Dwight Braxton's palm is lost in the grasp of Pat Giambrone, whose fingers are as thick as the Italian sausages he makes in his market on the corner of South Fifth and Division in Camden, N.J. A few years ago Giambrone trusted Braxton with the day's receipts when nobody would trust him with a secondhand mouthpiece. "A guy from the bank called and told me a 'fugitive from justice' just walked in with my money," Giambrone recalls. "Can you imagine that?"
Can you imagine this? On Aug. 7, Braxton will defend his WBC light heavyweight title against Matthew Saad Muhammad at the Spectrum in Philadelphia and will make anywhere from $400,000 (his guarantee) to $700,000 (the maximum, counting his share of the gate). Braxton expects to make $2 million from a title unification fight with WBA champ Michael Spinks. Such a payday for a light heavyweight may seem like a dream, but for Braxton—who 4½ years ago seemed on the verge of a lifetime in prison—dreams die hard.
He had no formal early boxing training and no amateur career, he was old for a boxer (25) when he started serious training, and, most of all, at 5'6½", he was considered too small to be great. "His arms too short to box with Saad," was what the smart guys said before he knocked him out in the 10th round to win the title in Atlantic City last Dec. 19. "I'm an inch taller than Dwight," says his brother Tony, a 28-year-old junior middleweight. "But don't tell him I told you. He'd kill me." Tony is the fifth youngest of Dwight's nine living brothers. An older brother, Charles, died this year.
The 29-year-old Braxton fights much like another chunky Philadelphia area fighter, Joe Frazier. He crowds his opponents, chases them down if they run and punches them silly if they don't. Also like Frazier, he wears a kind of menacing half-smile as he stalks his man. "He's got that evil attitude," says his 22-year-old brother, Stanley. Braxton explains his visage thus: "It's kind of a cross between a grimace and a smile. If it's confusing to you, it's also confusing to my opponent."
Braxton hasn't yet absorbed the punishment that Frazier did. He's never been knocked down, and he's never really been hurt, though Saad Muhammad tagged him a few times. He isn't a true knockout artist—three of his last six fights have gone the distance and his 17-1-1 record includes seven decisions—but, rather, he relies on a punishing jab to wear down his opponents relentlessly. And he's hard to hit, both because of his stature and because he keeps moving, even though he's always attacking from short range. "He's a boxer who just happens to box in close," one of his handlers, Wesley Mouzon, puts it.
Braxton isn't as well known as Spinks, an Olympic hero, nor as popular as Saad Muhammad, who before his loss to Braxton had defended his title eight times—winning seven of the bouts by knockout—usually in spectacular come-from-behind fashion. Moreover, the impact of Braxton's victory over Saad Muhammad was lessened by the latter's claim that he had to lose six pounds to make the 175-pound limit the morning of the fight. "The jury still has to be out on Braxton," says Mort Sharnik, a CBS boxing consultant. "But if he beats Saad this time we'll have to consider him a first-rate fighter."
Certainly the jury was out in the minds of two youngsters last week as Braxton posed for photos on Berkley Street, a ghetto area in Camden, where he once lived. "I know who he is," said one. "He's the guy fighting Saad Muhammad."
The story of Saad Muhammad (né Matthew Franklin) is well known in Philadelphia. He was abandoned on a street—Benjamin Franklin Parkway, hence his surname—at the age of four in 1959 and only recently discovered who his parents were. But, across the Delaware River in New Jersey, Braxton hasn't yet made a lasting impression. "They started to wonder when they saw a limo pull up one day," Braxton says of his new neighbors in Cherry Hill, "but mostly they leave me alone."
The house he's leasing, a brown and yellow split-level with a nice lawn, is on a quiet street in a quiet section of the town, which is about 10 miles east of Philadelphia, only five miles but light years from the places he called home in Camden. Braxton plans to buy a house for his mother, Alice Elaine Braxton, who still lives in Camden, and is looking for a house for himself in the Cherry Hill area, but he'll be spending much of his time in the Southern California town of Rialto, with his girl friend of three years, Tracy Thompson.
These days the Cherry Hill house is shared by five other men: Mouzon; Rock Newman, Braxton's publicist; two young fighters, heavyweight Conroy Nelson and light heavyweight Lionel (Country) Byarms, who sometimes spars with Braxton; and brother Stanley, an amateur junior middleweight. At any time during the day, Tony might drive over from his apartment in Camden. The cooking is done by Maryam Munir, a Muslim sister whom Braxton met at the masjid, the Islamic temple that Braxton attends. (His Muslim name is Dwight Muhammad Qawiy—but he hasn't gone public with it yet.)