Former junior welterweight and welterweight champion Zab Judah’s been backed into his own corner, a dividing line that separates validation from ruin. Only vindication can allow his transferal from the approaching abyss, his career now so perilously close to being defined as an afterthought, title belts won and lost and yet the general sense of potential diminished by intermittent mediocrity a final legacy. It will not matter if Zab Judah wins fights after Saturday night, unless he wins Saturday night’s fight; boxing means surviving to win and prosper, his particular career of note coming down to a singular challenge. For Zab Judah, Brownsville’s Brooklyn brat, the cycle of his professionalism winds toward meeting the challenge of defeating the nemesis of his mind and time, Floyd Mayweather Jr.
Everyone in boxing contents themselves with the knowledge that Judah and Mayweather do not like one another, though papa Yoel Judah says it’s mostly about business, with some over-the-top talk curdling the mix.
“We are going to do what we do best, which is win… He don’t feel nothin’ for Floyd. Floyd has a big mouth… he don’t hate the man, he’s just goin’ to shut his mouth… I don’t think there’s hate between them, Floyd’s just pushing our buttons. This fight will be remembered 10 years from now… this will be like Katrina, it’s comin’ and you can’t stop it!”
Disdain drips off every other sentence emanating from the two camps. Both think of themselves as artists in a boxing ring, each a phenom, budding music impresarios, fame their game, boxing history their canvas, having been reared in a gym to be the men they are as professional practitioners of the science of boxing. There may be something of Leonard vs. Hearns to Mayweather vs. Judah, though reservations surrounding Judah diminish the exactitude of the parallel. Something of Hearns’ speed injected left lead into flashing right hands with leverage does strike a similar pose. And the vulnerability of the chin to direct contact fronted by a blurring array of offensive quality more completely suggests Judah at least a silhouette to the famous son of Detroit’s Kronk Gym. We leave the comparison there, for your extended consideration. Torn of the same cloth, both Mayweather and Judah are built for creating dynamic ring speed, changing the defensive geometry of the ring with a skip, jabs that sear, body shots that make their mark. Where Judah has met his equals or betters in Kostya Tszyu and Carlos Baldomir, Mayweather has so far escaped championship disaster, even direct threats authored by able foes such as Diego Corrales, Jose Luis Castillo and Jesus Chavez.
Judah believes he’s learned more, knows the other side of glory, which remains a mystery waiting for Mayweather to endure. They know that at their best they bring the bling thing, the sparkling invention of masterful boxing to their best outings. If the measure of the man were confined to athleticism then the differences between the two fighters might be negligible. Indeed, one might perhaps see Judah as being the man with the advantage, insofar as power tends to translate itself at vital moments in major fights, when dispensed by throttling quickness. But the chemistry of this particular matchup will have so many more important compounds.
Many boxing observers wonder about Judah’s ability to compartmentalize his loss to Baldomir in his last outing. “We could fight Baldomir 10 more times and Zab would beat him every time,” was how Yoel Judah explained the rationalization of losing in what amounted to his tune up for Mayweather. And this against a fighter Judah himself was taunting as having been “slapped around by his sparring partners out in LA… some of my homeboys worked him over but good,” taunted the then-welterweight champion. The memory of Judah’s devastating loss to Kostya Tszyu in their 140-pound unification showdown at the MGM Grand in 2001 had been a daunting defeat, a moment of humbling psychological reversal. Though in the lead up to his IBF title shot Judah had been tested in besting hard rock Darryl Tyson. In his IBF title claiming win over Jan Bergmann, Judah had to climb off the deck in the second round to punch out a knockout win in the fourth. But the whispers of Judah’s Terry Norris tendencies for being buzzed before bombarding his way to victory began to define him. Tested as he was in the ring by fighters like Terronn Millett, Zab Judah never failed to take an opportunity to bark at his opponents, cutting below the usual layers comprising the thick skinned boasting that has become part of most big fight media junkets.
How bad did the kid from Brooklyn want to appear to be? Did he really suppose he would define his own space in the culture of championship boxing as a tough guy, a dangerous man in the mold of Mike Tyson, Bernard Hopkins or James Toney? Sometimes we are so keen to make our lives a video we forget that there has to be reality at the heart of living as we dream.
Of course, with all these allusions to Hearns and Norris and even Felix Trinidad, Judah was seen in good company, championed on ESPN by an adoring Max Kellerman. Kellerman went so far as to call into question the stoppage by Tszyu, adjudicated by referee Jay Nady. This against the on-air Showtime assessment of Bobby Czyz at ringside – “It was a good stoppage” – and a point/counterpoint feeling in the press of Judah having been denied by fate, fortune and foolishness, if not the fists of future Hall of Famer Tszyu. Judah’s loss to Tszyu evoked strong feelings of destiny denied as well as a serious failure to launch what so many expected to be a championship career in the 21st Century marked by exceptional performances. Was that assessment of Judah just an illusion that uncritical perception becomes if expectation is unchecked by reason? No, not exactly. For there was about Judah the elements of a unique athletic force, the speed, the rangy boxing, the demolishing hitting power; he was the shape of things hoped for.
Of course, there is the metal of the mind and the absolute need for clinical calculation of boxer-punchers to translate into attacking acumen. Then there is the need of the man to be the real thing, able to leap tall buildings, if you suppose, to ‘wear’ the name “Super” on your trunks. Otherwise you are just calling attention to the self; you are just posing in the place of other men of steel. It has never been the mind of the man which people have criticized with respect to Zab “Super” Judah, but the child raging within. In this era, no other fighter at the top level of world boxing has been called immature more than Zab Judah. His public tantrum in attempting to get in the face of Jay Nady in the moments following that loss Tszyu was perhaps the most officious example.
We note for the record that Mayweather himself was tagged as a classic juvenile ingrate with his labeling HBO’s multi-million dollar contract offering of the late 1990s “slave wages,” an inane expression of discontent. But Judah’s unintended peevishness stems from more than just barbing future opponents. Judah’s characterization of one-knee Sharmba Mitchell as “crying” over the loss to Kostya Tszyu, the first time around, struck many in boxing and fans a like as not merely distasteful but ironic in the extreme given his stool tossing reaction in losing to Tszyu.
Sure… we can pot shot the man, calling his mini-me association with Mike Tyson boxing’s odd couple or cast aspirations about all we want. All that counts is the fight to come and that much of Team Judah have identified correctly. Only taking up the challenge and making an artful war of it will be enough for Judah. We can in one sense dismiss everything that’s ever happened to Judah and think only of the challenge as opportunity nearing. Yet in realizing all that has constituted his career up to this point helps us to understand the silence that has greeted the media and fans from Zab Judah in the weeks leading up to this fight with Floyd Mayweather Jr. The silence has been instructing and suggestive. We do presume that the silence means intensity of training and absolute dedication to the task of his winning. Silence fills us with wonder and sounds out mysteries imperceptible, just past the point of our knowing.
We think we see things so clearly, the matters Mayweather and Judah will be fighting for, as if deliberating upon an eternal question. The truth is we don’t know and cannot calculate perfectly upon the future, even with all the variables and elements known to all. Judah wants us to take his silence these days as a sign of hope and to tell us he has come to believe there remains more than an inconsequential mystery waiting for “Pretty Boy” Floyd. And he’s not kidding.