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Dwight Braxton, who squandered seven of his first 25 years behind prison walls, became the WBC light heavyweight champion last Saturday. His victory in Atlantic City will go down as a 10th-round technical knockout over heavily favored Matthew Saad Muhammad, but the squat ex-convict—he stands only 5'6�"—will cheerfully tell you that he won this fight on a judge's decision.
"There is one man here who I have got to thank," the 28-year-old Braxton said at the press conference after the fight, "because if it wasn't for him I wouldn't be here."
The man is Peter J. Coruzzi, a criminal court judge in Camden, N.J., Braxton's hometown. The champion and the judge had met nearly four years ago in court when Braxton, who had been convicted of assault and battery, came before Coruzzi. Braxton had been released from prison after serving 5� years for armed robbery, and only recently had launched his boxing career in which he had a win, a loss and a draw. He had never fought as an amateur.
"I had him in for sentencing," Coruzzi recalled. "The preliminary probation report recommended one thing only: incarceration. As a second offense it meant at least 15 years. But his two managers begged me to give him another chance. I remember him standing in front of me, tears streaming down his cheeks, and you know how tough he is. I saw something in him. Fighters, judges, robbers, we're all human. Perhaps we should all take a deeper look at our fellow man."
Braxton received five years' probation.
The judge was standing in a casino at the Playboy Hotel, two floors below where Braxton had dismantled Saad Muhammad. "When he walked from my courtroom he never lost another fight, never stepped one inch out of line," Coruzzi said. "I'm so proud of him I could cry." And he did.
(Last month, Coruzzi proved he was human, too. He was indicted on bribery, conspiracy and misconduct charges. He has been suspended, has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial.)
On the afternoon before the title fight, Braxton lay on a bed in his hotel room. It was warm in the room but he was wearing heavy long underwear. "People never gave me a chance for anything," he said. "They forgot that I had been fighting all my life—in the street because I loved it. and in prison just to survive, to get respect. They count me out and then I just go out and do my job."
He had built his record to 15-1-1 with wins over South Africa's Theunis Kok, then undefeated, and Mike Rossman and James Scott. The WBC ranked him No. 5; he was offered $50,000 to fight Saad Muhammad. "The money is an insult," he said angrily. "I made the same fighting Scott. But I took it. I'm no Olympic hero. I was a guy in and out of reformatories. Then at 19 it was the state prison. I said to myself: 'My life is going by.' When I was 22, 23, I'd think about it and cry at night. But I'm not crying now. You don't make no marks until you become champion. Saad Muhammad is just another test. Saturday is just an extra five rounds. I don't enjoy beating up people, but I will do what I have to do."
This was Saad Muhammad's ninth title defense and he was getting $425,000. His next was expected to be a $1 million payday in a unification title fight with WBA champ Michael Spinks. Last week Saad Muhammad's people had picked up a $150,000 bonus from Don King in exchange for promotional rights to the champion's next defense, plus refusal rights on two more. No one wanted him to take Braxton lightly.