LAS VEGAS – As he whizzes lefts and rights on the pads, it’s clear he hasn’t lost his vaunted speed.
On the surface, he’s still Zab Judah, a boxer who never realized his vast potential. He still carries the label of an elite talent who folds in his toughest fights, someone who has been written off time and again.
But Judah is learning all the time, cognizant of bygone mistakes. He knows he made foolish blunders as a twenty-something in the sport, but is ready to prove that at 35, he can become the fighter the boxing world thought he could be; he’s a man looking for vindication.
It’s been said many times: Judah has more lives than a cat.
On April 27, Judah (42-7, 29 knockouts) will live another ring life as he looks to author perhaps the signature win of his 17-year-career in a RING junior welterweight championship match against Danny Garcia in his hometown of Brooklyn, N.Y., at Barclays Center on Showtime Championship Boxing.
“I’m a changed man for real. I don’t party, I don’t drink, I don’t smoke,” said Judah, who relocated to Las Vegas in 2007. “For the most part I live a militant life; I live a fighter lifestyle. This is one of the reasons why Bernard Hopkins can be 48 years old and still be terrific in these fights. It’s something that I may have picked up late, but hey, I’m locked and loaded and ready to go.”
With Judah, you never knew what fighter would show up.
Losses to Amir Khan and Carlos Baldomir illustrated the worst of Judah, while fights with Lucas Matthysse and Micky Ward showed the best. Regardless of which iteration of Judah came to fight, you always knew the talent was there.
Now, Judah says the training regimen and hard work is being coupled with his immense talent, a recipe he feels will bring him to the upset win and recognition as the champion in a second weight class (he was undisputed champ at welterweight after stopping Cory Spinks in 2005.)
“There’s nothing that Danny Garcia brings to the fight that we haven’t seen,” said Judah, who has been embroiled in a war of words with Garcia and his antagonist father, Angel. “Danny Garcia says he’s a good boxer; we’re gonna find out, we’re gonna test him. If you wanna bang, whatever. If you wanna box, whatever. Zab Judah has a gameplan and we’re gonna stick to it.
“His dad is just the mouth and wanna-be confidence in the family. He’s living through his son. His son is doing something that he couldn’t do.”
Judah will be entering the Garcia fight on a one-year-plus layoff, his last fight coming in March 2012. His bout with Vernon Paris was viewed as a pick ’em fight, but he dispatched Paris with ease, stopping him in the ninth round.
He was slated to fight the undefeated puncher on Feb. 9, but Garcia withdrew citing a rib injury, lengthening Judah’s layoff. It could be troublesome for a 35-year-old man, especially one who has been fighting as long as Judah.
“I think they were anticipating the old Zab Judah. ‘Let’s call the fight off, he might go out partying, drinking,'” Judah remarked. “The layoff hasn’t hurt me none; I’m sparring with top-notch sparring partners.
“I don’t know how cold his feet gotta get, but he better warm them up for April 27. Judgment time is coming. It’s about swim or drown. This is part of the situation that I’m used to, I’ve been here before, I know what to expect. When it comes to strategy and mental warfare, I think that I’m good at that. I’ve been around the best of them — Mike Tyson.”
A key cog of Judah’s training camps in Las Vegas, former world champion Morris East has helped Judah prepare for every fight since the Matthysse bout in 2010, a hotly-contested victory for Judah that looks better with each Matthysse knockout. East, a Filipino native who has worked extensively with Nonito Donaire, is the most experienced boxing person in Judah’s camps and although he isn’t the head trainer, he’s instrumental in the corner.
“He has changed quite a bit,” said East, who scored THE RING’s 1992 Knockout of the Year against Akinobu Hiranaka to win the WBA 140-pound title. “He’s more matured, focused and has changed, such as leaving behind some old habits, and he is spiritually changed as well. I feel he has regained the Zab of his younger years since he’s more dedicated to the craft and more determined to prove (the critics) wrong.
“He still has speed, heart, is a very strong puncher and overall very smart in his moves with whoever his opponent is in the ring. I believe Zab is too fast for Danny although we know (Danny) is young and a strong puncher, but being a veteran of the ring, Zab’s more skillful.”
“Super” Judah has had perhaps more “comeback” fights than any fighter in recent memory. Every time he loses in a big fight and the boxing world thinks he’s finished, he notches a few wins and finds himself back in a meaningful fight, certainly a testament to his recognizable name with casual fans. But just how much longer does the resilient Judah have left in the ring?
“The day I wake up and I gotta go running or I gotta go to the gym and spar and my body tells me I can’t do it no more, then that will be the time I give it up,” remarked Judah. “But I watch guys like (Juan) Manuel Marquez at 40 years old knock one of the top pound-for-pound fighters out with one punch. I watch guys like Bernard Hopkins going on 50 years old still campaigning at the top level of the sport of boxing. Of course I don’t want to go as long as those guys. But I’m 35. I’m fine.”
Judah says he attended the Hopkins-Tavoris Cloud fight at Barclays Center earlier this month to “feel the atmosphere and excitement” ahead of his own special night, his Brooklyn homecoming. If the night goes according to plan for Judah, it could turn out to be the crown jewel of a career marked by underachievement.
“I haven’t felt the moment yet, but I know it’s going to be phenomenal,” he said. “I can almost anticipate the feeling. The feeling and moment that I’m waiting for.”
What does vindication feel like? Judah is hoping to find out.
Photos: Boricuaboxing; Scott Heavey-Getty
Mike Coppinger is a contributor to USA TODAY’s boxing coverage. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeCoppinger