He had a worse chance, the Boardwalk wiseacres reckoned, than a silver dollar in an Atlantic City slot machine. He was a yesterday man with only one good hand. His last two fights had been near-fiascoes. What sort of shot would he have against Matthew Saad Muhammad, the 25-year-old WBC world light heavyweight champion who last year put the experienced Richie Kates into the hospital and who had won his title in April in a bloody bout with the redoubtable Marvin Johnson?
But at the Resorts International Hotel in Atlantic City last Saturday, it was Saad Muhammad who was reeling on the ropes in the 12th round, the left side of his face streaming with blood, and it was John Conteh of Liverpool, England, the no-hoper, who was standing in the middle of the ring grinning wolfishly.
At that moment it seemed that the only thing in doubt about the fight was when the referee would stop it. Conteh's cruelly precise left jab was destroying Saad Muhammad. Three of them, delivered jackhammer fast, had just caused the blood to spout afresh from a cut above his left eye. Saad Muhammad came back swinging wildly, almost unbalancing himself. But it was clear that he was half-blinded by his own blood.
Saad Muhammad, plain Matt Franklin until he won his title this year, has all the right antecedents of a contemporary champion: a bitterly deprived childhood in the slums of South Philadelphia, orphanhood, foster parents, street rumbles, reform school, jail. Then the dawning of the light and the discovery of Islam. And the name change.
"The old name did well," he said, "but I wanted to change it. I'm a brother. Now, when they holler out my Islam name, they'll know I'm a black man."
For the Conteh fight, Saad Muhammad trained at Muhammad Ali's old camp at Deer Lake, Pa. and he speaks reverentially of his first meeting, in July, with Ali. "He touched me," Saad Muhammad says. "He overthrew my heart. He told me, 'Remember, a Muhammad cannot lose.' "
Saad Muhammad, in fact, had not lost a fight since a controversial split decision at the hands of Eddie Gregory in March 1977. He had earned his title in about as hard a way as possible in a division suddenly crowded with good fighters.
Among whom, according to most experts, John Conteh should no longer have been numbered, though Saad Muhammad had paid him tribute before the fight: "I admire him as a former champion. He requires the best of me."
Then reality broke through. "Listen," he said, "I studied Conteh. He's that same Conteh, comes on like a billy goat. This man specifies on butting. Also, he has tactics like stomping on your feet. But, as his prime resource, he uses his head. And suddenly a guy is bleeding."
Bleeding. Before the fight, Saad Muhammad's first defense of his title, it seemed only his vulnerable brows could make him a loser. In his title-winning fight in Indianapolis, his face was a mask of blood when in the eighth round Johnson went down for a count of nine and the referee stopped it.