The Perfect Performance: March 31, 1980
09.06.06 - By Greg Smith: Like artists and writers, boxers aren’t often remembered for their best performances. It is the hidden, almost obscure works of art that possess the highest intrinsic value. For instance, Julio Cesar Chavez is best remembered for his epic bout with Meldrick Taylor in 1990. In reality, I think JC Superstar peaked as a fighter on November 21, 1987 with his perfect execution in dismantling and destroying Edwin Rosario.
Article posted on 09.06.2006
When former WBA light heavyweight champion Eddie Mustafa Muhammad is dead and gone decades from now, his headstone will probably read the same as the tattoo on his arm: Loved By Few, Hated By Many, Respected By All. It is indeed the signature of a true believing activist who gives no quarter, and doesn’t ask for sympathy or forgiveness in return. Intelligent, articulate, unyielding, brutally honest, and tough, Brooklyn-born Eddie Mustafa Muhammad, the leader of J.A.B. (www.boxersunion.org) will probably be remembered more for being a leading activist in boxing reform instead of by his performances in the ring..
As a fighter, discipline and diet were among Eddie’s toughest opponents, and probably inhibited him from becoming a long reigning champion mentioned in the same breath as Archie Moore, Billy Conn, Bob Foster, and yes, Michael Spinks.
Nonetheless, I don’t think simple lack of character was his downfall like so many fighters who never reach their potential. Mustafa Muhammad actually has an abundance of character and chutzpah. Rather, as one early 1980s scribe posited, Eddie might’ve been just a little too cerebral to be a fighter. Some of the brightest people in life are underachievers in their chosen profession, and aren’t motivated by fame and fortune. They are motivated by causes without external reward: The reward of a greater good.
Eddie started his career as a middleweight, but grew into the light heavyweight division and established himself as a leading contender. In 1977, Eddie won a controversial 10 round decision over Matthew Saad Muhammad (then Matthew Franklin). Two fights later, Eddie landed a title shot against WBA belt holder Victor Galindez, but lost a controversial 15 round decision.
After the loss to Galindez, Eddie tallied seven straight wins (six knockouts) before facing off against Rahway State Prison inmate James Scott on October 13, 1978. Scott, who was released from prison in November 2004, was in the early stages of his long stint in the New Jersey penal system. He was in superb mental and physical shape for the fight, and primed for the upset. In contrast, Eddie appeared curiously lackadaisical and out of shape, and Scott outhustled Eddie to win a unanimous twelve round decision.
The win catapulted Scott into the national spotlight. Over the next few years, Scott embarked on his memorable and unprecedented quest to gain a title shot while incarcerated. After winning several national televised fights from inside the prison walls of Rahway, Scott eventually lost to Jerry “The Bull” Martin in May 1980, and Dwight Muhammad Qawi in September 1981.
He never got the title shot he clamored for.
For Eddie, the Scott bout served as a wake-up call, and he re-dedicated himself to the craft of boxing and his religion. Eddie quietly won six straight bouts (five knockouts) in 1979 while contenders like Scott grabbed most of the headlines. Eddie’s steady success did reap dividends, however, as he was able to land a title shot against newly crowned WBA titlist Marvin Johnson on March 31, 1980.
Johnson, one of the toughest light heavyweights of the last thirty years, lost his WBC light heavyweight title in one of the greatest fights of all-time to Matthew Saad Muhammad on April 22, 1979. Later that same year, Johnson regained a piece of the light heavyweight crown by stopping and breaking the jaw of WBA titlist Victor Galindez at the Superdome in New Orleans.
Eddie, who was still known as Eddie Gregory at the time, was expected to lose to Johnson. Johnson gave EVERYONE big problems even in defeat. When Johnson lost his WBC title to Saad, Saad emphatically stated that Johnson was the best light heavyweight he had ever fought. Moreover, Johnson’s title winning effort over the aged, but ultra-tough and resilient Galindez was brutal, impressive, and ruthless. Many experts believed that Johnson’s inexorable attack of maximum leverage shots from the southpaw stance would prevail over Eddie’s sporadic bursts.
What happened on March 31, 1980 isn’t remembered well in boxing history because it was overshadowed by the unanimous Ring Magazine, KO Magazine, and IBHOF 1980 Fight of the Year: Matthew Saad Muhammad vs. Yaqui Lopez 2. It was vintage Saad. In an incredible war and on the brink of a stoppage loss several times during the fight, Saad rallied to take Lopez out in the fourteenth round.
It was the epitome of a great fight, and a great performance by Saad. In my opinion, however, for many reasons Saad's dramatic win wasn’t the best performance by a light heavyweight in 1980, and Saad wasn’t the best light heavyweight in the world in 1980, either. Both honors go to Eddie Mustafa Muhammad.
Allow me to explain why.
Like Arturo Gatti today, Saad Muhammad thrilled fans with many of the essential ingredients of a great fighter: tremendous courage, stamina, power, a great chin, and the ability to pry victory from the jaws of defeat in the worst circumstances.
Upon further analysis, the true, pure art of boxing entails the ability to hit and not be hit, and execute a game plan to near perfection. Some fighters are able to do this with such subtle and cool elan that many fans deem them boring. Nicolino Locche and Charley Burley are prime examples of this problem.
By the same token, Eddie Mustafa Muhammad was a calculating counter puncher who was extremely economical in his output. Throughout his career, these attributes proved to be both his biggest strengths and weaknesses in myriad ways. On March 31, 1980, his skill set was honed to a fine edge, and the result was one of the greatest performances in light heavyweight title fight history.
From the opening bell, Eddie, attired in old school G&S trunks with black and red trim and low top Pony shoes, took control of the bout immediately. Like Saad did a year earlier, Eddie faced Johnson straight up, but more intelligently. As Johnson quickly moved in to land his bombs in the first round, Eddie took a slight step to the left and landed the key punch that would determine the outcome of the bout: the left hook to the body.
When Johnson resumed his attack, Eddie would patiently duck, dip, and roll with the shots instead of taking them full force like Saad. Eddie didn’t rush the attack. He established proper distance, analyzed Johnson’s angles, and didn’t waste energy. To the untrained eye, Johnson’s aggression might have won him the first round. Actually, he didn’t win one second of it.
Johnson was being set up for the kill.
In the second round, Eddie began to land his trademark straight right hand, and continued to land more thudding left hooks to the body. Resolute, Johnson continued his attack, but the pattern of the bout was intractably established. Johnson would move in and throw combinations. Eddie would slip or roll with most of the shots, and occasionally side step and spin Johnson. He would patiently look for openings, and land quick counter right hands to the head and left hooks to the body while mixing in jabs and lead right hands. Eddie’s output was characteristically limited, but highly effective.
In the third round, Eddie landed a hard straight right hand followed by a tremendous left hook to the body that seemed to stun and paralyze Johnson in his tracks. The hook was followed by a right hand to the head that deposited Johnson on the deck.
Hurt, confused, but willing, Johnson got up immediately, and took the mandatory eight count. Almost helpless, he attempted to defend himself as Eddie punished him with an array of uppercuts, left hooks, and right hands.
Johnson gradually regained his faculties despite the relentless pounding and appeared to steer himself out of imminent danger. Cognizant that Johnson wasn't completely ripe for the taking, Eddie smartly reverted to building a foundation of carefully placed right hands followed by left hooks to the body for the remainder of the round.
As the round ended, announcer Keith Jackson opined that Eddie might’ve been too patient in putting Johnson away. In truth, Johnson might’ve survived the third round, but it was actually the sign of more to come.
Outgunned from long range, Johnson attempted to take the fight to the inside to smother Eddie’s power in rounds four and five. He was superficially effective and opened a cut over Eddie’s left eye in the fifth round, but Eddie’s patented left hook counters to the body and searing right uppercuts to the head seemed to gradually take the steam out of Johnson’s attack. It was like watching Eddie apply a center-of-the-ring version of the rope-a-dope. He’d allow Johnson to pound away while carefully rolling with the shots, and would then retaliate in spots while taking the opponent into deeper waters. For every four shots that glanced off Eddie’s elbows and gloves, he would land two, hard quality shots in return. It was the best of boxing: The art of fighting without fighting.
In the sixth and seventh rounds, Eddie established more distance and slowed the pace of the fight. Johnson attempted to regain control, but he wasn’t close to being effective as he was against both Saad and Galindez.
When Johnson was able to work inside, Eddie would effectively cover and roll or tie Johnson up. Some of Johnson’s blows were effective, but Eddie would intelligently move into the correct range and land wicked right hands and left hooks as he pleased. It was a different Johnson. He simply couldn’t establish dominance regardless of Eddie’s less-than-prodigious output. Marvin was being outsmarted by a better fighter in a slow, tortuous, and insidious manner.
Batting practice began in the eighth round. Picking up the pace, Eddie starting landing sweeping right hands to the head, and straight right hands to the body. Left hooks to the body were placed judiciously on the inside to add to the damage.
Midway through the round, the normally aggressive Johnson forced a clinch, perhaps showing for the first time in the fight that the end was only a few rounds away. Tired with blood covering most of his white trunks, he began to retreat as Eddie almost leisurely hammered him with well-placed power shots.
In the ninth, Eddie threw out some bait and reverted to his passive, counter punching style. Johnson took the bait hook, line, and sinker, and attempted to establish his jab to set up combinations. It was the same type of jab Marvin utilized when he took the WBC crown from Mate Parlov in 1978, but Eddie would calmly move his head just enough to diminish the impact while he looked for openings.
As the round passed, both circled slowly and traded blows, and it looked like Johnson might be gaining a second wind to get himself back into the fight after the drubbing he took in the eighth. He didn't realize that he was being lulled into a false sense of security. With seconds to go in the round, Eddie effectively lured Marvin in and staggered him with a monster right hand on the chin followed by body and head shots. Johnson was shook to the core, and walked unsteadily back to his corner. In a cool and detached manner, Eddie walked back to his corner in seeming mock disappointment for his inability to take Johnson out at that moment.
Sensing the end was near, Eddie picked up the pace and battered Johnson in the tenth. Straight right hands, left hooks to the body, sweeping right hands to the head from long range took a visible toll on Johnson. Marvin was bleeding badly from the nose, and gamely tried to mount his own attack, but his answers were met with brutal rejoinders.
With about fifteen seconds to go in the round, Eddie switched up and decided to go with a smashing right hand to the body instead of the left hook, and Johnson momentarily sagged from the impact. Dissected, near collapse, but with the fortitude of a Marine Corps Battalion, Johnson survived the round.
In the eleventh, Eddie boxed at a poised and measured pace as Johnson attempted to rally. Behind the facade, however, Johnson was spent. The accumulation of vicious head and power shots was too much, and one could sense that one more big rally might put Johnson over the edge.
With about a minute to go in the round, Eddie quickly exploded with a three-punch combination to Johnson’s head. Staggered and trying to stay on his feet, Johnson absorbed another nasty combination of head and body shots as referee Carlos Berrocal stepped in to call a halt to the slaughter at 2:43 of the round.
Eddie exulted in triumph and went to his knees with his arms raised in victory as his handlers rushed into the ring to hoist him in the air. It was his moment, and signaled the end of a perfectly crafted and executed game plan.
Eddie would go on to successfully defend his portion of the title twice. A unification bout with Matthew Saad Muhammad fell through in the infamous Harold Smith/Wells Fargo Bank scandal. Eddie made an attempt to annex the heavyweight division, but out of shape and with an ailing back, he lost a lackluster decision to Renaldo Snipes in early 1981. A few months later, he quickly lost a few dozen pounds and lost his title to Michael Spinks in a fifteen round decision.
Eddie ran off a series of wins over the next few years, but lost a decision to Slobodan Kacar for the IBF light heavyweight title in 1985. Eddie was inactive in 1986 and 1987. He retired after suffering his first and only stoppage loss to Arthel Lawhorne in 1988.
Eddie Mustafa Muhammad’s final record reads 50-8-1 (39 knockouts).
Throughout his career, Marvin Johnson fought the very best of his division. He was an honest, blue-collar fighter of the highest integrity. He took Matthew Saad Muhammad to the brink twice, he dominated and destroyed Mate Parlov and Victor Galindez, stopped the highly underrated Eddie Davis twice, and was giving Michael Spinks significant problems until being knocked senseless by a hookercut in their 1981 bout.
In true form, Johnson recovered and pushed on. He went on a four year, fourteen bout win streak after losing to Spinks. During that period, he taught a young Prince Charles Williams valuable lessons in winning an easy unanimous decision in 1984. Marvin became a three-time champion by winning the WBA light heavyweight title in 1986 with a seventh round TKO of Leslie Stewart. He successfully defended his title with a thirteenth round TKO of Jean-Marie Emebbe that same year.
In 1987, far past his prime but dead game, Johnson lost his title to Stewart in a rematch and never fought again. Marvin ended his career with a record of 43-6-0 (35 knockouts).
Intriguingly enough, mitigated by Michael Spinks’ departure to the heavyweight division in 1985, of all of the great light heavyweights of the late mid-to-late 1970s and early 1980s, Johnson is the fighter who was able to compete at the highest level for the longest period of time in that division.
Matthew Saad Muhammad was never the same after the Qawi bouts. Qawi lost to Spinks in early 1983, won a cruiserweight championship, but truly peaked as a fighter in 1982. As stated above, Scott faded back into the cell block life after losing to Qawi in 1981. John Conteh was done after being blown out Saad in their 1980 rematch. Yaqui Lopez moved to cruiserweight shortly after his TKO loss to Michael Spinks in 1980. In a bid for the WBC cruiserweight crown, Lopez was stopped in the fourth round by Carlos DeLeon in 1983. He lost his next fight, and retired for good. Mike Rossman burned out quickly, and was never a force again after losing the rematch to Galindez.
During his long and prestigious career, Marvin Johnson was never dominated like he was on March 31, 1980. Some would argue that Johnson’s defeat was a function of the old axiom that styles make fights, but I don’t believe that to be true. Johnson fought plenty of crafty counter punchers during his career, but wasn’t completely taken apart like he was by Eddie Mustafa Muhammad. After all, Johnson’s trunks were covered in blood, and he suffered a set of broken ribs from Eddie’s vicious body attack. He was well behind on all scorecards. He was exhausted and helpless when the fight was stopped. The main reason for Johnson’s defeat is simple: He fought a superior ring technician who fought at an optimal level. He fell into traps, and couldn't get out.
When fans talk about Eddie Mustafa Muhammad, they talk about his career as a trainer after he retired in 1988. They talk about his leadership of J.A.B., and they talk about how good he could've become as a fighter. In the last few days, in light of the Jose Luis Castillo’s weight fiasco, many have been reminiscing (including this writer) about Eddie’s own 1983 weigh-in snafu in his scheduled rematch with Michael Spinks. Unfair as life can be, Eddie has never been properly recognized for his best performance.
It was a masterpiece.
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