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The Chosen One
Gary Smith
November 05, 2001
If you've never heard of Zab Judah, who will fight to unify the junior welterweight title this weekend, then you don't know boxing's strangest family saga.
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November 05, 2001

The Chosen One

If you've never heard of Zab Judah, who will fight to unify the junior welterweight title this weekend, then you don't know boxing's strangest family saga.

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The house was rubber-glove spotless. A work sheet hung on the refrigerator, a list of daily tasks with names written beside them. You ascended two flights of stairs and put your suitcase in a tiny attic room. Your room.

You went down to the low-ceilinged basement. A boxing ring had been taped off on the floor, squeezed in amid two heavy bags, a double-end speed bag and a chin-up bar. Gloves and headgear dangled from nails. A gallery of faces stared at you from magazine covers on the wall: Julio César Chávez, Thomas Hearns, Sugar Ray Leonard, Pernell Whitaker.

Another man's face stared from the cellar wall, on a cover of a magazine called Official Karate. Beneath the photo were words that made your heart race: WORLD'S MOST DANGEROUS FIGHTER. The stairs creaked. You looked up. It was the man in the picture. It was Abba.

Your eyes took in the man you'd been yearning for all your life. His clothes hung loosely from his body in the hip-hop fashion of the streets. His ears gleamed with jewelry, and his hair was shorn nearly to his scalp, emphasizing his smooth 36-year-old face and infectious grin. He looked more like your brother than your father. He carried no staff, wore no robe or braids. There had been internal strife at the camp, and he'd left the Israelites, as he'd left the Demo Squad and the Tomahawks.

Somewhere, wandering through the wilderness of Brooklyn, losing his children and regaining them, something had finally seeped into Abba's bones. He no longer needed a tribe. He had his own—the tribe of his loins—and he was going to make his stand with it. How that tribe had grown, how the complications had multiplied.

Take it slowly, now: Joining Ariel, Elishebah, Daniel, Josiah and you were Mikey—a son born six years earlier to Abba and Dinah—and Joseph, a five-year-old whom Dinah had conceived with another man but whom Abba had adopted. Then there was little Yo'el, a newborn whom Abba had fathered with a Brownsville woman whom he'd known during his Israelite days as Tamar. Joining them, in summers, were Yemima's boys Eliada and Katon, who had come to consider Yo'el their father, and sometimes even your cousins Everlasting and Original. And, of course, the stable of boxers your dad had begun training, half of them for free, who all called him Abba. Team Judah, he called his tribe, outfitting diem with two-way radios and jackets emblazoned with the lion's head. When they moved through Brooklyn in a pack, which they did almost compulsively, Abba felt a unity more pure and powerful than any he had known.

Should someone ask him to explain this Judah tree, this is what he'd say: "The Book said, Yo, be fruitful and multiply. The Book was geared to getting seven women and having babies, and that's how you carry on. Sure, it's a tangled family tree, but when anything happens, all the tanglements come untangled and we all come together and we go after the culprit. You have to be a certain way, or the world will destroy you."

Abba's house rules were fierce. Thirsty? Get a drink, wash your glass, dry it and put it away—now. Lapse and you'd find yourself taking over your brother's chores on the work sheet. Grumble and you'd find yourself on the concrete driveway, doing knuckle pushups till your knuckles bled. Disobey and you'd find yourself on the floor from a blow you never saw.

You lived by the Israelite faith and dietary laws, even though you no longer attended camp. On Fridays at sundown you'd all face east, raise your open palms and pray. Abba would open the Old Testament after dinner, read a few pages and interpret the tales. He relished telling you stories of the woe that came to clans that separated, of Abraham leading his men to rescue his kidnapped nephew Lot.

"Your family's like a hand," he'd tell you, holding up his own. "When the fingers spread apart, like this, anything can get in and run through the family—but when it's closed and tight like this, it makes a fist, and nothing can harm it." Abba had you and your brothers write essays to prove you understood, then sent you out on weekend nights with walkie-talkies to protect building materials at properties Yo'el was renovating or was being paid to guard in Brownsville, Crown Heights and Bed-Stuy. You carried a pipe; Daniel, a spiked stick; Ariel, a razor blade. Josiah had teeth. Josiah would bite you.

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