Thursday, July 28, 2011

Random Classics - Matthew Saad Muhammad vs. 'Yaqui' Lopez I & II

"War is thus an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will."     - On War, Carl von Clausewitz

One of the more notable warriors in the sport of boxing, Matthew Saad Muhammad, had but one will when stepping through the ropes: lay waste to the guy standing across from him at the opening bell. 

Not exactly a shrinking violet himself, Alvaro "Yaqui" Lopez wasn't the same type of destroyer that Saad Muhammad savored being. What he lacked in any department, he made up for with a grinding tenacity, will, and surreal toughness. 

And in a sport where hyperbole and bluster often give way to the reminder that getting punched doesn't feel good, true, unwavering warriors are deservedly celebrated. 

Rarer still, is managing to bang a sizable dent into the fabric of a truly great era of fighters in a given division, by way of unforgettable smash-up. 

These men did it twice, making a fraction of what guys these days haul in for tip-toeing around the ring and faking low blows. 


Saad Muhammad faced hardship at a very early age - a common theme for many great fighters hailing from Philadelphia, PA. 

Born Maxwell Antonio Loach, his mother passed away when he was a baby, leaving he and his brother in the care of an aunt. The aunt, no longer able to support the two children together, ordered the elder brother to take 3-year old Maxwell for a walk and abandon him. 

A police officer came across the young boy on famed Benjamin Franklin Parkway, not far from where Sylvester Stallone ran the "Rocky Steps" up the front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. 

Maxwell was taken to a Catholic orphanage, where he was misunderstood when asked his name. So nuns renamed him Matthew Franklin, after the saint and where he was found, respectively. 

Franklin waded in and out of reform school before being adopted, understandably a vexed youth who fought often. Being a smaller kid and losing fights on his way to school, Matt Franklin wandered into the Jupiter Gym in South Philly at 15-years old. 

He ended up with an amateur record of 25-4. 

Matt still managed to find time for trouble though - by the age of 17, he had been arrested three times for what was called "gang activity." 

Inspired by seeing Muhammad Ali spar in a Philadelphia gym, Franklin made the choice to become a full-time professional fighter, and did so at the age of 20.  

Franklin debuted at the now-demolished Spectrum, a boxing landmark in the "City of Brotherly Love." Earning a second-round knockout over Billy Early, an instant addiction to the crowd set in. 

In his first 11 bouts, he fought 7 times at the Spectrum, once in France, going 9-1-1 (7 KO), both blemishes being against unknown Wayne McGee. 

The next 6 fights spanned just under a year, and were against the likes of future light heavyweight champions Marvin Camel and Mate Parlov, two times apiece. 

Matt Franklin decisioned Parlov in Italy, then Camel in Stockton, CA, but subsequently lost a majority decision to Camel in Montana, and drew with Parlov, again in Italy - a mishap he would later call a "hometown decision." 

In March, 1977, Franklin faced a former New York middleweight named Eddie Gregory (who would later become Eddie Mustafa Muhammad) in the televised support for a Vito Antuofermo vs. Eugene "Cyclone" Hart main event on ABC's Friday Night Fights. Gregory hussled at Gleason's Gym in Brooklyn and was trained by Chickie Ferrara, then a famous boxing figure in New York. Gregory frequently scrapped in Philly, however. 

Not quite yet developed was his revered violent inclination, as Franklin frequently boxed and countered well from a distance behind a bruising jab, but still clearly had punching power to spend.  

Pre-fight build-up involved plenty of jabbering, Franklin missed weight by a pound on his initial try, and the in-ring staredown where both men stood brow to brow turned the crowd of a few thousand heads restless. 

Gregory walked into a chopping right hand that decked him in the first round, but he hopped up, unfazed, and pursued Franklin around the ring. Franklin looked wobbly from a left hook in the 4th, but survived the round. Gregory continued to give chase, occasionally stunning the younger Franklin and eventually hurting him considerably in the last round. 

The 10-round split decision loss to Gregory flipped some sort of wonderful switch in Franklin's head, and the boxer/counter-puncher's style became much more aggressive. 

Two more wins against Joe Maye and Ed Turner brought Franklin's record to 15-2-2 (9 KO), and set him up for a bit of an alley fight against unbeaten former Olympian Marvin Johnson in July, 1977. The NABF light heavyweight title bout was televised on regional network PRISM that often broadcast sporting events from the Spectrum. 

The extremely memorable fight was a bloody mess - Franklin hurt several times, but surged back, trading rounds back and forth, etc. Much of the fight was fought against the ropes, a display of in-fighting not often seen today, and the fight remained competitive up to the later rounds. With both men going past 10 for the first time, Franklin hurt Johnson badly towards the end of the 11th, and finished the job in the 12th.  

Both men earned a mere $2500 for the bout.

A classic bout also seemed to serve as the beginning of his "Miracle Matt" (as he would later be known) reputation, becoming basically a pugilistic spokesperson at the Spectrum, and a fine one at that. 

Just a month and a half after warring with Marvin Johnson, Franklin and Ohio-based Billy Douglas beat the snot out of each other with Matt seeing canvas in the 5th before getting a supposedly quick stoppage the following round. 

Another month and a half later, Franklin floored Dave Lee Royster six times en route to a decision win. And three months after that, Matt was smashed down with a right hand from Richie Kates, only to wake up and clobber Kates to get the stoppage in the same round. 

It was the perfect time to be a boxing fan in Philadelphia. 

Franklin overwhelmed both Dale Grant and Fred Bright in the summer of 1978, which lined him up to defend his NABF title for the third time against hard-luck former title challenger Alvaro "Yaqui" Lopez in October of 1978. 


As a younger kid raised in an adobe garage in Zacatecas, ZT, Mexico, Lopez used to sneak into bullfights, longing to one day become a matador. It was a childhood dream of his. His mother would tell him she only hoped he wouldn't become a criminal. 

At 12-years old, Alvaro ditched school to attend the bullfights, and finally fight one himself. He was gored through his ankle, leaving it broken and effectively ending his dream.  

Shortly thereafter his parents brought him to Stockton, CA to work with them, where the family got by picking onions, cherries, peaches and tomatoes seasonally. 

Alvaro began attending school, but dropped out before finishing 10th grade and began working at a cannery and in local fruit fields. 

Lopez, not entirely content relegated to being an anonymous laborer, met his future wife Beatrice while dropping off a friend at her house. After introducing himself, Lopez learned Beatrice's father Jack Cruz was a boxing promoter in and around Stockton. 

Alvaro begged his new love interest to introduce the two, whereupon Lopez asked Cruz to teach him how to fight. 

His first amateur fight came against a veteran opponent on a nearby Indian reservation. When one of the event's promoters asked Cruz what tribe Alvaro belonged to, Cruz replied "Yaqui." And the name stuck. 

Lopez admittedly wasn't much of an amateur fighter, only having 16 official amateur fights. He did, however, participate in many more unsanctioned amateur smokers at a local prison, where Cruz would take Lopez to fight. 

In April, 1972, Lopez turned professional with a 6-round points win over Herman Hampton in Stockton, and went 3-0 (2 KO) in his first few. 

But facing tough Jesse Burnett in his fourth pro fight taught Lopez lesson in conditioning, as Burnett won a decision when Lopez tired severely down the 8-round stretch. Alvaro began taking his conditioning training more seriously after the loss, adding rigorous roadwork to his routine. 

The next two years saw Yaqui move to 20-2 (12 KO), sticking generally to the West Coast. A matchup with scrappy Al Bolden produced Lopez' second loss; it was avenged in a rematch in Portland where both fighters went down three times each and each made an extra $750 collected from cash thrown into the ring. 

Lopez also stopped former title challenger Andy Kendall, who happened to be ranked #4 in the world at he time, and the Mexican finely honed his body punching skills.   

Alvaro made the light heavyweight rounds at a lower level of a division whose multiple tiers and echelons were all very deep - he knocked Mike Quarry down in the 6th with a left hook before winning a decision over 10; he stopped veteran stylist Bobby Rascon; and he fought Jesse Burnett two more times, going 1-1 and settling on a record of 31-3 (17 KO). And in doing so, he was pegged with a reputation for being a hard-charging, tough grinder with a nasty body assault.

In October, 1976, Lopez flew to Copenhagen three days before his scheduled bout against WBC light heavyweight champ John Conteh. In addition to arriving in Denmark later than intended, Lopez' airline supposedly lost his luggage, including training equipment such as running shoes and gloves, which had to be quickly replaced.

Lopez gave Conteh issues despite being headbutted quite a bit in close. And upon being knocked down with a body shot, referee Rudolf Drust apparently helped the Brit up and administered an illegal standing eight count. 

Yaqui Lopez lost his first attempt at snatching a title by unanimous decision.

He was back in the ring in 39 days. 

Less than 6 months later, in April of 1977, Lopez was clearly headbutted by Lonnie Bennett and a cut opened up over his eye in a fight he was winning big. Instead of being ruled a No Contest or No Decision, Bennett was somehow ruled the winner of the bout. 

Adding insult to injury, Yaqui was screwed for the majority of his $7500 purse by the promoter who handled the show.

Three more knockout wins placed Lopez in position to challenge Victor Galindez in Rome, Italy for his WBA light heavyweight belt in September of '77. 

Alvaro again lost a highly disputed decision in a title try, again in Europe. 

And again Yaqui ran through three more opponents, then trounced contender Mike Rossman, who was rated #1 at the time, in 6 rounds. 

Lopez was granted another stab at Galindez in Italy, but lost via decision once more in May, 1978. 

Bouncing back with a decision win over old foe Jesse Burnett two months later, who by this point had become a proven road warrior, seemed to be exactly what Alvaro needed to ready him for a brawl with NABF light heavyweight champion Matthew Franklin in October of that year.


The first epic slugfest between these guys is less-recognized among the greater fights of the last few decades, but is maybe just as brutal and exciting. 

Saad Muhammad later credited Lopez with teaching him the art of "true war" in the first bout. The Philly fighter, who had a tendency to act cocky and brash, came to truly respect Lopez following the tilt - so much so that he promised Yaqui a title shot should he ever become champion. 

The fight itself featured a handful of ridiculously entertaining swings in momentum, and there were extended periods of time where they took turns thudding shot after shot at each other. The 8th round in particular is exquisite. Franklin, as he always did, weathered the storm, and referee Frank Capuccino stopped the fight with Lopez obviously staggering at the end of the 11th. 

Before their rematch a little less than 2 years later, both men stayed busy. 

Franklin engaged in yet another tumble with Marvin Johnson, who was making the first defense of his WBC light heavyweight title. Blood and guts again spilled all over the place as they wobbled one another before a crimson-covered and puffy-faced Franklin stopped Marvin in an epic 8th round. 

Not long after becoming champion, Franklin converted to Islam and became Matthew Saad Muhammad. Four months after becoming champion, Saad defended his WBC crown against the former WBC champ John Conteh, winning a decision. 

Conteh again attempted to regain his championship in March, 1980, but was cut down in 4 by Saad Muhammad. 

Saad's last defense of the title before granting Lopez his promised shot was against a fighter from Cameroon named Louis Pergaud, who he TKO'd in 5.

Lopez fought 7 times between their fights, losing only once to unbeaten Rahway State Prison inmate James Scott by decision. Lopez and promoter/manager Cruz would later say that while Yaqui submitted to a drug screening for the bout, Scott refused but was never penalized. The loss also started rumors that Lopez had become "shot."

He appeared to do just fine in earning two stoppages going into the Saad Muhammad rematch, though. 

More importantly, Lopez started off convincingly well in the early goings of the second fight, which was held in New Jersey. Building a comfortable lead on the cards, though not without absorbing leather in the meantime, Yaqui worked a steady jab and busted Saad's face up. 

The comeback kid didn't disappoint, however, and a furious and exhilarating 8th round  marked the start of all out chaos as Saad came back, then Lopez and so on, until an exhausted Yaqui Lopez was floored three times and stopped by a final big straight right that dropped him to his knees, blood streaming from his nose. 

Matthew Saad Muhammad vs. Alvaro Lopez II was the runaway winner of Ring Magazine's awards for Fight of the Year and Round of the Year (round 8) for 1980. 

Yaqui Lopez would later say that the $50,000 he took home for walking through Hades with Saad Muhammad the second time was the highest purse he'd ever received.




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