By Jake Donovan
If there was any questioning Kathy Duva’s intentions of presenting a quality product for her ‘Fight Night’ series on NBC Sports Network, look no further than the debut of ‘Fight Night 36: Zab Judah.’
Two months after being forced to salvage the inaugural ‘NBC Sports Network Fight Night’ card in January, all systems are go for this weekend’s show at the Aviator Sports Complex in Brooklyn. The entire show remains intact, in particular its main event as Judah – 17 years into his pro career – fights for the first time in the borough of his birth as he takes unbeaten Vernon Paris.
Judah (41-7, 28KO) reflected on this and several other matters during the 30 minute special which debuted Wednesday evening.
The ‘36’ in the title represents the 36-hour period spent shadowing the show’s principle subject. With this in mind, we saw Judah training in new home of Las Vegas, enjoying time spent with his family and camp members.
It was a different side than what most fans last – and best – remember of the transplanted New Yorker, whose career comes with mixed reviews.
Some view the former amateur standout as wasted potential who never quite lived up to the ‘Pernell Whitaker with power’ sales pitch. Others point to his glaring shortcomings as proof that he actually overachieved, enjoying four separate title reigns in two weight classes and never shying away from a challenge, even when outsized by the majority of his competition while at welterweight.
Forever the fighter, Judah’s opinion of himself remains exceedingly high, of the belief that he’s still among the sport’s pound-for-pound best when most will argue those days came and went years ago. Still, if you’re going to continue fighting, there’s nothing wrong with believing you’re still the best. After all, nobody trying to win a fight goes in believing they’re going to lose.
With that in mind, ‘Fight Night 36’ offered – in stunning production value - a more mature version of Judah than the immature and pampered fighter to which most have witnessed over the course of a career touching three separate decades.
Long gone is the immaturity and sense of entitlement that proven offputting to a legion of boxing fans. That version is replaced by the family-oriented adult who prefers serenity to insanity.
“Living in Las Vegas you going to run into a lot of situations, but it’s all about making choices,” Judah commented during the broadcast, in an interview coupled with the backdrop of being approached in a family restaurant by two local ladies seeking his attention.
Over the course of the show, the cameras took us inside Judah’s training camp though only showing workouts and padwork. They followed Judah and his team to the bowling alley, which the fighter described as ideal bonding time for those who always have his back.
“When I go to war, I’m going in with my team. I figured I might as well have fun with them too.”
Judah came off as likeable over the course of the show, but two scenes in particular accurately displayed the long odyssey from star in the making to a named fighter facing his last chance.
The first saw Judah doing roadwork in the mountains 17,000 feet above the Vegas strip. The scene was in stark contrast to the hectic grind that comes with a left spent in New York, prior to his migration to the Southwest a few years ago.
“You get a clear mind of everything that’s going on,” Judah noted with the Nevada mountains serving as a picturesque backdrop. “I’ve been a pro since ’96. It’s 2012 now. That’s… a lot of years.”
A lot has been accomplished in all those years, though also featuring a considerable fall from grace. Still, it’s the fond memories of his days at the top that keep the newfound God-fearing, happy-go-lucky version of Judah motivated to prove his critics wrong these days while going up against a young lion in Vernon Paris.
“To be known as one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world is a great feeling. To hear people say that, it gets my blood pumping. I hear all the other stuff, too. ‘He’s finished, he’s garbage, he’s washed up.’ But what do you know? I feel great.”
The other image was of Judah riding in a car while recalling the life he once knew during his years spent on the East Coast – Brooklyn in particular.
“Any college in the world can’t pay for the knowledge I learned in Brooklyn. It was a free tuition but I paid the price.”
The street knowledge Judah obtained through the years allows him to empathize with the fighter standing across the ring on Saturday evening. Paris grew up on the mean streets of the Detroit, never truly abandoning them until getting shot and stabbed in separate incidents a year apart.
Though in paraphrasing an old saying, you can remove a person from the element but can never quite remove the element from that person. Paris still carries it hard to this day, though fully cognizant that boxing is his everything.
In Judah, the 24-year old sees a name fighter ripe for the taking, the proverbial steppingstone as he marches on to bigger and better things in the sport.
Normally, Judah would never ask a fighter to carry it any other way. All he asks is for his opponent to not leave the ring disappointed when things don’t go as planned by night’s end.
“What Vernon Paris is trying to get to, I’ve done that,” Judah says. “I understand his whole mentality going into this fight. He wants that championship. That day for him will come, just not right now.”
The lingering question heading into Saturday night, however, is whether or not that day will once again come for Judah. With another crossroads bout taking place in Houston at the same time and in the same division, some wonder whether or not a changing of the guard will also take place here.
Judah often speaks about what he plans to achieve, but has yet to truly reveal how. The saying goes that every great fighter has one more great performance left in him. What the saying doesn’t properly address, though, is whether or not that great moment has already come and gone.
So the question remains whether Judah can turn back the clock, or if his 5th round knockout loss to Amir Khan last summer was in fact the beginning of the end.
Judah doesn’t pay the negative talk any mind, instead of the belief that – much like fine wine – he continues to mentally and physically get better with time.
“The only reason people think I’m old is because they’ve been hearing my name for a long time. I turned pro at 18 and world champion at 21. He’s still here 17 years later? Yeah I’m here.”
Even if Judah is not ‘here’ beyond Saturday night, at least a more flattering version of his story had the chance to be told.
For those who missed it, replays of ‘Fight Night 36: Zab Judah’ air at the following days and times (all ET): Thursday, 3/22 at 11:30PM; Friday, 3/23 at 9:30AM and 7:30PM; and then fight night itself on Saturday, 3/24 at 6:00PM and 9:30PM as the lead-in to the fight card, which airs at 10:00PM.
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of Boxingscene.com. Follow Jake on Twitter: @JakeNDaBox or submit questions/comments to [email protected] .