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Fight #22: Matthew Saad Muhammad vs. Yaqui Lopez

Fight #22: Matthew Saad Muhammad vs. Yaqui Lopez 2, July 13, 1980, Great Gorge Playboy Club, McAfee, New Jersey

Pain is very central to the church of masculinity. From a young age, boys are taught never to cry, never to show fear, never to back down, and never to complain. These are lessons I myself learned being bullied at a Catholic elementary school. After I discovered that my tormentors fed off my tears and anguish, I tried my hardest to deny them that pleasure. Not by fighting back, but by showing I could take the abuse and come back for more.

As a child of the streets of Philadelphia, Matthew Saad Muhammad's boyhood was much tougher than my antiseptic, middle class world. At the age of five, he was abandoned by his family in an unfamiliar part of town. When a police officer asked him his name, he told them he didn't know what it was. Subsequently, he was taken in by Catholic nuns who gave him the name Matthew Franklin, the first name for the apostle and the second name for the city's most famous historical figure. Justly, by the time he defended his light heavyweight title against Mexican challenger Yaqui Lopez, he had changed his last name to Saad Muhammad following a conversion to Islam.

Muhammad had faced Lopez two years earlier, in 1978, one year after fight #23 on the list, when Muhammad first made a name for himself by knocking out Marvin Johnson. He knocked out Lopez in that first matchup as well, taking him out in the 11th round. After that defeat, Lopez won six of his next seven fights, earning a rematch and a fourth chance at the light heavyweight championship.

Like so many fighters, Lopez was good at boxing but had a tendency to abandon caution whenever his opponent started firing heavy artillery in his direction. For this fight, Lopez vowed, he would work on the outside and use his jab to beat Muhammad, staying away from his powerful right hand. That is how the first round commenced. Muhammad and Lopez jabbed at each other, with Muhammad occasionally following up with right hands to the body that pushed Lopez back. Muhammad carried the round. After watching the Muhammad-Johnson war for fight #23, this first round was a bit surprising, as both fighters kept their distance and showed patience.

But Muhammad nonetheless won that round, and Lopez seems to have quickly concluded that he couldn't win the fight on those terms. In round 2, he came out much more aggressive, pushing to the inside and throwing haymakers at Muhammad as the Philadelphia champion leaned against the ropes. In those exchanges, Lopez found a weakness in Muhammad's game: a susceptibility to left hooks. He staggered Muhammad several times in that round, and carried it easily.

The problem was that winning the fight this way would be a difficult proposition over 15 rounds, for a couple of reasons. First, Muhammad had greater punching power than Lopez, and second, as he had already showed in the Marvin Johnson fight, he had a very strong chin. Heading into round 3, Lopez appeared to make yet another adjustment, as he went back to the jab that had failed him in the first round, but this time used it to step in and land more left hooks to Muhammad's chin. The strategy worked to perfection, or almost. For the next several rounds, Lopez dominated the fight, stepping in behind the jab and hurting Muhammad repeatedly with left hooks. To be honest, Lopez didn't just win these rounds. He was beating the shit out of Muhammad.

Muhammad's response was not really tactical, although he did start carrying his right hand higher to protect against the left hook, a concession that limited the usefulness of his own overhand and straight rights. Rather, he opted for psychology. Whenever Lopez nailed him with a strong combination or left hook, Muhammad grinned at him. He did the same thing repeatedly in the Johnson fight. It seems to have been his natural inclination, the code of American masculinity put into hyperdrive: Laugh in the face of disaster. Smile at pain. Disarm it, make it your friend.

To be clear, I don't think that this actually bothered Lopez that much. The Mexican was a veteran and a professional. When Muhammad smiled at him, he just kept smacking him in the face and pounding away at his ribs. It seems rather to have been a piece of psychological armor for Muhammad himself, a way to trick himself into accepting momentary setbacks and defeats and even finding joy and humor in the struggle to overcome them. One often gets the sense that Muhammad actually chose to take these punches, that he was most at home with his back to the ropes and absorbing all the punishment that his opponent could give.

This all culminated in the eighth round, when Muhammad, having lost the previous six rounds in a row, came out aggressive early on, only to be driven to the ropes by a barrage of lefts and rights from Lopez that buckled Muhammad repeatedly. Then Lopez landed something like 40 shots in a row without Muhammad firing a single punch in response. It was an absolute beatdown, and even as it was happening, Muhammad kept right on smiling at Lopez. And he did not go down. I don't know how or why he stayed up, but he did. And by the end of the round, he had even regained his wits enough to take the fight back to Lopez, nailing him with several strong jabs and a straight right as the bell sounded.

At that point, Lopez had won 7 rounds in a row. He was comprehensively dominating the fight. And yet, that eighth round destroyed him. He had completely punched himself out and failed to knock Muhammad down. From that point on, Lopez had nothing left to give. From rounds 9-12, he kept moving around the ring, but threw not a single significant punch. Muhammad was also clearly exhausted, but he had enough drive left in his engine to be able to throw a haymaker in Lopez's direction every few seconds. And that was enough for him to start winning rounds. Heading into round 13, Muhammad had drawn close enough on the scorecards that Lopez faced the real possibility of losing a decision. Egged on by his corner, Lopez opened the round aggressively, snapping a jab in Muhammad's face and trying to follow up with more left hooks and shots to the body. But there was just no sting left on those punches, and anyways, he was gassed after about one minute. That little flurry, as ineffective as it was, seemed to light a fire in Muhammad to seek a knockout rather than a narrow decision victory. And so Muhammad gave one more push towards the end of the round, driving Lopez back to the ropes. Finally, to begin round 14, Muhammad hit Lopez with a combination of a straight right, a left hook, and then a right uppercut that folded Lopez's legs and sent him to the canvas. He got up at the count of 9, only to be knocked down again a few seconds later. Again, Lopez got up, and again, he was knocked to the ground. A third time, Lopez picked himself up, and then Muhammad hit him with another straight right, sending him to the canvas for the fourth time. Lopez, his face now covered in blood, shook his head and the referee waved off the fight. This final round reminded me a bit of Foreman-Frazier, but if that destruction had happened after 13 rounds of Foreman getting mostly outclassed and nearly beaten to death.

It was Lopez's fourth failed attempt to win a world championship. He would get one more shot three years later, in the cruiserweight division, which he would also lose, effectively ending his career. By that point, Muhammad himself was in the midst of a long decline, and one has to imagine that the severe beating he took from Lopez for the first half of this fight played a role in his subsequent struggles in the ring. After this bout, Muhammad would go 12-13-1 over the remainder of his career. But the Lopez performance, considered one of the greatest comebacks in boxing history, helped cement his legacy as a Hall of Famer. One hopes that Muhammad thought the glory of nights like this one outweighed the long decline that came afterwards. Because once boxing was done with Matthew Saad Muhammad, he spent the rest of his life in physical decline from Lou Gehrig's disease and in frequent economic hardship, at times even living in homeless shelters not far from the Philadelphia streets where his family had abandoned him decades before. Such are the rewards for men who discover they can lose everything and still laugh at each disaster.

Here is a video of the fight:




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