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Saad Muhammad: Profile in courage

He would stride forward without relent or hesitation, no bobbing, no weaving, always forward, always with the implicit message to his opponent that to stop him, one would have to kill him.

He would stride forward without relent or hesitation, no bobbing, no weaving, always forward, always with the implicit message to his opponent that to stop him, one would have to kill him.

Upon arriving within his opponent's striking distance, Matthew Saad Muhammad would then test the strength and substance of that message like few fighters before or since. He would stand there and absorb so many punches that his face would swell and his eyes would shrink into dark slits and he would spritz the judges and spectators in the front rows with his blood, and only then, when it appeared he had reached his breaking point, would he return that punishment and inflict more. Only then would he test his opponent in the same way he had dared to test himself, and usually the other man would succumb, unable to match the sheer force of Saad Muhammad's will.

He became the World Boxing Council's light-heavyweight champion in 1979, compiling a career record of 49-16-3, recording 35 knockouts, defending that title nine times during an era when boxing still had a strong hold on America's collective sports psyche, and to watch the replays of Saad Muhammad's fights, in the wake of his death Sunday morning at age 59, is to wonder if you've clicked on the wrong Internet link or cued up the wrong tape. My God, he's the one who wins this fight? Are you sure? The replays are both horrifying and captivating. They are of another time, without the fuller knowledge of the unseen destruction that men's fists can deliver, without our nascent sensitivity toward that damage, and even in that context, at that time, people would see what Saad Muhammad withstood to win and they'd shake their heads.

In the best examples of that courage in the ring, he fought and beat Yaqui Lopez in a pair of memorable, brutal bouts. The latter was better known; Lopez threw some 70 punches in succession during one stretch, and still Saad Muhammad outlasted him to earn a TKO and retain his title. But the former featured a moment that captured the core of Saad Muhammad as a fighter: There was Lopez, throwing punch after punch, bombing away, and just then Saad Muhammad stepped backward, steadied himself, looked at Lopez, laughed, and landed a right-left combination.

He laughed.

"Those two defined him: Take it and give it right back," said Larry Tornambe, a longtime ring announcer and friend of Saad Muhammad's. "As far as guts and determination, he has to be one of the top three - I mean, of all time."

His story became famous, the stuff of a movie that Hollywood would never green-light because the script would seem too unbelievable. A boy is born Maxwell Antonio Loach. His mother dies. His aunt abandons him when he is 5, arranging to have him dropped somewhere along the Ben Franklin Parkway. The Catholic nuns who raise him give him a new name, Matthew Franklin, borrowing from the Gospel and from the stretch of road from which the boy was saved. And this kid, out of those infinitesimal chances for survival, let alone success, rises to become one of the most thrilling boxers of his or any generation, to become a world champion, to convert to Islam and choose his own path?

Really? Sorry, go peddle that cornball idea at another studio, pal. The paying public will never buy it.

"You could intertwine him as a boxer and as a person," Mustafa Ameen, his best friend and business manager, said in a phone interview Monday. "He should be remembered as an individual who just refused to quit against all odds, in boxing and in life."

His story did not end there, of course. At the apex of his career, he spent too much money on the extravagant trappings of stardom - a white grand piano, for example, even though he didn't play a note. His entourage reportedly comprised 39 people, each of them wanting just a little bit from him at first, until each wanted just a little bit more from him, until there was nothing left for them to leech and nothing more for him to give. By 2010, he was homeless. But his story did not end there, either.

He entered the Resources for Human Development Ridge Center on North Broad Street, finding shelter among this city's lost and forgotten souls, and though he was reluctant to reveal his identity, soon enough word of his presence trickled out, and he couldn't hide anymore. After a while, he didn't want to. He became a spokesman for RHD's anti-homelessness campaigns, working until the ALS he was diagnosed with this year no longer allowed him to, blending in among the people he knew and understood, until it was time for him to speak to one more high school class or at one more fund-raiser, and those same people, now joining him at the event, would go silent. Shhh. Quiet down, man. You know who that is, man? That's the champ. Listen up.

And when he did finally speak, there was a new message from Matthew Saad Muhammad, a message about being down and getting back up, about enduring, about the lessons and questions implicit in his life and worth contemplating beyond his death: What do you really know about who a man is, what he has done, and what he is willing to do?