Bernard Fernandez: Saad Muhammad fighting good fight: Knock Out Homelessness

Former WBC light-heavyweight champion Matthew Saad Muhammad was homeless before boxing, and after it.
Former WBC light-heavyweight champion Matthew Saad Muhammad was homeless before boxing, and after it.
Posted: April 12, 2011

THIS ISN'T THE best of times for homeowners. My roof is leaking and needs to be replaced, my annual property taxes are more than $10,000, and the value of my residence plunged when the housing market crashed.

But whenever I am inclined to feel sorry for myself, I remember that there are those who are spending their nights sleeping on grates or in large cardboard boxes beneath highway overpasses. For many homeless persons, necessity dictates that all their worldly possessions must fit into a shopping cart or a plastic garbage bag.

Don't spend much time thinking about the plight of the less fortunate? Hey, human misery is not restricted to earthquake victims in Haiti and Japan. It's happening right here in the Delaware Valley, probably not too far from where you are reading this.

But there are individuals and entities dedicated to easing the suffering of others, which makes April 28 a special day, and former WBC light-heavyweight champion Matthew Saad Muhammad an even more special person than you remember from his glory days in the ring.

Saad, who knows a thing or two about being cast adrift in an often-uncaring society, is serving as host for "Knock Out Homelessness," which will be held from 7-11 p.m. that day at Chickie's & Pete's of South Philadelphia, 1526 Packer Ave. Tickets are $75, which buys hors d'oeuvres and a 4-hour beer and wine bar. All proceeds benefit charitable organizations working to end homelessness.

Any number of local celebrities might have agreed to lend their time and name to such a worthy cause, but Saad, one of the most crowd-pleasing action fighters to arise from Philadelphia or anywhere else, actually knows what it's like to have no place to call his own. Twice in a lifetime that is celebrated for his boxing success, he has been alone, broke and wondering where his next meal would come from.

The first such occasion came when police found a 5-year-old, who came into this world as Maxwell Loach, wandering on Benjamin Franklin Parkway in 1958. After his mother died, he was sent to live with an aunt who, no longer able to support him, instructed his older brother to take him to some busy street and simply lose him.

Taken confused and panicky to a Catholic orphanage, the nuns decided to name this latest outcast Matthew Franklin, for the saint and the thoroughfare upon which he was rescued. That makes for a sort-of happy twist to the tale, given some of the horrific possibilities that might have awaited the child had he fallen into less caring hands. But there were more dark detours that had to be followed: youth detention centers, prison, the endless quest to discover who he really was and why he was unwanted by the family that deemed him disposable.

Once he achieved some notoriety and earning power with his fists, the now-grown-up young man, who had converted to Islam, offered a $10,000 reward to anyone who could supply him with information that might reunite him with his biological family. Perhaps not surprisingly, the aunt who wanted nothing more than to get rid of him showed up to put in a claim to the finder's fee, and the older brother who carried out the aunt's directive also came around, seeking a handout.

No wonder Saad fought with such ferociousness inside the ropes, and was such an easy touch outside them. Maybe he thought he could buy love and friendship, needful things that, when genuine, should never be bartered.

"I would be nice to other people, help other people, give to other people," Saad, who was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1998, said earlier this year. "Stupid me."

What misplaced generosity did not take from Saad, 56, divorce and bankruptcy depleted from the remnants of his approximate $4 million in ring earnings. He trained fighters for a while and also worked as a roofer. He swallowed his pride and entered the RHDS Ridge Center, Philadelphia's largest homeless center, in June 2010 when there really was no place else to go.

Perhaps Saad's sad story would have taken on a brighter hue had Hollywood gotten around to making the movie about his life that has been proposed for years, but never advanced beyond the discussion stage. If Micky Ward's tumultuous past could be transformed into "The Fighter," wouldn't Saad's peaks-and-valleys journey make for similarly engrossing big-screen drama?

What's truly poignant is that Saad is one of many accomplished boxers who wound up with nothing but memories of a time on top that was all too brief, like a flame flickering in the wind. Had the organizers of "Knock Out Homelessness" so chosen, other down-on-their-luck former world champions such as Meldrick Taylor and Rocky Lockridge could have stood in for Saad and the message would have remained the same.

But the everyday battles being waged and lost by traumatized military veterans and downsized workers also merit our consideration. What's at stake is a restoration of dignity that, until something more permanent comes along, begins with the knowledge that there are places for the indigent to get a hot shower, a hot meal and a clean bed, at least for the night.

If Saad's participation on April 28 can help make more of that possible, it deserves to rank up there with his classic bouts with Marvin Johnson, Richie Kates, Yaqui Lopez, John Conteh and Jerry Martin.

Welde makes All-America

Patrick Welde, a 2007 Malvern Prep graduate who has been on the Santa Clara University boxing team for 4 years, was named an All-America after he advanced to the semifinals of the National Collegiate Boxing Championships that concluded over the weekend at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y.

Competing in the 139-pound weight class, Welde's deep run ended with a loss to Army's three-time national champion, Terrell Anthony, who was voted Most Outstanding Boxer of the tournament.

Welde, who learned the sport at the James Shuler Memorial Gym in West Philadelphia, was accompanied by his trainer, former IBF junior middleweight titlist Robert "Bam Bam" Hines, and his father, Pat Welde. *

Send email to fernanb@phillynews.com

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