By Eddie Mustafa Muhammad (formerly Eddie Gregory)
AMATEUR CAREER: No-one in my family boxed. I wasn’t a troubled kid. I came from the same area as Mike Tyson and Riddick Bowe. There were plenty of times I could have strayed. I wanted to make my mother and father proud. My father worked construction. He was a good provider. He instilled in me to do things the right way. I was blessed to have a strong family foundation.
I had to be a boxer. I loved it. I started at 12. It was the perfect age. It was the era of Muhammad Ali. I started out a 126 pounds. My first year in the Golden Gloves I weighed 135 (age 22). Then I started moving up to 147 pounds. At that weight I won the New York Golden Gloves twice. I was in numerous amateur tournaments. It was very political. I fought a kid for the finals of the Olympic Trials, Jessie Valdez. He had already made two Olympic teams. I am the newcomer at 20. I am beating everybody. We fought twice. The first fight he out pointed me. Beat me once; it is my fault. Beat me twice and we have a little problem. The second fight, I knocked him down. It was televised on Wide World of Sports. I was crushed when they gave it to him. I know I would have gone on to win a Gold Medal. He ended up winning a Bronze in the Olympics. It hit home.
That night I took a train all the way from West Point to Brooklyn. I had to get into myself. I never thought about quitting boxing. I just kept thinking what my trainer had said. My trainer told me to keep my head up and I would be great. I took a month off to get myself together. One of the toughest things I have faced in my career as a boxer was not making the ’72 Olympic team. They asked me to be an alternate. I refused! I then realized it was time for me to turn pro because there was nowhere for me to go in the amateur ranks.
I stayed as long as I did in the amateurs to understand the game. That kept me from going astray. I was in the gym every day. It gave me discipline and kept me on the straight and narrow.
Al Fichetti, my amateur trainer from about age 18, said, “Learn the amateurs first.” He said, “You are going to be a World Champion.” Al only worked with amateurs, but he always had a strong team. We were like family. I was a product of the PAL. Boxing came naturally to me. I was around good people. He taught me good manners. I saw a lot of my friends get killed, I could have headed down that way, but boxing saved me.
PROS IN THE OLYMPICS
I don’t believe the pros should fight in the Olympics. That will kill the amateur program. Let an amateur enjoy their glory. There is a great difference between amateur and professional boxing. I am a staunch protestor against that.
I could have been more successful in my pro career. I could have done much better. I never signed with a promoter. I believed in my ability. I was told that if I didn’t sign with a promoter, they would “black ball” me.
My first title fight was in 1977. I believe that I am the strongest person anyone will ever meet in his or her life. I have no fear of anything. After some fighters get hit, they develop fear. Instead, I developed courage and self-worth from boxing with some of the biggest champions in the world when I was a youngster including Emile Griffith, Kenny Buchanan, and Rodrigo Valdez. I learned to control myself. Also, being a Muslim makes me humble.
I had a big disagreement with Bob Arum. When I fought Marvin Johnson for the world title, Bob Arum had him under contract. I am the number 1 contender. We were at his office in New York and Bob said, “Listen, I want you to sign with me.” He gives me a contract with certain options… I said, “Bob, I respect you as a man and as a person, but I think I am bigger than this piece of paper. What are you going to do after I knockout your champion? I will then give you the opportunity to sign me. Bob, give training expenses.” He gave me the minimum training expenses, $25,000, plus two plane tickets and two hotel rooms.
But God is great! A guy by the name of Muhammad Ali said, “Come to my camp for free. My camp is your camp.” I didn’t even know the man. He paid for my sparring partners and everything else. Just being around him bolstered my confidence. I worked hard and Ali always pushed me, saying, “You gotta do this and you gotta do that…” We use to box a tremendous amount of rounds. If it weren’t for him being there for me I don’t know where I would have gone professionally in boxing. He kept telling me you are going to be the best. Arum and the press would always say, “Why are you so relaxed and confident.” My experience with Ali was why.
After I knocked Marvin Johnson out, I didn’t turn my back on Arum. I walked over to him and shook his hand. I am too strong; you are not going to walk over me. He gave me my props. We then worked on a fight-by-fight basis. We respected one another after I won. I fought Jerry Martin. He paid me big money.
When I won the championship I said to myself, “It’s about time.” If I had been with a Promoter, I would have won it sooner, but it would have been cosmetic. These promoters do everything to get their fighters into position. How can you say you enjoyed your career when you know it was cosmetic? I earned my title. I didn’t have guys pumping money into the WBA/WBC/IBF. I made it on my ability.
If you believe in yourself as a fighter you will succeed. I knew eventually I would be successful. I think Chris Byrd is great. But he is a victim. All I can say to Chris is stay strong. You are number one, eventually they will come to you! Stay focused on the job at hand and you will be all right.
On the other hand, I am not a player hater. God bless all those guys like Fernando Vargas, Oscar De La Joya. The people pay to see those guys. They don’t pay to see the promoter promote. They are coming to see the fighter fight. Let them earn all the money they can.
After I fought that one time for Arum, Harold Smith came into the equation. He offered me five times as much money, but I didn’t even sign with him. Then offers stated to come in from everywhere. I remained humble. Be yourself. Ali said to me, “When you become champion and people want your autograph, always get a pen and sit down and sign every autograph. I learned a lot from being with Ali. Everybody saw me as this big, Black, bald-headed guy and said, "What he is gonna do?” People thought I was mean because I kept to myself a lot. I wasn’t “out there.” I have a temper, but I can control myself to a degree. When I was younger I would act before I would react. After associating with Muhammad Ali, we spoke about handling success. I look up to Ali, Jim Brown, Nelson Mandela and President Bush.
I have great respect for Bob Arum and Don King. They are the best at what they do. Now, if I ran into Don, I would probably walk the other way, but I have to respect him for all that he has accomplished. If I need advice (it isn’t too often in the sport of boxing that I need advice), the first person I call is Bob Arum. He told me the exact things I needed to do step by step.
The temptations that were around, I put a limit on them. But, I had my brother watching out for me. I love women, but I also respect women. I have chosen through the years to not hang a lot with guys. The men wanted to be me or take what I had. When I was a young kid, I hung around with an older woman. She taught me how to dress, how to act. Everyone in Brooklyn was into bad things like dealing drugs. They had Cadillacs, Mercedes. She said, “You are a champion, you are a world figure now. You need to act befitting that image, and so she suggested I buy a Rolls Royce. That was the time when everyone wanted to take what I had, including NBA stars. Women have always been easier to be around because they were not in competition with me or jealous of my accomplishments. I respect women, all women. I owe some of my success to women. My father always told me, “You are going to be successful, never let money ever make you. You make money.” I am not the richest guy in the world, but I have self-esteem irrespective of how much money I have.
Look at Mike Tyson. I love him. No matter how he comes off, there is some validity in what he is saying. Then again, there are some things he needs to take a deep breath and step back before he speaks about. You have to know how to deal with Mike. I listen to Tyson and I hear him say, “I didn’t have a chance because of where I grew up.” But, I grew up in the same place? You have to surround yourself with people with intellect. You have to trust people. I believe that people are jealous because he is making so much money. That causes Mike to not trust anyone. He speaks his mind, but he should always have respect for women.
WEIGHT and MICHAEL SPINKS
I never had a weight problem. People have the right to think that. I was supposed to fight Michael Spinks. I was overweight, but you know there are politics, too. The night before the fight my trainer bit his tongue and he had to go to the hospital. I checked my weight at the hospital. So, I weighed myself at the hospital. I get on the scale and I am 176 lbs (and am fighting at 174). I can dry out. I don’t eat or drink anything. Spinks comes in at 174 lbs, but weighs in at 171! I weigh in at 177! I am not 177 lbs. The Washington DC Commission tells me to go lose the weight. Bert Sugar was there with 2 lbs sacks of sugar/flour and it didn’t measure up. The scale was off. He told everyone. I wasn’t about to lose anything. So, we signed for a ten-round fight. It upset me, because I am going to beat him, but it wouldn’t be for the title. My brother tells me he’s scare of you and he’s not going to fight you. Two hours later, my attorney says, he’s not going to fight you. I think Michael was a great fighter, but give me a chance and I am going to get you. I was very upset when Spinks pulled out. My brother always kept me very focused. I learned to direct my temper towards my opponents. Not in the form of a personal vendetta, but instead to methodically dissect my opposition. A fighter, a champion, has to channel that anger. Roberto Duran was angry, but he was able to direct it into beating his opponent.
The fight was rescheduled for Las Vegas. I was training up in the Catskills. I threw my back out for the first time. I said it was nothing, but it locked. They took me to the hospital for five days, two weeks before the fight. I couldn’t train. I wasn’t going to quit. I go to Vegas, and Tom Jones took me to Keith Kleven. He told me my back was too severe to compete. I would never quit. I could barely walk up to the scale; I was in such pain. I get on the scale at 178. I knew I was over-weight. At that time they weighed you the day of the fight. I went to the sauna and sat there for 2 hours. I am dead; I’m cooked! I have got to fight in a few hours. I went to my room and began eating and drinking to re-hydrate myself. I mean I am not going to give you my title. I knew I had to go 15 rounds.
I am a warrior. My whole crew knew about my back, but no one else. I am fighting July in Vegas. Okay, so the fight is going on and it’s pretty even when I got thumbed. I am not going to say it was intentional. My eye closed shut tight. Hey, I got two eyes. I can’t see the right hand coming. I get knocked down. I hear Cosell counting, “one…two…” I get up at the count of eight. I then proceed to go ballistic. I hear Cosell yelling in his proverbial way, “I have never seen anything like this. What kind of man is he…. This is a dead man, but then again he’s not. I don’t believe what I am seeing.” We went the whole 15 rounds. I am not going to give him my title. Those things happen. I said to Spinks, “God bless you, you are the new champion, but you will always remember me.”
Following that, the WBC proposed an elimination series. I watched my weight, my back was good, and I knocked everybody out.
My brother, Salem, was always in my corner. He died of AIDS. I felt a void. He always worked with me and he kept me focused. He was the life of the party. My brother just got caught and I ran faster than he. I couldn’t be around him all the time. Then I almost got hurt, so I knew it was time. Fighters don’t retire because they have nothing else to do with their time. It’s not the money. My plate is always full.
Eddie Mustafa Muhammad resides in Las Vegas, Nevada where he is a well-known and respected trainer. We had worked with world champions including Iran Barkley and James Toney, and currently Danny Romero. His Professional record was 50 (39 KO’s)-1-8. He was the 1980-81 WBA light-heavyweight Champion.
Look out for Part II: Eddie Muhammad, the Trainer, coming soon.