By Thomas Gerbasi
From a distance, Zab Judah looks like he always has: young, always on the verge of breaking out into a 1000 watt smile or laugh, and ready to take on the world.
Look a little closer these days though, and you can see the lines that come with being 35 years old and having 51 professional fights. That’s what this game can do to you, even if Judah has kept his youthful appearance longer than most.
He’s even kept his standing in the boxing world way beyond what most could ask for, winning several titles in the junior welterweight and welterweight divisions, and remarkably getting another shot at the 140-pound crown just two fights removed from a knockout loss to Amir Khan. For most, that would be a career to rest your head on and smile. Maybe even Judah says to himself that whatever happens against Danny Garcia this Saturday, he’s fought the good fight and left a legacy he could never hang his head over.
But in his hometown of Brooklyn, and extending into the other four boroughs of New York City, there’s always been a sense that Judah could have been something even greater. After Mike Tyson and Riddick Bowe left their mark in the boxing world, “Super” Judah was next. He was the protégé of Tyson and Pernell Whitaker, occasionally with the stopping power of the former and the speed of the latter. He had his defensive shortcomings and lapses of concentration in the ring, but that just made him more exciting to watch. He wasn’t going to blast an opponent out in 30 seconds or shut someone out with defensive wizardry over 12 rounds, but he would show flashes of brilliance that most in the NYC area assumed would flesh out into a more sustained greatness.
It didn’t happen. Yet to show how good Judah has been since turning pro in 1996, even when he wasn’t delivering completely on his talent, he was winning titles and beating quality fighters.
“I've always been an athlete,” said Judah on a recent media teleconference. “Throughout the years, I've never been the type of fighter where I've never done nothing; I've just stopped doing other things so I'm always in good shape. Understand since I was six years old, this is all that I've ever done in life. Boxing has been my only job ever and it's a job that I love and I take pride in. It's almost a gift and a curse. Sometimes we're having talents and skills and that allowed me not to train as hard as I should have trained for certain fights, and I paid the consequences on that. But at times when I did stepped in there and I did put 100% work in, it always came out with flying colors.”
Those moments were too few and far between, at least for a hard to please New York fight crowd that expected him to not just do big things for himself, but to lead a fighting renaissance in a city that was always a major fight town. And for a while, there were a ton of promising talents calling the city home: Jaidon Codrington, Curtis Stevens, Gary Stark Jr., Paulie Malignaggi, Luis Collazo, Yuri Foreman, and several other hot prospects got fans here excited again, not just because of their talent, but because of their personalities and back stories. When they fought, you cared.
But as Judah suffered disappointment after disappointment - losing to Kostya Tszyu, getting suspended after that fight, getting upset at home by Carlos Baldomir, imploding in a subsequent bout with Floyd Mayweather, and looking to be at the end of the road in a 2008 loss to Joshua Clottey - his fall seemed to mirror that of the New York fight scene. Judah and Malignaggi went out west, the legendary sparring sessions at Gleason’s Gym weren’t the sole domain of top level pros, outside of Lou DiBella and Joe DeGuardia no promoters were putting on consistent club shows, and the area wasn’t producing the type of pros that it always had.
But in boxing, a name like Judah is seemingly always one win away from redemption, and in late 2009 he began to rise again, winning four straight with victories over Lucas Matthysse and Kaizer Mabuza, the latter win giving him the vacant IBF junior welterweight title. Finally, he told us, he had figured things out, was focused, and was going to fulfill all the expectations everyone had for him. Then he ran into someone faster than he was in Amir Khan, and a fifth round knockout loss resulted.
Yet as the eulogies rolled in for Judah’s stay at the top of the boxing world, he would eventually find himself in a title elimination bout against 26-0 Vernon Paris in March of last year, and he won – impressively at that – stopping his opponent in the ninth round. Sure, he didn’t deserve a title eliminator or a title shot, but he got one. And in a career that is closing in on the end of its nine lives, this is another opportunity that we in New York City will be holding our collective breath for.
Danny Garcia is no joke. 25-0, two wins over Erik Morales, the most recent a devastating fourth round KO last October, and if you believe in boxing math, Garcia holds a fourth round TKO win over the man who stopped Judah in five, Amir Khan. More importantly, his talent is aided by a growing confidence that not only does he belong at the top of the 140-pound weight class, but that no one can seriously challenge him, let alone Judah. But Garcia will take that challenge and another big name for his resume before moving on to what he expects to be bigger and even more important fights.
No fight is more important for Judah though. Despite boxing’s willingness to forgive and embrace a comeback, even the sanctioning bodies would find it hard to pop Judah into another title fight should he get beaten soundly by Garcia. And then what? Retire? Not likely. But to win, to take another world title, and to do it in his backyard of Brooklyn at Barclays Center, would there be any better Cinderella story?
Of course, Judah’s been here before, when he beat Cory Spinks for the welterweight crown in 2005, and the subsequent homecoming was a triumphant and memorable one. He was 27 then, still in his prime, and still with the world ahead of him. Today, he’s 35, starting to show the wear of years in the fight game on his face, and he’s the B-side on the bout sheet to a rising star younger, stronger, and more powerful than he is. It’s a position no ultra-talent ever thinks he’ll be in, but inevitably they almost all do. And who knows how Judah is really responding to it. This week alone he’s gotten into public verbal battles with Garcia’s father / trainer Angel and promoter Oscar De La Hoya, making you wonder if his focus is where it should be.
It’s the question before every Judah fight, and he knows it.
“I just think that my mindset is different right now and I know it and I know certain things that I do and choose to do,” he said. “People always say, and the fans have said it for years, is that with that focus, nobody can beat him. I think that finally I made it to that peak in life right now.”
It’s the perfect storm. Judah. A world title. Brooklyn. Finally fulfilling his potential in what could be his last shot at the belt.
“It would mean a lot,” said Judah. “We're in Brooklyn; the city needs a great champion. It needs somebody to stand up for the city. Brooklyn once reigned in the early 80s and the early 90s with Mike Tyson, and now Zab Judah is gonna come back in and take over again.”
It’s a Hollywood story played out on the corner of Atlantic and Flatbush, and one that New York boxing could use. But who would have thought that it would be Zab Judah rising from the ashes to possibly pull it off? Not anyone who put him in with Danny Garcia. He does have a message for the young champion though.
“He’s going to sleep,” said Judah. “Welcome to Brooklyn.”