By Keith Idec
Pernell Whitaker wasn’t always pleased with the boxers he has trained since the Hall-of-Fame fighter retired nearly 10 years ago.
When you’re one of the best who has ever done something, sometimes those that aren’t as talented nor as quick to learn what you’ve long known make you lose your patience. That’s why star athletes often fail to make the best managers in baseball, coaches in basketball, football and hockey and, in almost all cases, the best trainers in boxing.
Five weeks into it, however, Whitaker’s working relationship with Zab Judah has left both men pretty pleased.
It has helped, of course, that Judah idolized Whitaker when Judah was an amateur champion and Whitaker was still considered one of the top pound-for-pound boxers in the world. Their friendship grew stronger once Judah signed in 1996 with Main Events, the Totowa, N.J., promotional company that represented Whitaker throughout his illustrious career from 1984-2001.
But business is business, and Whitaker wants to seem immediate dividends on their professional partnership.
Whitaker will have a better idea of just how much Judah has absorbed in a Las Vegas boxing gym after March 5. That’s when Judah (40-6, 27 KOs, 2 NC) will square off against South Africa’s Kaizer Mabuza (23-6-3, 14 KOs) in a 12-round main event for the vacant IBF junior welterweight title at Prudential Center’s AmeriHealth Pavilion in Newark, N.J. (pay-per-view; $29.95; prucenter.com for tickets).
“It’s been a phenomenal [five] weeks so far with Zab,” Whitaker, 47, said. “He’s been looking me right in the eye because he wants to know these things. He wants to get it down right. So now I’m gonna put all those things together — the finesse, the speed and the power — that he does have. I want to put all three of those things together into one and let him work it out March 5th. What you’re gonna get this time is some good boxing, some great defense and a good jab.”
Judah, who was billed by Main Events patriarch Lou Duva early in his career as Whitaker with more power, has been a terrific offensive fighter for much of his decade-and-a-half as a professional prizefighter. Though they’re both left-handed, with superior hand and foot speed, Judah’s inconsistent defense hasn’t consistently evoked memories of Whitaker, a former three-division champion and one of the best defensive fighters in the history of the sport.
Whitaker also wants this more mature, experienced Judah to continue avoiding the concentration lapses that have hurt him in some of the biggest bouts of his career.
“All he has to do is stay focused,” Whitaker said. “He’s transformed into something totally different than I’ve seen in old Zab. He’s a new father, he has a beautiful family, he’s into his church thing and his religion. He’s just more settled down than the Zab that I’ve seen in the past. When he boxes the way he knows how to box, I can’t see nobody in this division out-boxing Zab.”
They certainly cannot see Mabuza out-boxing Judah next week, even though Mabuza beat former WBO junior welterweight champ Kendall Holt almost a year ago in Atlantic City. After speaking with Holt, a friend for many years, Judah believes that one-sided, six-round fight was more a reflection of what was wrong with a listless, uninspired Holt that night than what was right with the rugged Mabuza, a 14-1 underdog who became the IBF’s No. 1 contender at 140 pounds by defeating Holt (26-4, 14 KOs) at Bally’s Events Center last Feb. 27.
Judah assures his critics that he isn’t overlooking Mabuza. He learned an invaluable lesson by not taking Argentina’s Carlos Baldomir seriously five years ago in The Theater at Madison Square Garden, and claims he won’t make that major mistake again.
The Brooklyn-bred former New York Golden Gloves champ is just confident from the quality time he has spent with Whitaker.
“I want everyone to see how a great fighter can take another great fighter,” Judah said, “and make him into an even greater fighter. It’s a major step for me, to capture another world title and to move up in my quest to the Hall of Fame.”
Judah, 33, won world titles at 140 pounds twice and knocked out Cory Spinks to win the IBF, WBA and WBC welterweight titles six years ago.
Still, his Hall-of-Fame credentials are at the very least debatable. That’s something his legendary trainer would like to help him change over the next couple years.
“You can’t even imagine the feelings I’m having right now about this kid,” Whitaker said. “He’s like a student all over again. It’s like re-teaching the guy some of the best things about himself. Nobody probably knows better than me, other than his father, about his fight game. It’s been easy for me to give him the transformation to do all the things I know he can do very well, and to please the crowd.”
Judah didn’t exactly please the crowd during his last fight, a 12-round split-decision defeat of previously unbeaten Argentinean Lucas Matthysse on November 6 in Newark. Judah survived a 10th-round knockdown to out-point Matthysse (28-1, 26 KOs) on two of the three scorecards (114-113, 114-113, 113-114), but the perceived underachiever did little to boost his stock among those that watched a fight that lacked action either live at Prudential Center or on HBO.
That performance prompted him to work with Whitaker.
Judah has been trained by his father, Yoel, throughout his 14-year pro career. It usually doesn’t work wonders when fighters change trainers once they’ve reached this stage of a career, but Judah’s immense respect for Whitaker has made him try to adapt to Whitaker’s teachings.
“Training with Pernell, it’s about what the man brings to the table,” Judah said. “It’s about what the man has done in this game of boxing. He’s just pouring out his skills onto another fighter. I’m the guy that can take it all in and make it come full circle. This is going to be a great ride.”
Judah already senses that Whitaker is happy he left his hometown of Norfolk, Va., for a while to try training a world-class fighter.
“Now he’s more settled in his life and he decided that he wants to pass on his skill,” Judah said. “I think he’s gone through a substantial amount of fighters and I think he finally found the fighter he’s been looking for. The chemistry is there and it’s great. I call it God-given.”
Keith Idec covers boxing for The Record and Herald News, of Woodland Park, NJ., and BoxingScene.com.