Khan fight is Judah’s last shot at the top
US boxing expert Kevin Iole says that Zab Judah's fight with Amir Khan represents the American's last shot at the top.
A small crowd of about 100 onlookers has gathered in the lobby of the posh Mandalay Bay Hotel & Casino to see what the fuss is about, as photographers rush toward a limousine that sidles up to the front door.
Boxer Zab Judah emerges with a group of six or seven men. There is no shouting, as there often is at these staged “arrival” ceremonies. Judah is scheduled to fight British star Amir Khan in the hotel’s events center on Saturday in a 140-pound title unification bout being broadcast on HBO; promoters are desperate to drum up some interest and sell a few tickets.
As boxing entrances go, this one is fairly dignified. There is no ear-splitting music. Judah isn’t adorned head to toe with bling. He smiles wanly, his son at his side, as a fan shouts “Super Judah!” As the photographers click away, Judah briefly raises his index finger before quietly ascending onto a small stage, where a gaggle of television reporters await him.
Judah is a 33-year-old man with a long, notorious history in Las Vegas. In 2001, when he was just 24, he was loud, boastful and arrogant as he entered the MGM Grand to prepare to fight Kostya Tszyu for the undisputed 140-pound championship. Judah not only was knocked out in the second round that night, but he lost his cool when the bout was stopped. He shoved his gloved fist into referee Jay Nady’s throat and, in a fit of rage, hurled a stool.
For that, the Nevada Athletic Commission suspended him for six months and fined him $75,000.
Five years later, he returned to Las Vegas for another massive fight. This time, he was facing Floyd Mayweather Jr., widely recognized at the time as the sport’s best pound-for-pound fighter, for a welterweight belt.
Judah was doing surprisingly well in the early going, and there was a palpable sense in the arena that a massive upset was brewing. Inexplicably, though, Judah seemed to lose his composure as Mayweather increased the pressure. In the 10th round, as Mayweather trainer Roger Mayweather entered the ring to complain about a foul, Judah’s father, Yoel – who was his trainer – entered the ring and fired a punch at Roger Mayweather.
A wild brawl ensued, with Zab Judah gleefully getting involved. All the while, Floyd Mayweather Jr. moved to a neutral corner, calmly avoiding the brawl while waiting for order to be restored.
For Zab Judah’s role in that, Nevada boxing officials smacked him with a $250,000 fine and revoked his boxing license.
Judah now lives in Las Vegas. He said he’s converted from Judaism to Christianity and told an interviewer that one of the reasons he moved to the city is because of the large number of churches there.
“I came to Vegas to party and have fun and I wound up living here,” Judah said. “I realized I needed to change my life and the way I was going. To do that, I had to find God. It’s funny, but a lot of people ask how I serve God while living in Sin City, but I can do a great job of it. This city is not all about gambling and clubs and what is going on at The Strip. The secret here is that there are more churches per capita in Las Vegas than in any other city in the U.S.”
That’s an old wives’ tale, but the point is that Zab Judah 2.0 at least knows where the churches are located. A few years ago, he would have been hard-pressed to provide directions to anything besides the town’s hottest night clubs and strip joints.
He’s trying to resurrect a career in the 11th hour because, despite all his physical skills – the fast hands, the quick feet, the powerful punches – he’s repeatedly come up short in his biggest fights.
Judah was blasted by Tszyu in his bid for the undisputed title. He was outboxed by Mayweather. He was battered by Miguel Cotto. He was outworked by Joshua Clottey. He was outslicked by Cory Spinks.
Ten years after the debacle with Tszyu, the roles are, in a way, reversed. It’s Khan who is 24 and filled with promise, looking to unify titles and ascend the pound-for-pound rankings. It’s Judah who is the veteran hoping to remain relevant and extend his career.
Judah has always been able to talk a good game, and he hasn’t changed in that regard. He’s kept up a war with Khan on Twitter and he’s played his share of mind games with the 2004 Olympic silver medalist. On a recent conference call, Judah refused to speak to British reporters because he isn’t getting a cut of the revenues coming out of the United Kingdom.
Seeking to create doubt in Khan’s mind, he’s tried to cast the fight as a battle of wills as well as a battle of skills.
“[Saturday’s bout] is about this: What can you bring as far as your skills?” Judah asked. “What can you bring as far as your brains? What can you bring as far as your knowledge of boxing? What do you do when you look across that ring and there’s a hungry lion named Zab ‘Super’ Judah looking you dead in the eye, anxious for the bell to go ‘Bing!’? You either fold or you play cards. Me? I’m going to play to win.”
Khan is a 5-1 favorite, which is more a sign of bettors’ disdain for Judah than it is for any deeply held belief in Khan. Judah’s skills are obvious, but so, too, is his history of checking out when the going gets rough.
He’s over that, he insists. Judah swears he’s a new man, personally and professionally. He told a group of reporters that if they searched the Internet for his name, they’d find not only stories detailing his boxing career, but plenty of street fights and brawls. With a young son parked next to him, clutching one of his title belts, Judah shook his head.
“That happens to a lot of us when we’re young,” he said. “I’m sorry for those situations, but I’m moving forward now.”
He knows that a loss would probably end his shot at any more big fights – and bring the big paydays to a halt. He’s got six children and, he’ll tell anyone who will listen, a newfound commitment to living life right. And so, he’s trying to position himself as somewhat of an elder statesman.
Judah praised Khan for accepting his challenge but said Khan’s bravado will ultimately be his undoing.
“Amir Khan deserves a lot of credit and he’s shown great heart, putting his world title on the line in a major fight against someone like me,” Judah said. “But this is a gamble for him. He’s good – real good, one loss – but I have more knockouts than he has had fights. He’s like I was when I was in my early 20s: a guy who believes he can beat anybody.
“But this is going to be a bit of a chess match here. They have made a mistake where they have moved their piece on the board. They may have pushed him too far forward and they’re going to find out they’ve sacrificed their queen.”
Khan, though, has the benefit of youth and time on his side. He can absorb a loss and still get back to the top. Judah has been around for 15 years and is in his 19th title fight. He’s had chance after chance after chance. This is probably his last one.
If he doesn’t do it this time, he’ll be checkmated.
Fortunately, as he points out, Las Vegas has plenty of churches. He has the time to find one before the fight and spend a few moments reflecting in solitude about the significance of the fight and his need to raise his game when the stakes are highest.
He says he’s a different Zab Judah. This is his last chance to prove it.