AS this country is embroiled in a war in Iraq, and with all of its appalling consequences, it’s wrong to liken a simple prize fight at New York City’s Madison Square Garden to the real thing.
But I don’t know what else to call the lacerated lips, swollen-shut eyes, mashed knuckles, jarred brains and battered livers 20,658 people witnessed for a little over 10 rounds, as WBA welter champ Miguel Cotto remained unbeaten – now 30-0 (25) – against a shockingly brave Zab Judah.
The symbolic bit of ribbon the Puerto Rican Cotto and the Brooklyn-bred Judah fought for was far greater than the handsome purses they would receive.
Their gloved fists didn’t so much rip into each other as carve epitaphs by which they hope to be remembered: Here was a warrior… a champion… a hero to his people.
As with any remarkable fight, this one was at once beautiful and gruesome and, ultimately, humbling. It transported you from the everyday and, however briefly, gave you a renewed appreciation of things.
You were grateful to bear witness to these two human beings, who ventured into the unknown and put their lives on the line for our entertainment.
You craned your neck and took in the panorama of rapt faces, all focused on the same thing, all existing in the same moment.
The Big Room at the Garden is now, officially, Cotto’s Casa. This was the third time his promoter Bob Arum had him perform on the eve of the Puerto Rican Day Parade, and I’d say 85 per cent of the crowd was supporting him and not the BK-style Hip Hop love-child in the other corner.
It’s not that Zab doesn’t have a sizeable following, but the Boricua fans are a veritable army.
I was at the Garden when Felix Trinidad made his comeback against Ricardo Mayorga in 2004, which set the benchmark for noise.
The building lifted off its foundation and my ears rang for days as if I’d been to an AC/DC reunion concert and not a fight.
I still think Tito edges Miguel in terms of the ruckus-factor. But I doubt he will when Miguel returns to his home away from home this time next year.
A superstar was born this night, and it required the now 34-5 (25) southpaw, “Super” Zab Judah, to consummate this Immaculate Conception.
Afterwards Cotto would say, “Zab is the best fighter I have ever faced.”
This, despite the fact all three judges gave Judah only two of the 10 completed rounds (the first and the seventh) and he had to be saved by referee Arthur Mercante Jnr at 49 seconds of the 11th.
Regardless, one look at Cotto’s beat-up face and you’d believe him.
No one in Cotto’s brilliantly guided career had possessed Zab’s combination of speed and power. No matter how much punishment to the body and head the Caguas resident doled out, Judah had him dazed and confused in spots – and not just in the early rounds, where most experts believed was Judah’s only chance.
Like a cornered pit bull, Zab was dangerous as long as he had a pulse.
As suspected, Judah (10st 5lbs) demonstrated his prowess early on. In the first he chin-checked Cotto (10st 6 1/2lbs) with a counter left uppercut that landed flush. He followed with some of his blinding signature straight lefts.
Cotto’s legs looked like jelly. About 30 seconds after the initial shot that hurt him, Cotto threw a low blow that sent Zab plummeting to the canvas. Whether it was intentional or not, only the Puerto Rican knows. But he has no history of doing that.
Of course, the shot didn’t tickle, but Zab seemed to be hamming it up as he writhed on the canvas.
Cotto was contrite. And Zab decided to get back to work quickly, eschewing the five-minute break he was allowed to take.
They boxed for most of the second. Towards the end of the round, Cotto began to make his punches count and threw some combinations. Zab’s face betrayed his concern. But then he landed a straight left that stunned Cotto. The Brooklynite suddenly regained his confidence.
Mercante Jnr revealed an odd approach with Judah in the third. When a shot landed near Zab’s kidney and the boxer showed his dismay, the ref chided him: “Stop complaining!”
Apparently edgy because of the fighter’s spotty past, Mercante Jnr repeated like a tic, “Keep it clean, keep it clean.”
But it was another low blow from Cotto that the ref should have been on the lookout for. Mercante Jnr took a point from Cotto. When he attended to Zab – who was reacting theatrically – he said a series of strange things: “You were a champ at one time… shake it off… Can’t win on a disqualification, bro.” (I didn’t make out these comments from ringside but upon watching a recording of the fight).
Judah didn’t take much time to recover. When the boxing resumed they fought with urgency. Zab landed a lot of lefts up top, Cotto stayed on the body.
Between rounds the referee visited Judah’s corner and offered this nugget: “We’re like family here. Let’s keep it clean.”
By the fourth the bloodletting had begun: Cotto from cuts in his mouth, Judah from a gash in the corner of his right eye. Miguel briefly turned southpaw, where he believes he punches even harder. He bulled Zab around the ring, making him look like a rodeo clown.
Cotto proceeded to break him down in the fifth. In the sixth Judah mashed his bald dome into Cotto’s face and opened a serious cut on Miguel’s right brow. Feeling they were now even as far as roughhouse tactics were concerned, the two hugged and made up.
Then Cotto softened him up with sledgehammer jabs and a right hand that knocked him backwards and briefly took away his legs. We were entering Cotto Time – when the bludgeoning is just beginning. With Zab in full retreat, Miguel committed himself to hooks to the body and head.
Zab’s explosive handspeed was still superior, however, and when he let a left (of any variety) go it found its mark. His best moment came in the seventh when, after giving up the first two minutes, he stopped Miguel in his tracks with a blazing left uppercut-right hook. A normal prizefighter would have toppled over. So it had to be disheartening for Judah the way Cotto gathered himself and resumed his advance. What do you do with a will that can’t be broken?
Things got uglier for Judah in the eighth; he took a bad beating. But we saw a moxie that in the past came off as a street punk’s posturing. Yeah, Zab stuck out his tongue, he flexed his biceps and pounded his chest. But he took his lumps when he could have raised the white flag, or, as he’s done several times in the past, gone into meltdown.
And just when you thought he was finished, he’d uncork a left uppercut that would temporarily halt the progress of the armoured tank running him down.
If Zab could only have thrown more punches?!, you might wonder. And if a frog had wings, he wouldn’t bump his ass hopping.
Zab’s right eye closed in the ninth. The thrashing continued, with Cotto working anything that resembled flesh. With a minute left Zab took a knee. Everyone thought he’d stay down, but he got up at eight. Not only did he finish the round, he attacked with hard lefts.
He boxed gamely in the 10th and landed some good stuff, but how it would end was a forgone conclusion.
Cotto’s thwacking blows would fell an elephant over time. His cool, systematic assault has the same effect as termites inhabiting a wooden house. The viscous blood that pooled in his mouth and spilled on to his once white trunks might as well have been a stranger’s problem.
A combination upstairs put Judah down on his back early in the 11th. He got up once again. When the relentless pressure and bombs continued shortly thereafter, and Zab offered no answer, the ref jumped in and put an end to the bloody war.