Saad Muhammad laid to rest

Posted: June 06, 2014

RAIN FELL onto the front steps of Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church in Germantown yesterday just before 9:30 a.m. It was quiet enough to hear Enon's choir practicing its harmonies, along with the melody of a slim, silvery keyboard. Black sedans rolled up to the church by the dozen, doors slamming as passengers stepped out. And a faint yell from a single churchgoer could be heard all the way down West Coulter Street.

"Hey, that's Yaqui Lopez."

Lopez, 63, traveled from California to see his old rival one final time. He had fought in Ring magazine's 1980 Fight of the Year against then-WBC champion Matthew Saad Muhammad, who was laid to rest yesterday morning.

Lopez barely held back his tears behind his old, worn-out sunglasses during Saad Muhammad's viewing. He couldn't help but to shake Saad Muhammad's hand one final time, the fallen fighter in his coffin with engraved red boxing mitts hanging atop the lid.

"We made history, he and I," Lopez said after viewing the body. "We talked, ya know? Every time we see each other, we would talk and joke, and the last time I saw him was in California at the World Boxing Hall of Fame. We were just talking about boxing, things like that. I respected him and he respected me. We fought 26 total rounds; we know each other pretty well. In the ring we are enemies, outside we are friends."

Saad Muhammad died May 25 at 59. The cause of death thought to be from complications of Lou Gehrig's disease.

Saad Muhammad was one of boxing's greatest punchers and one of the best fighters in the light-heavyweight division in the late 1970s and early '80s. When he was a youth, his mother died, and he and his brother were sent to live with his aunt. Because his aunt couldn't afford to raise both kids, she told Saad Muhammad's brother to take him to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and leave him there, which led to his homelessness at age 5.

He was taken in by Catholic Social Services, and the nuns named him Matthew (after the saint), Franklin (after the parkway); he later changed his name during his conversion to Islam. Saad Muhammad was known for his ability to take punishment in the ring and mount stunning comebacks in the late rounds, which led to the nickname "Miracle Matthew."

Nearly two dozen boxers attended the funeral, a testament to how many people he touched in his life with his generosity.

Buster Drayton, 60, a former IBF light middleweight champion, said he was a "soft and gentle giant" outside of the ring. Mike Rossman, 58, another former light heavyweight champion, said he knew Saad "from the beginning to the end." Bernie Strain, 55, a close friend who said he took Saad Muhammad off the streets after he was found homeless in July 2010, housed him for 3 years.

"He would give you the shirt off his back and would give that same shirt to many less fortunate than himself," Strain said.

Saad Muhammad's punches led him to be labeled as one of the best ever, landing him in the International Boxing Hall of Fame with a record of 49-16-3, with 35 knockouts. But it was his charity work with the homeless at the end of his life that will be remembered by the next generation of Philadelphia youth.

During the memorial service, Buddy Osborn, a union organizer and former boxer from the 1980s, said that "his smile was infectious; it would light an entire room up."

"He was given a renewed spirit," Osborn said during the funeral. "He had it in his heart that he would do something with his life. He would tell me Bud, 'Challenge people. People can better themeselves, you have to have a heart, you have to be strong with it' . . . He fought the great fight. He finished the race."

On Twitter: @TylerRickyTynes

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