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The burning heart of Zab Judah

Zab Judah
Action Images/Andrew Couldridge
Thomas Gerbasi tracks down Zab Judah, 41 years old and on the comeback trail, to find out why he is finding it so hard to say goodbye

STAY in anything long enough and the details of the past start to fade from memory. Some things you don’t forget, though.

August, 2000. Zab Judah is 22 years old, 23-0 as a pro and the IBF light-welterweight champion of the world. Already making headlines in his native New York, his profile was rapidly rising on the international scene and he knew it. A win over former champ Terron Millett would move him closer to a dream fight with fellow titleholder Kostya Tszyu, and a victory there would complete “Super” Judah’s coronation as boxing’s latest superstar.

But first was Millett, and Judah wasn’t giving out predictions, but he did promise something special.

“I’ve got no predictions, but August 5 is going to be a great night,” he said.  “I’m going to give the world what they want to see. That’s Zab Judah, the best that ever did it.” 

Best that ever did it. Judah defeated Millett that night in Connecticut, rising from the deck to halt his opponent in four rounds. Fast forward nearly 19 years. Judah is 41 years old, 44-9 with 2 No Contests as a pro and a former world titlist in two weight classes. And he’s still fighting, currently in camp for a June 7 meeting with Cletus Seldin. So is that “best that ever did it” guy still there?

“That guy is burning,” said Judah. “He hasn’t been out in a while. And that fire inside of me is waiting to be released. I cut a hole in my chest and I let him out.”

zab judah
Joe Camporeale/USA Today Sports

It’s what you expect to hear from anyone still lacing on the gloves and hoping for another run at glory. But Judah has never been like his peers. There was always supposed to be something more, something great, something special. And that was primarily in New York, where the Brooklyn native was tasked with bringing back the glory days to the city in the early part of the new millennium.

He was the leader of a crop that included Paulie Malignaggi, Luis Collazo, Curtis Stevens, Yuri Foreman, Dmitry Salita and Jaidon Codrington. In hindsight, it may have been the last golden age for New York boxing. Being the poster child for that movement couldn’t have been easy for Judah to deal with, but he marched forward anyway.

“I don’t think it was a lot of pressure,” he said. “You might say I did a pretty good job. Three different weight classes, six-time champ of the world, undisputed champ of the world. Twenty-four years later and I can still have a clean conversation with you and you can understand me. I have all my faculties, I’m able to move around and think for myself, and I think I did a pretty good job.”

Kostya Tszyu
Action Images/Reuters/Steve Marcus

He’s right. Judah may not have become the best that ever did it, but he did put together a résumé to be proud of. The knock on Judah was that while he always had the talent, he didn’t have the focus to win the big one, losing fights against the likes of Tszyu, Floyd Mayweather, Miguel Cotto, Amir Khan and Danny Garcia. But he did score big enough wins over Cory Spinks, Lucas Matthysse and Micky Ward on his way to claiming six world belts (including the IBF welterweight title twice). And while his career apparently ended in 2013 with back-to-back losses to Garcia and Malignaggi, in 2017 he returned, defeating Jorge Luis Munguia that year and Noel Meija Rincon in 2018.

The 23-1 Seldin is a significant upgrade from Munguia and Rincon, though the New Yorker is still so limited that Judah could conceivably win the fight and make a return to the world rankings. That’s the plan for now.

“When I beat Cletus Seldin on June 7, I’ll put myself back in the rankings and I do want to become a seven-time champion of the world,” said Judah. “It’s a matter of completion and I want to go in there and get it done.”

But there’s more, and with Judah moving back to New York after several years in Las Vegas, and training with his father Yoel once more, there’s an almost romantic notion of Judah returning to reclaim boxing in his hometown.

“A hundred percent,” said Judah. “I remember me and my manager, Bill [Halkias], maybe around a year ago, we were sitting there watching boxing and Cletus Seldin came on TV and I was like, ‘Wow, these are the guys that represent New York City today? If I come back, I want those guys,’ and sure enough, I spoke it into existence. Now me and Cletus Seldin are gonna get it on.”

The location of the bout is also key to the Judah storyline, as it will take place in Verona, a short drive from Canastota, home to induction weekend for the International Boxing Hall of Fame. At the moment, there is a debate whether Judah is Hall-worthy, and a seventh belt would likely settle that debate. In the meantime, Judah has been hearing talk of post-retirement honors, most recently at last month’s New York State Boxing Hall of Fame event.

“I think that once you start thinking about retirement and Hall of Fame stuff that means that your career is over,” Judah said. “I don’t think about those things. People are like, ‘Zab, when are you gonna retire so that we can put you in the Hall of Fame?’ And I told them I was very honored to one day have the opportunity to go in there, and when that time comes, I’ll look forward to it. But right now, I’m not even thinking of it.”

Most would say that he should. At 41, he’s not the fighter he was in his prime, and Father Time is an opponent no one has gotten a step on. It all adds up to a sad end, one shared by so many fighters over the history of the sport. But Judah is determined to be the exception, not the rule, and he doesn’t take it as an insult when people ask him about retirement.

“No, it’s not insulting,” he said. “I look at it as they’re very eager to place me in the Hall of Fame, but I just think there’s a time and place for everything, and right now, it’s time for me to keep clocking on to my record, keep making history, and just show everyone that I’m one of the best in the world. The class that I came from, nobody’s around no more. I’m probably the last of the Mohicans. I’m campaigning at a high level and just doing it great.”

And truth be told, Judah readily admits that with boxing being a major part of his life since he was six years old, giving it up isn’t as easy as it sounds, even if he has other irons in the fire career-wise.

“I always look at that and I always say that there’s nothing that can add up to what boxing has done for me or can do for me,” Judah said. “If you know my history, I’ve got businesses outside of boxing, I became a nurse, I’ve got a management company, and while there’s nothing that can give me the satisfaction and the thrill of fighting and winning championships, in all aspects I’m gonna take it to the highest level. And that’s why I’m still around, to finish out my career and be satisfied with everything I’ve done in the ring, and once I’m done with that, I’ll retire and move on and look for my next thing to do.”

But nothing will ever replace boxing. “No, there’s nothing like that,” he said. “I tell people all the time, unless you get in that ring and do it, you won’t understand what that feeling is like. That feeling is amazing.”

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