Tris Dixon catches up with some members of the most thrilling light-heavyweight era in history, those 1970s and 80s warriors who left indelible marks on the sport… and each other
“MYSELF, Eddie Mustafa Muhammad, Mathew Saad Muhammad, Jerry ‘The Bull’ Martin – he was beating guys up – Marvin Johnson and Victor Galindez,” said Michael Spinks, when asked for the top five light-heavyweights of his era.
That he listed six fighters speaks volumes about the depth of that hugely significant 175lbs crop that ran from the 1970s and into the 1980s.
That he left out Dwight Muhammad Qawi, Yaqui Lopez, Mike Rossman, John Conteh, Mate Parlov, Richie Kates, Vonzell Johnson, Jerry Celestine, Jesse Burnett, James Scott and Lottie Mwale tells you a little more about the volume of talent.
You could contend that Parlov and Conteh, who faced each other back in 1978 a couple of years after Spinks won gold alongside his brother in the 1976 Olympics were discounted from Spinks’ evaluation based on being around long before Spinks, who faced and defeated a series of headliners between 1980 and 1984.
It was arguably the best of times the division has seen and all the top guys were capable of beating one another. Yaqui Lopez beat Mike Rossman who beat Victor Galindez but Lopez would never win a world title. Eddie Mustafa beat Marvin Johnson who beat Galindez who beat Eddie Mustafa. Eddie also defeated Saad Muhammad who beat Marvin Johnson who beat Parlov who drew and lost to Saad.
There weren’t enough superlatives to describe the fighters. At one point, The Ring pondered in a headline whether Jesse Burnett would be the next Archie Moore while Gil Clancy said James Scott was a light-heavyweight Henry Armstrong.
In another interesting sidebar, Matthew Saad Muhammad was previously known as Matt Franklin, Eddie Mustafa Muhammad was Eddie Gregory when he fought Matt in 1977 and then Dwight Muhammad Qawi rose to prominence as Dwight Braxton.
All three were influenced by Muhammad Ali and both Saad and Eddie Mustafa spent time in Deer Lake training with Ali, who would often be seen ringside supporting his friends.
There was a period when Eddie Mustafa and Matthew Saad, who were pals as well as rivals, held the WBC (Saad) and WBA (Eddie) titles and a huge money-spinning rematch between the two was all set for Madison Square Garden.
It was about to be promoted by Harold Smith, known to others as Ross Fields. Smith was a chancer who shot to infamy and fortune by signing a wealth of high-profile fighters to lucrative deals. No one knew where the money was coming from until the FBI found that he’d been embezzling it from Well Fargo bank. In all, he was jailed having frittered more than $21million on boxing, women, drugs, planes, boats and anything else he fancied.
Eddie and Matthew were due to make a cool $1.5m apiece, a fortune at the time, but less than two weeks away Smith’s empire collapsed and the fight imploded.
Instead, Vonzell Johnson, one of the division’s nearly men, was drafted in to fight Saad and he gave Matthew plenty to think about until Matthew did what Matthew did, roaring back to win having been up against it.
Many of the fighters sparred one another, too. Philly promoter Russell Peltz staged some of the great 175lbs wars of the time and thought Jerry Martin was the one who was going to beat everyone. He defeated James Scott in jail, but lost his title fight to Saad.
“I thought Jerry of all those guys around at the time, Marvin, Saad, Mustafa, I thought Jerry was the real deal,” said Peltz. “Jerry went over there [to Indianapolis] to spar with Marvin [Johnson] and you had to hold your breath watching Jerry and Martin spar, you didn’t know who was the better fighter.”
Spinks, however, thought he was the best of the lot and he certainly thought he was better than Saad, whom he recalled sparring in Philadelphia.
“They had scheduled a fight between him and myself, but he chose to fight Braxton,” remembered Spinks. “But he remembered me from Joe Frazier’s gym and I beat him up in a sparring match. He came to Frazier’s so he wanted to get into the ring with me. I busted his nose and had him bleeding pretty bad, that was his way of checking me out.”
Yaqui Lopez, from Stockton, California, who despite beating one-time WBA champion Rossman never got over the line to win a world title. He suffered losing battles to Spinks, Saad Muhammad (in 1980’s Fight of the Year) and twice to Galindez before he moved up to try his hand at cruiserweight where he lost in an attempt for the WBC belt against Carlos DeLeon.
He had a long, hard career but he’s lead a long, happy life in Stockton and he lives in the same house he lived in back in his fighting days. Today he’s proud to be associated with such a special era.
“I’m very happy,” Lopez said. “I am very happy I was with the big guys. In the seventies the light-heavyweights division… I think it was the best era in the division’s history, seventies and early eighties, and I’m a part of that.”
What ingredient was he missing, that saw him beat world champions without ever lifting a title himself?
“I want to know the answer myself,” he smiled ruefully. “I worked hard. I tried my best. I’m not a bad guy. I don’t know. I’d like to ask God.”
One who went looking for the answer of what he needed to do differently was Canada-based Scot Murray Sutherland. He would walk around at about the 175lbs limit and fight at that weight while the others would lose poundage to be big at the weight, sometimes descending from around 200lbs.
Sutherland soon found out the difference and he did so against two of the best, Saad Muhammad and Spinks.
“They just firebombed me,” Sutherland joked.
So, Sutherland dropped all the way down to middleweight and eventually became the first ever world champion at super-middleweight when that division was created.
The division was also full of characters and plot-lines, too. James Scott received as much coverage as anyone and a significant reason for that was his fights were in a maximum-security prison. It sounds insane now but Scott, who was in jail awaiting charges on a bungled robbery that resulted in a murder, had turned pro in Florida and started to raise some eyebrows. He trained at Ali’s 5th Street Gym and was promoted by Chris Dundee who, after just a handful of fights, said Scott was ready to take on then-world champ Bob Foster.
Well, a couple of years later with Scott behind bars, he helped launch a boxing programme and then – after two wins – he and promoter Murad Muhammad welcomed in Eddie Mustafa to fight. HBO televised from behind the prison walls at Rahway Penitentiary, Scott won on points and future TV broadcasts would come from the prison sports hall and the jail’s games field.
Scott, meanwhile, was forever writing to the boxing media calling out the champions, daring them to defend their title against him in prison.
He would never get his shot. In a strange twist, Braxton, who was on the prison boxing programme with Scott while on an armed robbery sentence, returned to prison to end Scott’s career.
It was a grudge fight. Braxton claimed Scott still owed him $400 for sparring. Instead, Braxton barged his way in to a championship fight and he dethroned Saad, who was making his ninth defence. Saad Muhammad had run out of miracles. He’d been known as the most-exciting of the bunch, often hurt or floored, he’d rally to snatch a series of defiant victories and what we’d now refer to as YouTube classics.
Before Spinks faced Johnny Davis, the competition was really livening up. Braxton, now Qawi, had thrashed Saad in a rematch and Eddie Mustafa Muhammad still thought he was the best. After Spinks dismantled Davis, Qawi, Eddie and Spinks got into a shouting match with one another at the post-fight presser.
In beating Saad, Qawi removed the possibility of Matthew fighting Spinks in a dream match and instead Dwight fought the brilliant former 1976 Olympian. Spinks won, unifying the title in 1983 and when Michael moved up to heavyweight to dethrone Larry Holmes before being blitzed by Mike Tyson it spelled the end of that Golden Era.
Amazingly, the battle-worn Marvin Johnson became a three-time world champion in 1986 when he defeated Leslie Stewart, who beat the brilliantly violent Cinderella Man southpaw from Indianapolis in a return.
By then, Qawi had moved up to cruiserweight and even north of there, Eddie Mustafa had retired and become a top trainer, Scott still languished in prison, Yaqui Lopez worked as a binman, John Conteh battled his demons, Galindez died in a car crash and Saad Muhammad fought on until 1992 causing irreparable damage to his neurological system. Spinks called it a day after the Tyson windfall.
There was a spell in the early 2000s when Saad and Rossman alongside each other as labourers, millions squandered between them.
There’s also another debate with this incredible crop. Spinks, Saad Muhammad, Dwight Muhammad Qawi and Victor Galindez are all in the International Boxing Hall of Fame, Marvin Johnson has recently appeared on the ballot, but not so Eddie Mustafa Muhammad, who has also had a stellar contribution to the sport as a coach of world champions from Iran Barkley to Chad Dawson.
Should Johnson, the first ever three-time world light-heavyweight champion go in? And if he does, what about Eddie, a man who Marvin admits hands down he’d have no idea how to defeat if they met multiple times over and who beat him in 11 rounds?
Sadly, Saad died of ALS in 2014. Money had to be raised to buy a headstone for the unmarked grave he rested in. He was homeless and penniless. “At the end of the day I knew Matthew would wind up in trouble with his fighting style,” reflected Eddie. “But one thing about myself, I would try to reach out to Matthew on varying occasions because you’d hear things, that he’s not doing good, and when I’d reach him I’d say, ‘If you’ve got to call me, call me, collect. If you need something, I’ll be there for you, no problem’.”
Eddie also helped Scott when he finally got out of prison. James died of dementia in 2018, 13 years after he’d finally been released.
Marvin’s health is faltering. They paid a price for entertaining so many. When asked for the phone number of another recently, I was told, “You better get him quick because he’s starting to lose it, too.”
It’s tragic, really.
Lopez may not have made it to the top of the mountain but he found a contentment in life few have, although Eddie – who lives in Vegas – also still talks a great fight.
Asked to list the best of the era, Yaqui states: “Spinks, Matthew Saad, John Conteh…,” and he wants to go on but admits he can’t name just three greats from the period. “It’s very hard because it was crazy at that time.”
Spinks, however, is more finite. For many he was ‘The Man’, having beaten Lopez, Qawi, Eddie Mustafa, Marvin Johnson, Sutherland, Eddie and Johnny Davis and Vonzell Johnson.
He didn’t fight Scott, Saad or Galindez and some will contend that by the time he’d matured from the 1976 Olympics, the others already had a high-mileage from fighting each other.
Spinks doesn’t care. He’s the one whose name is often alongside those of Archie Moore and Bob Foster as the best to ever do it at 175.
“It didn’t matter to me,” he said, when asked whether he was happy to come along in such a talent-rich era. “I didn’t really like fighting everybody anyway. It would have been nice if there was just a few and I could have just kicked everybody’s asses!”