Hall of Fame former light heavyweight champion Matthew Saad Muhammad died Sunday at Chestnut Hill Hospital in his hometown of Philadelphia. He was 59.
The cause of death was not announced.
"Matthew Saad Muhammad was one of the most exciting boxers of all time. His drama-filled fights were thrilling and he was a real fan favorite," said Edward Brophy, executive director of the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, New York, in announcing his death. "We join the boxing community in mourning his passing and offer our condolences to his family."
In addition to fashioning a Hall of Fame career and being involved in numerous memorable fights, Saad Muhammad's story was inspiring. Abandoned as a child, he rose to fame and became a light heavyweight world champion against all odds.
In 1979, Saad Muhammad, known for his punching power and heart, knocked out Marvin Johnson in a rematch of a previous victory to win the WBC light heavyweight title in Indianapolis, Johnson's hometown.
Saad Muhammad made eight successful defenses, beating such top opponents as John Conteh (twice), Yaqui Lopez and Vonzell Johnson before losing the title by 10th-round knockout to Dwight Muhammad Qawi, also a Hall of Famer, in December 1981. He challenged Qawi in a rematch eight months later and was knocked out in the sixth round in what would be his final world title bout appearance.
Born Maxwell Antonio Loach in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, Saad Muhammad's mother died when he was 5. He and his older brother were taken in by an aunt, who could not afford to raise both of them. As the story goes, she instructed the brother to get rid of his younger brother. The older brother took Saad Muhammad to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia and left him there.
After police found him and took him to Catholic Social Services, nuns there gave him the name Mathew Franklin, after the saint and the parkway where he was found, because the child did not know his own name.
He grew up with the new name -- before changing it later in life -- and was in and out of reform school as a child. He was inspired to try boxing after seeing Muhammad Ali spar at a Philadelphia gym and eventually turned pro in 1974.
The light heavyweight division was in a golden age in the 1970s and '80s and there were few easy fights, especially in Philadelphia. Saad Muhammad suffered three losses and had two draws in first 18 fights, including defeats to future titleholders Marvin Camel and Eddie Mustafa Muhammad, before emerging as a serious contender.
"From Bob Foster's retirement in the mid-70s until the early 80s, it was the greatest generation of light heavyweights and he competed at the very top," said Hall of Fame matchmaker and promoter J Russell Peltz, who estimated that he promoted about 20 of Saad Muhammad's fights. "That four-year stretch from July 1977 when he won the [NABF] title until he lost the [world] title in December 1981, he was the man. He was certainly the most entertaining fighter of his generation and you could argue that he's in the top 10 Philadelphia fighters of all time, and there are so many great fighters that came out of Philly."
In 1977, Saad Muhammad had his first breakout victory, knocking out Johnson in the 12th round to win the regional NABF title, which he defended with wins against the likes of Billy Douglas and Lopez before earning the world title shot.
His 1979 championship win in a rematch against Johnson was an all-time classic fight. Bleeding from cuts over both eyes, Saad Muhammad stopped Johnson in the eighth round, which was named Ring magazine round of the year. It was not long after that victory that he converted to Islam and changed his last name from Franklin to Saad Muhammad.
Saad Muhammad's title defense against Lopez in a July 1980 rematch in McAfee, New Jersey, was an epic battle. Saad Muhammad scored a 14th round knockout to retain the title in what was later named fight of the year by Ring magazine. The eighth round was also named round of the year by Ring, giving Saad Muhammad rounds of the year two years in a row.
Saad Muhammad (39-16-3, 29 KOs) continued to fight until 1992 but never again reached his championship heights before his retirement and eventual 1998 induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. Some record-keepers list Saad Muhammad's record as 49-16-3 with 35 knockouts.
Although Saad Muhammad earned nearly $5 million during his career, he was found to be broke and homeless on the streets of Philadelphia a few years ago. But with help he eventually got on his feet again and became an advocate for helping the homeless, including serving as a spokesman for the "Knock Out Homelessness" campaign.
"He always had an upbeat aura around him even though he was down and out financially," Peltz said.