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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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Every afternoon you and your brothers took the train from school to Gleason's, did your homework in a side room, trained under Abba for two or three hours, then returned home for dinner and chores. But that wasn't enough for you, Zab. Abba still talks about that first time, that 3 a.m. when he woke up to a rhythmic thud that bewildered him. He searched downstairs, searched the yard and found nothing. A light in the basement window drew his eye. He crouched and saw you, dancing and ripping furiously at the heavy bag. Still feeling behind, Zab, still the outsider late getting into the game. "Don't worry, Abba," you panted, "I'll be up in time for school." Abba smiled. The dead-of-night second workout became your habit.

You turned 16. The 1994 New York Golden Gloves were approaching. The age of entry was 17, but everything you wanted, Zab, you wanted now. "Please, A-a-a-abba," you begged. "Get me in the Gloves, please, you know I'm ready you gott a get me in the Gloves!"

You wore Abba out. With a dab of Wite-Out and a copying machine, he produced a birth certificate that made you 17, the same as Ariel, who'd also entered the tournament's 139-pound division. With Abba working your corners, you and Ariel chopped down the opposition and reached the semifinals. You won yours. If Ariel could beat a kid named Courtney Ellis, the Judah boys would be declared co-champions, as tournament rules forbade bouts between brothers. Ellis outpointed Ariel. The flock took that personally.

You entered the ring two weeks later, the blood of the lion's fangs in your eyes. "Double bullet!...Cut! ...Stay in the pocket!" yelped Abba from the corner. It was his personal lingo, encoded now in your brain, in your dreams. It meant, "Throw the one-two combo!...Uppercut!...Stay still, make him move, then counter!" Your hands were blurry daggers, stabbing Ellis, then dropping him, and when he tried to respond, your head flitted away like a fly from the flyswatter's wind. You won the Golden Gloves that you were too young to compete in, wrought the tribe's revenge and leaped into your father's arms.

******

Seasons changed. The time of testing came, as Abba had always warned it would. No one in the Book got a free ride. All the big cats got knocked down.

You won the next two New York Golden Gloves, made it all the way to the Box-off of the Olympic trials. If you won there, you'd go on to fight for the gold medal in the 1996 Summer Games and for the million-dollar paydays that went with it. Yet you danced too much that night, Zab. You lost a tight decision to an awkward but persistent fighter named David Diaz, then cried in the bathroom and hid in your room for days. You were back there again, the little boy watching someone else climb into Abba's car. It was an emptiness so large, you vowed you'd never box again.

Remember how Abba came in, sat next to you and used his other weapons, the ones people didn't always see? He was gentle, encouraging. Finally you realized something: that this, like the older hurt, could be turned into fuel. You came out of that room with a stronger, slower-burning resolve.

Smart of you, when you turned pro later in '96, to hook up with the wizened ones, veteran co-managers Lou Duva and Shelly Finkel and trainer Ronnie Shields. Abba trained you at Gleason's, but on fight night he took a step back, became the third man in the corner behind Duva and Shields. Duva, who'd groomed world champions Pernell (Sweet Pea) Whitaker and Evander Holyfield, helped sharpen the defensive wizardry in which Abba had apprenticed you. Duva flew you to Virginia Beach again and again to spar with Whitaker, one of the most elusive men ever to lace up gloves. Sweat Pea came out of the ring saying that fighting you was like fighting himself, and Duva went one step further, comparing you, at a similar stage in development, to Sugar Ray Robinson. "The way Zab moves his head," says Duva, "the quickness, the way he comes at you from all angles and can knock you out with either hand, that's what reminded me of Sugar Ray. Zab against [welterweight] Shane Mosley is the great fight waiting to be made—I really think he could be even better than Mosley. That fight could be like Leonard-Hearns. You wouldn't be able to move your head back and forth fast enough to see the punches coming both ways."

But who noticed? The Olympic failure still cast its shadow, and the men you kept demolishing were unknowns, and that only fueled your impatience to be recognized, to be the chosen one. You couldn't help yourself. Whenever you came near boxing's glare, out came the showman, the hip-hop and hype and arrogance. "Listen, I'm on Venus right now," you crowed to the media early this year. "I'm on another planet. Ain't none of these fighters with me now. None of 'em are on my level."

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