THE first detectable sound is not his voice but a buzzer in the background. Loud and prolonged, it is today also unsettling, interpreted by my ears if not his as the signal for an airstrike rather than the conclusion of a three-minute round.
This sound, familiar to anyone who has ever spent time in a boxing gym, should not come as a surprise, much less unsettle. Yet today it does both. Today it surprises because the boxer in earshot was recently damaged by boxing and it unsettles because he is back and because the combination of his voice and the gym’s buzzer is akin to hearing an alcoholic claim sobriety against the background noise of a pub or the unscrewing of a bottle cap.
Or maybe it’s just me.
Either way, Zab Judah admits he is in a boxing gym – Gym X in Brooklyn, New York, to be exact – and treats my inquisition with the duh-no-s**t response it deserves. He reminds me he has frequented gyms since he was first taught to box at the age of five. He talks about the need to stay in shape. He tells me not to worry.
But still I do. Even when he says he is stepping outside the gym to avoid the noise of the buzzer, it’s not enough. I hope he stays away. Part of me wants him to go home.
“I’ve been okay,” he says once in his car, away from it all and safe. “I guess I’m coming back strong and coping with everything. It was a very scary experience, but the good thing is I had God to guide me through it and the doctors did a great job.” Zab “Super” Judah was 41 years of age when he succumbed to the relentless pressure of Cletus Seldin, a Long Islander nine years his junior, on June 7, 2019. The fight, Judah’s final one, came eight years after winning his last world title, the IBF super-lightweight belt, against Kaizer Mabuza, and 13 years after giving Floyd Mayweather all he could handle for a few rounds. It also came 14 years after Judah knocked out Cory Spinks in a rematch to become WBA, WBC and IBF welterweight champion, and 19 years after he won his first world title, the IBF super-lightweight belt, against Jan Bergman.
Once it ended, Judah was taken to hospital where he was checked over and checked out. An 11th-round loss pained him more than his head or body and there was no real cause for concern. Not at that point anyway.
More hungry than hurt, Judah, upon returning to his hotel, got changed in his room and made a beeline for the hotel restaurant. He took a seat alongside family and friends and listened to their eyewitness reports. He then waited for a waitress to take an order he would never get around to making. “Man,” he said at the table, “my body feels crazy.”
Eight weeks on, Judah still struggles to express with words what he felt that night in the restaurant. All he knows is that it was a sensation he has never experienced before.
“As soon as I sat down, I started to feel funny, light-headed and nauseous,” he says. “At first, I just thought I was nauseous, so I went to the bathroom and tried to throw up. Nothing came up. I went back to the table and it started again. It was really frightening.”
With a now greater sense of urgency, Judah was again taken to hospital, a different one this time. “The second hospital figured everything out,” he says. “I could have gone upstairs to my room and it could have all been different. God is great.” Guided by the man upstairs, Judah, blood on his brain, was to soon lose all memory of what happened as everything around him shrunk, tightened and faded to black. It was then he experienced a different kind of silence.
‘I thought I was just nauseous. I tried to throw up but nothing came up. It was really frightening’
This silence was filled initially by panicked screams and the prayers of well-wishers before, thankfully, all the colours and sounds Judah had lost came back to him. They returned in a rush, leaving him feeling as though he had been submerged in water, held down, then allowed to pull himself up and out. Slower to arrive were answers, however.
“When I came out, I didn’t remember what happened to me,” Judah says. “I was just in the recovery room laying there. I opened my eyes and was like, What the f**k is going on? When I turned my head, I saw the drain bottle. I went to pull it and was like, What is that? My whole head ached. All I kept thinking was, What the f**k is that? What is going on? It was coming out of my head. I thought, Oh s**t, something’s not right.
“I needed to see it properly but there were no mirrors anywhere. I had to get up and find the sink. There was a little bit of glass in there and I used that as a mirror. Then I saw all the staples. I said out loud, ‘What the f**k?!’
“The nurse heard me and came in. She said, ‘Oh my God, you’re not supposed to be up on your feet!’ A doctor followed her and said, ‘You’re the first patient I’ve ever had who was standing on their feet within 24 hours of that surgery.’” As well as being reprimanded by hospital staff, Judah collected the sympathy and testimonies of others as keenly as he once collected belts. For eight days there was talk of a fight, a loss and a brain bleed, and Judah knew, from this brief synopsis, his career was now over.
“The doctor told me going into it that there was a chance I might come out of this not the same no more,” he says. “It was worst-case scenario. Not everyone comes out regular. They go through s**t. I said, ‘All right, cool.’
“Right now, I’m doing rehab and trying to climb back slowly. I came out of this and my rehab is to just make sure my limbs don’t go dead on me. We rehab everything: arms, legs, speech.”
Another part of Judah’s rehabilitation is coming to terms not only with never being able to box again but understanding why and how it came to this. To aid the process, he continues gathering the testimonies of loved ones – to better understand the fight and the circumstances surrounding it – and remembers how it felt spending 10-and-a-half rounds in the ring with Cletus Seldin.
“This guy [Seldin] made himself Superman,” Judah says. “He felt very strong and way faster than I expected. He was throwing shots, these little punches, and wouldn’t stop. He’d go pit-pit-pit-pit-BOOM. Pit-pit-pit-pit-BOOM-BOOM. He was throwing like 17-punch combinations.
“I was just thinking, Who the f**k throws this kind of s**t? Who keeps punching like this? It was crazy. I fought one of the best fighters of all time in Floyd Mayweather and he couldn’t hit me like that. How is this guy, who is not even ranked in the top f**king 25, able to do this?”
The question’s rhetorical, of course. Judah has his own theory, the product of 23 years spent in a dirty business. “Cletus failed two times [for performance-enhancing drugs] before I even boxed him,” he says with a sigh. “Our urine test results have yet to come back. We’re still waiting.”
‘If fighters are taking drugs now, imagine the sort of s**t they were doing back when nobody knew’
Judah has hired a law firm, Elefterakis, Elefterakis and Panek, who have confirmed that requests have been made to the Oneida Gaming Commission and the show promoter to obtain results of the pre-fight drug screening. These results have yet to be provided. In what could end up the prelude to near disaster, though, the WBC, on February 7, 2017, announced an “adverse finding” in one of Seldin’s tests when they detected traces of stanozolol metabolites and an elevated screen ratio, testosterone versus epitestosterone (T/E ratio), of 20.2. The results of the B sample confirmed these findings and the WBC then ruled that Seldin should be suspended from participating in any WBC-sanctioned bouts for a period of six months from the date he provided the sample – February 1, 2017 – or until August 1, 2017.
But that was just the beginning. Later that same year Seldin again tested positive for increased levels of testosterone and a proposed June 15 fight against Mike Arnaoutis in New York was scrapped. The result came from a urine sample provided on May 23 in Florida to the Voluntary Anti-Doping Association (VADA) and Dr. Margaret Goodman, the president of VADA, confirmed Seldin’s A sample was “analysed for anabolic agents, diuretics, beta-2 agonists, metabolic modulators, GHRP, hormones and related substances” and that there was an “atypical” finding. By all accounts Seldin was receiving testosterone therapy for an abnormally low testosterone count (hypogonadism), which he voluntarily disclosed to the New York State Athletic Commission (NYSAC) and VADA. However, because his T/E lab result was elevated beyond the NYSAC permissible ratio, they determined they would not issue Seldin a licence to box on June 15.
“Miscommunications or misunderstandings with NYSAC as to certain medical issues prompted the postponement of this fight,” Seldin, 32, said in a statement. “I will swiftly resolve this issue with NYSAC.”
Pete Brodsky, Seldin’s manager and trainer, added: “The treatments began in the fall of 2016. When I received Cletus’ contract for the June 15 fight and the NYSAC drug acknowledgement form, I noticed that testosterone was listed as a banned substance. Both Cletus and I were unaware of this since the drug acknowledgement forms for all of our previous fights were different and didn’t list testosterone.
“Upon reading the form, I immediately called NYSAC to advise them that Cletus has been undergoing therapeutic testosterone treatments administered by his doctor. My call was in the third week of April and I asked NYSAC to instruct me how to proceed with this situation. I was told that they would get back to me.
“However, after numerous attempts to get an answer from NYSAC, to no avail, Cletus and I decided it would be safer to immediately stop the treatments.
“His last treatment was April 27, which was prior to him coming to Florida for training camp for this fight. Unfortunately, NYSAC does not allow even therapeutic treatments of testosterone. They alerted Cletus via email that his licence was denied because of these treatments.
“We are both very sorry that they decided to take this path. Cletus works very hard in the gym, is never in trouble, and active in the community and unknowingly did something that was not allowed by NYSAC.”
Judah doesn’t care for the details or the history, even if both make for grim reading and probably help his case. “Everything is still playing out, so we’ll see what happens,” Judah stresses. “But I am now a big activist for clean boxers and clean boxing. I’m starting a programme now because it’s something I feel strongly about.
“They’ve [fighters using drugs] got super strength and all kinds of crazy s**t. Pretty soon they’ll be flying. If they’re blatantly doing it now, when the whole world knows about PEDs and are calling people out, imagine the sort of s**t they were doing back when nobody knew. It was still quiet then. It wasn’t talked about. People didn’t even say the word steroids in gyms back then. That was a dirty word. A curse word. You could say f**k more than you could say steroids.”
Though he concedes the war on drugs is one battle he won’t ever win, Judah isn’t opposed to streamlining the mission and focusing solely on Seldin, the “Hebrew Hammer” responsible for stopping him in 11 rounds and putting him in hospital.
“You’ve got to check this guy out,” he says. “I don’t just mean check him out for my fight, I mean check him out for all his fights and all the ones to come. That’s what I’ll be doing… I’m going to be a pain in his ass. I’m going to stay on him.”
When I suggest his exit from boxing was only ever going to be of the enforced variety, Judah goes so quiet I sense either I’ve lost him or he simply wants to get back to the gym. To shake something from him, I elaborate, suggesting he is born to box, that it is part of his DNA, and that only an imposed retirement, combined with a sudden awareness of the sport’s health dangers, would save him from this addiction. Still, though, he greets the comment with silence, at which point I ask: “Would you have retired if the night had ended differently?”
“No,” Judah says, quite sure of it. “We had a great strategy. We had some big fights lined up. We had a big one lined up right after that. We were in talks with a big promoter. There were major things going on.
“Look, bro, I came in at 138 pounds. I started at that weight 23 years ago. I was in great shape. I had a tremendous training camp. The weight said it all.”
His sport, awash with drug cheats, often tainted by tragedy, has somehow so far avoided – as far as we are aware – a scenario whereby a boxer is incapacitated or killed by an opponent later discovered to have been taking performance-enhancing drugs. If, however, it comes to pass that Seldin was indeed aided by PEDs during his June 7 fight with Judah, the situation would set an unwelcome precedent and expose a further layer of grime to an already insalubrious business. A jolt to a system clearly flawed, it would be the sort of outcome nobody wants yet the outcome the sport probably needs.
“My heart goes out to those guys and their families,” says Judah, sparing a thought for boxers Maxim Dadashev and Hugo Santillan, who both passed away in July. “They thought they were just going to have a boxing match and they never made it home. Their families will never see them again and their kids will never have the chance to hug them again. It’s – oooh – it’s tough, man. A kid just thinks his daddy’s going off to have a fight. Then he don’t come back.”
Just as he must accept Cletus Seldin is innocent until proven guilty, Zab Judah, 44-10 (30), accepts he is one of the lucky ones.
“Blessed,” he likes to say. He counts them, these blessings, and deems being able to spend today in a boxing gym, his home away from home, the greatest of them. Without it, he would be stripped not of titles or achievements but of purpose, his identity lost.
“I’m in the gym helping guys out and doing pads and I’m also doing lots of community work in Brownsville [Brooklyn],” he says. “There’s been a lot of gang violence and stuff going on, so I’ve been going out there as an activist and trying to help out. I’m letting the kids know they can be doing something better with their life and that they don’t need to be throwing it away.”
When not preaching the virtues of boxing, he’s teaching the art of it. He’s teaching the things he was taught by his father, Yoel – chiefly, that “you can’t beat what you can’t hit” – but doing so with a newfound appreciation that even the slickest fighters, the ones for whom defence seems second nature, cannot boast immunity to the wrath of Father Time nor the callous, addictive nature of a so-called noble art.
“People used to say, ‘Zab’s always at the gym.’ And it’s true. I’m always training, hitting the bag and sparring. I’ll sometimes be in the gym for like four or five hours, just with my s**t on, and the gym will rotate four or five times. A guy will say, ‘Yo, do you want to do a couple of rounds?’ I’ll be acting like I’m fresh and say, ‘Suuuure.’
“I always get the urge to throw punches when I’m walking around. They just come out of nowhere. My friends will be like, ‘Why are you always throwing punches? What’s wrong with you?’ I’ll be like, ‘Nothing’s wrong with me.’ It’s just a spur of the moment thing. It’s a habit.”
Like so many, boxing’s a habit deemed productive – good for you – right until it becomes dangerous and vital it’s kicked. In recovery, the concern then shifts. In Judah’s case, the concern is this: two months away from boxing is manageable, a reprieve, but bigger mental obstacles will emerge once months become years and the sounds of the buzzer and leather on flesh are replaced by silence.
“It’s not that I can’t box,” Judah responds, worryingly, when asked how it feels to know he can’t box again. “If I want to burn some energy I can always come to the gym and work out. I can always train. I can spar if I want to. I shouldn’t spar but I could.”
“Please don’t,” I say.
“No, I’m not going to spar.” He pauses, amused by my concern. “Don’t worry.”
It’s then you realise the one sound more disconcerting than a boxing gym’s buzzer is that of Zab Judah’s devilish laugh.