HE had a rough, lined face, battle scars above both eyes, a nose that had been battered flat but he still had a champion’s smile. The T-shirt he wore was navy blue. On the left chest there was a pair of boxing gloves and the initials MSM. Centralised on the back over two lines were the words Team Saad.
Former WBC light-heavyweight champion Matthew Saad Muhammad had fallen on hard times and was living in Atlantic City at the turn of the century, 20 years on from his time at the top of the sport. He was around 50, working as a roofer and rising as early as 4am to get to work each day. The $4million-plus he’d made in the late-70s and early-80s was long gone. Beyond bankruptcy, he’d wound up owing the IRS more than quarter of a million dollars.
He’d become a tragic cliché, falling from star and pound-for-pound contender to an also-ran whose name was used to pad the records of up-and-comers. Then he became a sparring partner. When some commissions refused to licence him on the grounds of reduced skills, he travelled further afield to slip through the loopholes of the less strict regulatory bodies and jurisdictions. When 10 disastrous years of bleeding his name dry came to an end, he had a spell training fighters but it didn’t work out and with bills to pay he found work as a roofer for the union. Ironically, some days he was working on the roofs of the big Atlantic City casinos and it wasn’t lost on him that he was the boxer who instigated the New Jersey seaside resort town becoming a fight capital. His first bout with John Conteh opened the door for big-time boxing to come to the Boardwalk – in all its gaudy glory – and he would put his title on the line five times in Atlantic City. But, in the 2000s, he could walk up and down the wooden boards by the sea and be unseen, unheard and unrecognised.
He’d kindly taken me under his wing in 2001 and I would stay with his friends in and around the city. A couple of guys had places a few blocks back from the Boardwalk, in the ghetto, and one had a trailer out towards Mays Landing, a few miles out from the bustling neon madness. Matthew always made sure the young penniless English guy who wanted to be a fighter had a place to stay. He also would train me once in a while at the Atlantic City Police Athletic League Gym and I could see that although we were friends, boxing remained a serious business to him.
Even when I skipped, he intently glared.
“Look up,” he barked, if I lost concentration or stared towards the floor. “Your opponent isn’t on the floor, he’s in front of you. Look at him.”
“I hope he’ll be on the floor,” I smiled at Matthew.
His face didn’t crack. I looked up and I looked ahead.
On the pads, he’d rattle the side of my head with his bear-like swipes if I was slow bringing my hands back, he’d smile if I tried to wrestle him a bit, before putting me in my place, and then we’d either go and grab something to eat or he’d go back to one of his friends and light up a joint, either trying to remember the great days of his past or trying to forget where he was in the present.
Through all of August 2001 we’d see each other almost every day. We talked about everything, and we went over his career in fine detail as I listened to stories from his incredible life. Matthew had been damaged by the ring. You could tell he was an ex-fighter within seconds of meeting him. How he moved and how he spoke indicated that his boxing mileage was high but anyone in the sport could have told you that. He was one of the most entertaining fighters of all time, a blood and guts warrior whose come-from-behind victories were on loop for a six-year spell from about 1975 to 1981. Until they weren’t. Then he became target practice. Well, years on he and I became friends and to try to help him feel good about himself I went to a cheap clothing printer and had two T-shirts made, navy blue with yellow wording on them. Saad was so grateful. I thought he was acting, over-acting, at first, but he was genuinely moved and put the Team Saad shirts on right away. All of his own memorabilia, robes, belts and Hall of Fame ring were sold, stolen, hocked or all three. And in the aftermath of the September 11 terror attacks Saad said he wanted to go to Madison Square Garden to watch another Philadelphia legend, Bernard Hopkins, fight Felix Trinidad. He also told a mutual friend of ours – a small-time crook in Atlantic City – of our plans and that said-crook set about making fake credentials for Matthew to get him inside Madison Square Garden on fight night. The guy went to an internet café and produced the most fraudulent, cheap clip art-type looking document I had ever laid eyes on for Matthew. Saad treated it as though it was a golden ticket. I didn’t think it had a prayer of getting us in anywhere apart from trouble!
I don’t even remember how the idea came about to go to Madison Square Garden that night. Originally the bout was set for September 15 but the atrocities saw the Don King-promoted show pushed back a fortnight, while still being the first significant sporting event in New York since the Twin Towers came down. I’m sure Matthew and I had not planned to go on the original date, and I don’t recall a conversation about going. But, on that Saturday in September, Matthew and I left Atlantic City in his rickety old Cadillac and precariously made our way to New York. I’m not sure what I had the least faith in, the Caddy or Matthew’s driving. How we got there and parked within walking distance of Madison Square Garden I will never know. It might have been a miracle that we got there, it was not a miracle that we couldn’t get in.
Matthew and I approached security and he told me to stay back and act cool. Saad would get us in.
I saw him showing off the fake credentials but they weren’t even on the same colour lanyards that were being used that night. They didn’t fool me and I was wet behind the ears. They weren’t going to fool a person whose one job was to recognise who was authentically allowed in and who was not due to the credentials they wore around their neck. Then I could hear Matthew asking to see Don King, and then he was using his Team Saad T-shirt to explain who he was. My gesture had now made me an unwitting accomplice to fraud.
Staff didn’t know that he’d headlined in this building as part of a TV co-feature the night Aaron Pryor fought Alexis Arguello the second time in Las Vegas and they didn’t care. I had no idea how it would end up, but I thought if Matthew could get in then I’d be left behind to meander up and down the long New York avenues until the early hours.
I was just his plus one. I would have stayed outside and waited all night for him if Matthew had been able to get in, but he couldn’t. We were told that the only way anyone would gain admission would be with a ticket. I was near enough broke after several months in the USA but I did have an unused credit card with a £250 limit up my sleeve so I bought Matthew and myself the two cheapest seats money could buy, $75 each.
Matthew was so grateful he hugged me and repeatedly thanked me.
Anyone who’s been in the nosebleeds in MSG will know that you promptly start climbing, zig-zagging escalators as you go up, and up, and up. We scaled so many it felt like we were moving in to a different time zone and by the time we hit the top it was safe to say I was wary about how much we would actually be able to see.
My fears were realised when we stepped into the arena. The undercard had started but the ring was the size of a postage stamp and the fighters looked like decimal points.
If we really wanted to see what was going on, we would have to make do with watching on the big screens above the ring.
I couldn’t have been happier as I naively took my seat next to Matthew. I was at Trinidad-Hopkins, sat next to my friend the Hall of Fame legend, and we were in Madison Square Garden. It was the best day ever! Then, however, things started to change. Matthew looked distracted.
I was thrilled when I got to see Ricardo Lopez in his final fight, but Matthew sat quietly next to me. Lopez was a flyweight but, in truth, everyone looked like a flyweight from where we were sitting.
Without saying anything and seeming ungrateful, I could tell Matthew wanted to be closer to the action. He looked tired and forlorn and urgently peered around the entrances and exits, trying to establish how he might get down there, among his peers. The likes of Chuck Wepner and Iran Barkley were introduced at ringside and they were not even Hall of Famers. Matthew was inducted in 1998 the first year his name was on the ballot. Now he was sat up in the Gods next to some odd travelling English kid who was geeking out watching the last bout of a flyweight legend.
I’m not American, of course, but I kind of felt it that night. I had been in Atlantic City the day those planes came down two-and-a-bit weeks earlier and I had been on top of the World Trade Center eating pizza with an ex-girlfriend just a few days before it happened. Afterwards, as I moved around the East Coast in the nomadic way I was living, I would see more and more American flags flying on people’s houses and on cars. It was hard not to be taken in by the overwhelming feeling of patriotism that swept through a nation that was trying to heal its awful wounds.
That night in Madison Square Garden, R and B star Ginuwine sang the national anthem with care, flamboyance and passion in equal measure and fight fans were brought to tears as they displayed their gratitude to the dozens of emergency services personnel who had been gifted ringside tickets weeks after losing friends, colleagues and comrades in debris that had not had time to be cleared. It was a stirring ovation so warm and heartfelt your face glowed involuntarily.
Occasionally Saad was bothered to do an autograph, which modesty forbade him from truly enjoying. Selfies weren’t a thing then. Before the main event I went to the toilet and when I came back Saad was in a long-sleeved check shirt that had some creams, browns and yellows in it. I had no idea where it had come from but he wasn’t looking at me. By now, we were moments away from the main eventers coming out, with big-name fighters still being introduced at ringside.
But as Hopkins and Trinidad made their way to the ring, Matthew was getting more agitated. He was restless in his chair, half in and half out of it, almost squatting as if he was going to be summoned down and given a ringside seat to see his Philly brother do what no one thought he could do.
Matthew looked almost panicked.
“I need to get down there,” he finally said to me.
“I should be there.”
“I know him.”
If Hopkins had known, I’m sure he would have had Matthew as a guest but now was not the time. That window had shut and Matthew either had to go and try his luck or make do with sitting in the cheap seats.
I certainly didn’t want to ‘twist’ and see if we could do better. I was happy ‘sticking’ and being a part of it all.
Through the next 12 rounds, Matthew was up and down in his seat. He was thrilled as Hopkins asserted himself and then started to dominate, all the while being reminded how far he’d fallen from grace given that he was stuck in the nosebleeds with me.
I was having the time of my life while at the same time just feeling terribly sorry for Matthew and equally bad that we were so helpless to make our position any better.
Well, when Hopkins won in round 12 and did his ecstatic forward roll, Matthew looked at me and seemed momentarily content. He was thrilled for his friend, B-Hop, and he’d at least been there but there was a sadness behind his smile.
Trinidad regained his senses in the ring. It sounds clichéd but he couldn’t beat Hopkins that night, he couldn’t beat America. It was written that the American would win, riding a wave of patriotism – although the flag in truth had nothing to do with the fundamental boxing lesson Hopkins had dished out to the favoured Puerto Rican.
Twenty years have passed since that night in The Garden but somehow Matthew and I made it back to the car and somehow the car made it back to his friend’s apartment in Atlantic City.
The 130-odd mile drive home was not comfortable.
We made small talk but he’d been humbled by not being ringside. Sometimes he was so quiet and thoughtful I thought he’d gone to sleep at the wheel. With a few uncomfortable silences to break, I finally asked where the T-shirt had gone and why he was wearing the new lumberjack number. I was so young and green, I originally thought he’d been embarrassed about how cheap my gift was and he’d somehow, somewhere had the shirt on him.
Then he told me a fan had offered him $20 and the check shirt in exchange. By now, you have to understand, one of the great light-heavyweights of all-time was more concerned with where the next meal was coming from rather than the next paycheque.
I couldn’t be mad at what he’d done or why he’d done it. I was just upset that someone had infiltrated our club that was made up of two original T-shirt owners.
Late that night, back in Atlantic City – and I’d later find out that Matthew was a notoriously bad driver, having discovered for myself first hand – Saad and I went to one of the apartments as we had done many times. His pal was an old man called Willie and he lived in a skyrise in the ghetto. Willie had his own bedroom but he would always let me and Matthew use his front room. Either Matthew would take the single bed under the window and I’d take the sofa, or vice versa. On this night, the night Bernard Hopkins started one of the great middleweight title reigns, Matthew and I talked into the early hours about some of his big nights. His memory wasn’t great but we spoke about the wars with Richie Kates, Marvin Johnson and Yaqui López, I knew that always cheered him up. We spoke about his fights with John Conteh, which took place in one of the casinos that flashed so brightly in the window above him. Matthew brought big time boxing to this city and here he was, anonymous in its backwaters. Looking after me.
Two decades on, that night remains one of the very best and one of the very worst of my life. I have no idea if I was elated to be in a boxing mecca with a legend watching a superfight with two Hall of Famers in one of the most memorable middleweight title contests of all time or if it was horrific as we couldn’t blag our way in, that Matthew had to watch someone he knew from the cheapest seats and that we were now back in, with all due respect to Willie, a God-awful roach-infested apartment that smelt of damp, weed and medicinal supplies. I still don’t really know how to process it now, but when you factor in 9/11 I was just grateful to be able to tell the tale. It was a sentimental and nostalgic time in my life.
I would spend the next few years being friends with Matthew but we lost touch in around 2008. He was officially living in a homeless shelter in Philadelphia in 2009 and died in 2014. He’d suffered badly from the after effects of his thrilling career when I knew him. His speech and memory were both okay at times but then not great at all at others. We still managed hours of interviews over the years but when my friend died in 2014 a GoFundMe page was set up to pay for his headstone. He wasn’t in an unmarked grave for long but that, of course, should never have been the case.
That night in The Garden might have been a nightmare for him but it meant the world to me. This time of year may tinge many with sadness due to the tragic events that happened in New York, Washington and in Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001, but they always make me think about Matthew and I guess that’s why my memories remain bittersweet. Being with Matthew was special and being in America then was unforgettable.
Some of the best days of my life were set against one of the most terrible events of my lifetime.
A version of this story appeared in Tris Dixon’s book, The Road to Nowhere, and his biography on Matthew Saad Muhammad, Warrior: A champion’s search for his identity, is out next year.