By Thomas Gerbasi
My favorite Zab Judah story has nothing to do with anything he’s done in the ring over the course of his rollercoaster 14 year pro career, or even an instance when he was dealing with the media in an official capacity to promote a fight.
Instead, it took place in a ballroom in New York City, far away from the bright lights of Vegas that will shine on him this Saturday when he takes on Amir Khan in a junior welterweight title unification fight.
There was a local fight promotion putting on an event that night in 2002. It was the type of club show that had been dying a slow death in the Big Apple Judah grew up in, and it didn’t help that group after group of fight game “celebrities” walked up to the ticket table, announced their presence, and walked into the ballroom without even an attempt at reaching into their pockets as the sheepish employees bit their collective tongue.
Enter Judah, a Brooklyn favorite who has captivated the city’s fight scene since his amateur days. By this time though, he had already tasted the bitterness of defeat for the first time, having been stopped in two rounds by Kostya Tszyu in their 2001 bout. It was a humbling situation made even worse by a post-fight outburst that saw Judah put his hands on referee Jay Nady and toss a ring stool in protest of the stoppage. So to say that Judah wasn’t riding high at the moment would have been quite the understatement.
He arrived at the venue with at least ten people, and the ticket takers, having already admitted lesser stars in the boxing constellation into the venue for free, wondered how they would deal with what would almost certainly be another request for freebies. Judah strolled up to the table, asked how much tickets were, and when he was told the price, he turned, waved from side to side and while reaching into his wallet, said that he would take tickets for the whole group.
It was a show of class that few would have noticed, and even fewer would have made mention of. It has stuck with me for years, along with Judah shaking hands with my then seven year old daughter as he held his own child.
So when Judah would lose fights he never should have lost against Carlos Baldomir or Joshua Clottey, or when he would get into situations outside the ring that made you shake your head and wonder when he would finally put it all together, I didn’t turn a blind eye completely, but I did squint a little.
See, Judah was supposed to be one of the greats, and he was blessed with the speed, power, and ring knowledge to live up to one of his early boasts that he was going to be “the best that ever did it.” He also had a childlike grin, a fun personality when he wanted to, and the charisma that would allow him to crossover like no New York boxer had in years.
But for some, that ship sailed between rounds one and two of the Tszyu fight, when Judah went off the rails after a strong first round and forgot everything he had been taught by his father and trainer Yoel. As he told me after the fight, “I got real cocky. My father was telling me to keep my hands up, keep boxing, keep moving. And I was going in there saying, ‘It’s over.’ I’m going in there to take this guy out.”
Less than three minutes later, Judah was stopped, losing his title and his unbeaten record in the process. Unfortunately, it was the classic modern era case of a fighter being written off after one loss. But Judah wouldn’t go away. He couldn’t. Boxing was his life, and one way or another, even if only in glimpses, he would show the talent that everyone had seen from the first time he was thrust into the spotlight.
So while he would do just enough to win pedestrian bouts over the likes of DeMarcus Corley and Rafael Pineda, then would come fights like his rematch with Cory Spinks for the welterweight title in 2005, when he delivered the defining victory of his career, stopping his foe in the ninth round.
After one successful defense, Judah should have been thrown to the scrap heap after he gave away his title to Baldomir, but amazingly, he was instead rewarded with a bout against Floyd Mayweather. Again he lost, and again he was suspended by the Nevada State Athletic Commission, this time for a blatant low blow followed by a rabbit punch that incited a mini-brawl in the ring between the two camps.
Even Judah’s staunchest defenders had to cringe. As Paul Sorvino said to Ray Liotta in Goodfellas, “Now I’ve got to turn my back on you.”
A loss to Miguel Cotto in 2007 would follow his suspension, and it was one made even more heartbreaking by the fact that he rocked Cotto and nearly pulled off the upset before getting victimized by low blows that gave the Boricua Bomber time to recover a la Felix Trinidad. When the bout resumed, Judah’s window closed, and he took some hellacious blows before being stopped in the 11th round.
Yet as his boxing career seemingly began to die, the fans’ love affair with him was resurrected. A 2008 loss to Joshua Clottey was a disappointment, but beginning with his second round finish of journeyman Ubaldo Hernandez, he began an improbable comeback. He re-signed with his original promoter Main Events, which made him a local attraction again with his fights in Newark, New Jersey’s Prudential Center, he moved to Las Vegas, settled down, and even brought in Hall of Famer and mentor Pernell Whitaker to train him.
In March, he became a world champion again with a seventh round TKO of Kaizer Mabuza, and his current five fight winning streak is his longest since his 27-0, 1 NC run leading into the Tsyzu bout in 2001. And while he still has defensive flaws and lapses in concentration, he has also retained his power and speed.
For a top-flight junior welterweight, his age of 33 may spell the beginning of the end, but Judah has returned from the dead so many times it would be pure folly to write him off again, like many have before Saturday’s bout with Khan.
And why not? Khan is younger, perhaps faster, and he has enough pop to make Judah pay for any mistakes. He’s also shown his toughness in rebounding from the first and only loss of his career – a knockout at the hands of Breidis Prescott – and is seemingly destined for the same stardom in the United States that he already enjoys in his native England.
But Judah’s a survivor. It wasn’t the role he was ever expected to take when he was tearing through his early opposition. Back then, like his hero Mike Tyson, he was seen as a front runner, one who would terrorize you for a few rounds, but if you were able to push back and force him into deep water, you would win. Even worse, in those early rounds, Judah’s chin seemed more susceptible than it would be later in fights. So to see him still here and still relevant, it shows a depth of character many didn’t think he had. It’s almost like that night in New York in 2002.
So while the old boasts of “champ of the world forever,” and “the best that ever did it,” don’t apply anymore, adding Khan’s WBA title belt to his trophy case wouldn’t be a bad substitute in 2011.