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HE SAVED HIS BEST FOR THE VERY LAST
Clive Gammon
August 27, 1979
Matthew Saad Muhammad withstood John Conteh's sharpest punches—but required his cut man's deftest touch to keep him in the bout—before rallying in the final rounds to retain his WBC light heavyweight title
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August 27, 1979

He Saved His Best For The Very Last

Matthew Saad Muhammad withstood John Conteh's sharpest punches—but required his cut man's deftest touch to keep him in the bout—before rallying in the final rounds to retain his WBC light heavyweight title

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The eyebrows were stitched up and the fight with Conteh, originally planned for July 22, was postponed to give them time to heal. But that tightly stretched skin, so prone to split, looked certain to be Conteh's chief target.

Conteh was contemptuous of the allegations that he butts—a foul known in Britain as "giving the Glasgow Hello." "They have a referee in the ring, don't they?" he said.

Except for that terse rejoinder, Conteh looked, spoke and acted very differently from the cocky, handsome, obstinate, self-destructive kid who was a sporting idol in England when he won the WBC light heavyweight title in October 1974. He held the crown until May 1977, when he was stripped of it for refusing to defend against Miguel Cuello of Argentina.

Conteh was 28 this spring; his hairline is fast receding, but the most noticeable change about him is his subdued manner and a new voice that is so low that the flat Liverpool vowels are almost inaudible.

Conteh's biggest pre-fight worry centered on his right hand. At the peak of his career, almost four years to the day before the Atlantic City bout, he broke it badly in a 10-round win over Willie Taylor in Scranton, Pa. It was put back together surgically, but he broke it again in training. The injury accounts for the gaps in Conteh's record. Only one fight in 1976, only one in 1977. Then, last November, he hurt it again when, leaving a party in his Rolls-Royce, he hit six parked cars.

Since then he had fought twice. In April he drew with the veteran Jesse Burnett, and in June he defeated a somewhat obscure American, Ivy Brown. He was unimpressive in both bouts. And he barely used his right.

In the early probing rounds of Saturday's fight, it looked as if Conteh's right was going to be absent from this encounter, too, though the slow-footed Saad Muhammad, whose timing seemed erratic, gave him chances to employ it. It was the left jab that Conteh used most, but it was not until the fifth round that its effect became apparent.

Early in that round, Saad Muhammad seemed to be getting the measure of Conteh. For the first time he caught him with a solid right to the head, opened up a little cut on his cheek and corralled him in a corner. But Conteh was counterpunching with his left. When the bell sounded, Saad Muhammad walked over to his corner holding a glove to his brow, and as soon as the sixth started, Conteh again hit him on the forehead with a jab. The blood began to flow.

For the next six rounds, the fight was really between Conteh and Adolph Ritacco, the renowned cut man—this was his 29th title fight—whom Saad Muhammad had recruited against the wishes of his trainer, Nick Belfiore. Between each round Ritacco would do desperate patching; during each round, Conteh would mercilessly undo Ritacco's handiwork. Even though Conteh used his right hand with effect no more than a half a dozen times in the fight, his left seemed to be doing all the work necessary.

Saad Muhammad was to claim that Conteh had butted him in the second round, but he subsequently backed away from that charge, saying, "He somewhat beat me with his left. First, he made a lump, then he opened it up with jabs. But I had a good cut man."

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