Fight #23: Matthew Saad Muhammad vs. Marvin Johnson 1, July 26, 1977, The Spectrum, Philadelphia, PA
For the last couple years, I have been putting together these random baseball card sets, assembling images of players that are related around a particular theme. One of them is what I call my Jackie Robinson set, which features, in chronological order, every African American player in Major League history to be selected for the All-Star Game, achieve at least a 3 WAR season, win a major award, or lead the league in a significant statistical category. The first player in the set is Jackie Robinson, who was an All Star and a Rookie of the Year in 1947, and the most recent to join the set are Kyle Lewis (2020 AL ROY), Devin Williams (2020 NL Rookie of the Year), and JP Crawford (who won a Gold Glove last year). In a way, the set chronicles the rise and fall of the Black American athlete as the dominant force in Major League Baseball, peaking around 1977, the year of my birth, when every year a further 7-10 players would reach one of those milestones. Now, a typical year features maybe 1-3 new players in the set.
Baseball has spent a lot of time fretting over its decline in the Black community, and there are plenty of theories to explain why. The bottom line may well be that football has just taken those athletes away. In 2021, Willie Mays would probably play in the NFL, and in 1951, Lamar Jackson would probably play in Major League Baseball. I think this is a loss overall. (Naturally, since I despise football). But I think that it is better to be able to watch an athlete over a 15-20 year career, than to see him 16 times a year for a shorter amount of time, playing in a sport where a (usually white) head coach barks orders in his ear through a headset like he's Douglas MacArthur.
Boxing has experienced a similar decline in the Black community. When you try to figure out why the mainstream sports fan no longer cares about the sport as he or she once did, surely much of the reason can be found in the decline of the heavyweight division, and much of the explanation for that can be found in the fact that the great Black athletes who have a heavyweight's build can now mostly be found playing linebacker in the NFL today. That may well be good: success in boxing has usually been a sign of marginalization from mainstream society, although it's debatable whether the gridiron offers anything better, especially since the lion's share of the credit in that sport tends to go to the Tom Bradys and Bill Belichicks of the world.
These were my thoughts as I watched this fight between two young and promising Black light heavyweight boxers, Matthew Saad Muhammad (then known as Matthew Franklin) and Marvin Johnson, fighting in front of a raucous Philadelphia crowd in July 1977. This fight took place less than one month after my birth, and during a year that saw no fewer than 12 Black baseball players achieve stardom for the first time. It was a different era from the one we have today, where most of the light heavyweight, cruiserweight, and heavyweight champions of the world come from Europe.
Going into this 12-round fight, Johnson, from Indianapolis, was undefeated in 15 fights and had a reputation for being a knockout artist. Muhammad, carrying the label of the boxer, also had 15 wins, but with three losses and two draws to go along with it. Today, that type of record usually relegates a fighter to the purgatory of being an "opponent" for up-and-coming prospects, and maybe that was in part the thinking here. But Muhammad's victory here in front of his hometown Philadelphia crowd would resuscitate his career, putting him on a path to induction into the Hall of Fame, as not only an accomplished fighter but one with a crowd-pleasing style.
Early in this fight, Muhammad seems to have made the calculation that he could withstand Johnson's power. In the early rounds, Johnson would land vicious combinations, and Muhammad would just grin in response. Occasionally playing the role of counter-puncher, Muhammad was most effective when he took a step back to draw Johnson towards him, and then a step forward to put some real weight behind his punches. This created a pattern where the fight was mostly waged at close distance. There was very little jabbing by either fighter, and Johnson, a southpaw, relied on left hooks and uppercuts on the inside while Muhammad, an orthodox fighter, favored straight right hands with occasional hooks and uppercuts.
Despite the match being waged in a phone booth, the referee had little to do in this fight. Neither fighter seemed interested in holding on the inside, and both kept throwing and landing power punches. It was a battle of wills all the way. The first turning point came towards the end of round 4, when Muhammad hurt Johnson with a straight right hand, and for the first and only time Johnson held on. But Johnson responded by dominating the next 3-4 rounds, landing those uppercuts and hooks over and over again. But not only did Muhammad not fall down, he seldom even took a step backwards.
By the ninth round, Johnson had started to punch himself out. Now Muhammad again seized the initiative with effective counter-punching. Johnson rallied in the tenth round, but by the end of the 11th, he looked completely exhausted. To start the 12th round, Muhammad landed a series of clean right hands that took Johnson down and out. The referee never even bothered with a count. Not because Johnson was concussed or unconscious, but simply because he could no longer even lift his hands up to protect himself. Heading into this final round, I had it a draw, with each fighter claiming five rounds and with one round even.
This is the fight that really started to cement Muhammad's reputation as an action fighter, a fan-friendly warrior who could take a lot of punishment and come back and win. But watching this fight, I also wondered if Muhammad would have been wiser to move around the ring more. Johnson was clearly a plodding, come-forward fighter, and Muhammad seemed to make a choice to wage the fight on those terms rather than on his own. It obviously worked, but it also exposed him to a lot more punishment than was probably necessary.
After this fight, Muhammad went on a four-year unbeaten streak, which included a rematch with Johnson that ended in an eight round knockout win for Muhammad. He would not lose until December 1981, when Dwight Muhammad Qawi defeated him by TKO, and then beat him the same way again seven months later. After that, Muhammad's career went into decline and over his final nine fights, he went 1-7-1, finishing his career with a mark of 49-16-3. He died of Lou Gehrig's disease in 2014, still just 59 years of age.
As for Johnson, he would claim the light heavyweight championship of the world twice, beating future Hall of Famer Victor Galindez in 1979, but then losing to Michael Spinks in 1981. He ended his career on a much stronger note, reeling off 16 straight victories from 1982 to 1986 before losing his final bout in 1987. Unlike Muhammad, he seemed to know when to leave the fight business behind. Still a resident of Indianapolis, he is as of this writing 67 years of age. Asked a few years ago by Ring Magazine about the best he ever faced, he said of Muhammad that he had the best chin he ever encountered in the ring. "It was like he had an iron chin," he said. "I landed punches that usually guaranteed a knockout, but somehow Muhammad took them and came back with more."
Johnson finished his career with a record of 43-6, with 35 wins coming by way of knockout. For whatever reason, Muhammad was just the one nut he could not crack. But looking at his resume, it seems clear he should already be in the Hall of Fame alongside his late former rival.
Here is a video of the fight: