Commentary

Camden Buzzsaw tore through competition in the ring as well as the streets

While his contemporaries were fine-tuning their skills in the amateur circuit, Dwight Muhammad Qawi was developing his game on the streets of Camden, N.J., writes William Dettloff.

Originally Published: June 13, 2008
By William Dettloff | Special to ESPN.com

Of the many remarkable things about the career of former light heavyweight and cruiserweight champion Dwight Muhammad Qawi, the most remarkable may be the fact that he learned to fight the old-fashioned way -- in the streets.

We've grown accustomed to many of our stars turning pro after long, glittering amateur careers that include national Golden Gloves titles, international competition, maybe the Olympics.

Shane Mosley, Oscar De La Hoya, Floyd Mayweather, Antonio Tarver, Wladimir Klitschko and Miguel Cotto, to name just a few, all learned their craft as celebrated amateurs and have the trophies and medals to prove it.

Qawi's contemporaries in the 1980s had solid amateur experience. A middleweight Michael Spinks won a gold medal at the storied 1976 Olympics in Montreal. Eddie Mustafa Muhammad won two New York Golden Gloves championships. Matthew Saad Muhammad had 29 amateur fights.

Qawi?

"I learned to fight on the streets in Camden [N.J.]," he told ESPN.com. "Me and my brother Tony used to box, like a lot of people in the street. They didn't play with guns or knives in those days -- they were good with their hands. I also had a couple stints in jail and you have to be able to handle yourself in there. Guys boxed in there and hit the bags, but there was no 'program.' I had no amateur career. But I was undefeated in the street."

The streets taught him well.

Qawi (formerly Dwight Braxton) was a light heavyweight champion in the division's glory days, beating, among others, Johnny Davis, Mike Rossman, Saad Muhammad, James Scott, Jerry Martin and Eddie Davis.

If that's not a Murderer's Row of 175-pounders, it's close.

"These guys paddling around today as champions wouldn't have been in the top 10 in our day, maybe the top 20," Qawi said, and you can forgive him for sounding like any fighter does when he compares his era to another. He earned the right. "Guys like [light heavyweight contenders] Jesse Burnett and Yaqui Lopez would be champions. Marvin Johnson, too. He was a like a pit bull."

Qawi won the WBC light heavyweight title with a stoppage win over fan favorite Saad Muhammad and made three defenses. After losing a close decision to Spinks in a title unification bout, he moved up to cruiserweight, won a world title there, and gained a measure of revenge by knocking out Michael Spinks' brother, Leon, in a title defense.

[+] EnlargeMuhammad Qawi
AP Photo/Kevin RivoliDwight Muhammad Qawi, far left, was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2004.
There was supposed to be a rematch with Michael, but Qawi's father was murdered before it could happen and a distraught Qawi asked to reschedule. "They got mad and said he'd never fight me again, and he never did," he said.

Today, Qawi works as a drug and alcohol counselor not far from where he grew up. He has a unique qualification for the job: He is a recovering addict himself.

"I had those troubles toward the end of my career," he said. "Addiction is a disease. I didn't know it at the time. It took years to learn. Now I haven't had a drink in 17 or 18 years. But it was hard. Addiction affects every aspect of your life. So today I try to help other people."

Qawi, who was inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame in 2004, said it started innocently enough -- someone offered him a drink at a party after one of his fights. Alcohol took hold of him. Toward the end of his career, he was drinking every day, in training or not. That's reflected in his record: Five of the losses in his 41-11-1 (25 KOs) record came in his last 14 fights.

The final real highlight was his 15-round split decision loss to Evander Holyfield in 1986, one of the great battles of the era and arguably the greatest fight ever at cruiserweight. After that it was all downhill, and Qawi blames the people who were around him when he finally got a rematch in 1987.

"That was the low point," he said. "I was very depressed with the people I was with at the time. The promoter was all about Holyfield. I was really stressed out, really experiencing the politics of boxing. They put me on the shelf for a year after the first fight. I wanted to fight again right away but they put me on the shelf. Then [for the rematch] they offered him $1 million and me $75,000."

Evander Holyfield and Dwight Muhammad Qawi
AP Photo/Charles KellyThe final highlight of Qawi's career came in 1986 when he dropped a 15-round split decision to Evander Holyfield, left.
He took the short money but knew he wasn't there mentally.

"I was so depressed at the time and drinking heavily," Qawi said. "I drank more because I was angry. That's how addiction is -- you progress. When I trained for the second Holyfield fight I was so depressed, I didn't want to do anything; it seemed like everything was against me. I was feeling real defeated and I didn't have the support of the people I was paying -- my management."

Holyfield nailed him in the fourth round and Qawi, whose jaw was legendary, went down and stayed down.

"I just knew I wasn't in shape and I waved it off. I didn't care," he said.

Qawi was born in Baltimore but moved to the roughest part of Camden, N.J., as a child. Before he knew it he was fighting every day. He was in and out of correctional facilities, and eventually did four years at Rahway State Prison in New Jersey for an armed robbery conviction.

He was released in 1978 and immediately turned pro. His big break came when he was chosen to participate in a tournament on ESPN. "The Camden Buzzsaw" tore through his opponents. Soon after that, he was beating Rossman, Scott, and then Saad Muhammad for the title. He recalls the rematch with Muhammad, which Qawi won in the sixth round, as the high point of his career.

"That was a great year," he said. "I couldn't do anything wrong. I felt real good and blew him out. I was just so sharp. I remember Sugar Ray Leonard saying, while doing the commentary, 'He gets better with every fight.' And he was right -- I was. That was a great fight for me."

Today, the demands of Qawi's job prevent him from being more involved in the game that clearly is still dear to him.

"I miss boxing," he said. "It was just having the desire and love for it. Boxing is a skill. People like that ultimate fighting [mixed martial arts], but boxing is a skill. It's so competitive, but in a clean way, compared to other stuff you see on TV.

"I work in the evenings so I haven't had time to work with kids [in the gym]. But I feel remiss that I haven't given back to the game like I wanted to. I learned my skill well."

He certainly did -- even if that education came in the streets.

The Ring's senior writer William Dettloff co-wrote the book "Box Like The Pros" with Joe Frazier.