazing combination of lefts and rights left him helpless in his own corner. "He was strong," Braxton would say after the fight. "He was gone three times tonight, out on his feet."
Looking a bit tired himself, Braxton slowed the pace in the fifth round, but he hurt Saad Muhammad with another barrage, though he didn't follow up. Saad Muhammad came back with jabs and right hands and began to work the hook, but Braxton never appeared to be in any trouble. "I did rest in the fifth," he said. "He wouldn't go down. So I stepped back to see what he had for me. He hit me, but he didn't hurt me. He moved more the last time we fought. He was sharper then."
Braxton, who had spent much of the prefight week denigrating Saad Muhammad, was kinder afterward. "You can't teach an old dog new tricks," Braxton said of his younger victim's defensive strategy. "He had nothing new. He was just there. The referee should have stopped it sooner. He was out on his feet a few times.... I agree, I think he should retire.
"I've always been an underdog. That's the story of my life. But in the end, I win them over."
Now Braxton contemplates fighting WBA champion Michael Spinks in a unification bout later this year. "Some big paydays, that's what I want," says Braxton, who calls himself Ike. "The unification fight is coming very soon. Then it will be Mike and Ike."