“A soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of colored ribbon.” --Napoleon
AS this country is embroiled in a war in Iraq, and with all of its appalling consequences, it’s wrong to liken a simple prizefight at 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% 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 watermark 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 Saturday 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 only gave Judah two of the ten 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 has ever possessed Zab’s combination of speed and power. No matter how much punishment to the body and head the Caguas, P.R. 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 in Michael Vick’s backyard, Zab was dangerous as long as he had a pulse.
As suspected, Zab demonstrated his prowess early on. He chin-checked Cotto 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’ve 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 after the fact.)
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 ref 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 up 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 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’ve 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, he stuck out his tongue, he flexed his biceps and pounded his chest. But he took his lumps when he could’ve raised the white flag, or, as he’s done several times in the past, meltdown. And just when you thought he was finished, he’d uncork a left uppercut that would temporarily halt the progress of the armored 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 out 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 onto his once white trunks might as well have been a stranger’s problem.
A combination upstairs put Judah on his back early in the eleventh. 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.
The ascendance of Julio Cesar Chavez Jnr. has been fascinating to watch. We first got to know the 21-year-old welterweight as that cute boy wearing the signature Chavez-red head band and standing beside his legendary daddy when he took to the ring.
Like a child actor who has outgrown his role and disappears into an anonymous awkward adolescence, he disappeared for several years. In 2003 he re-emerged, as an awkward adolescent, posing as a prizefighter. At 17, had no amateur background to speak of and seemed to lack his father’s ferocious mien. He also seemed to lack any sign of puberty. We all thought him a gimmick, a case of cynical hucksterism designed to take his father out of debt.
His handlers let him learn how to box on the job as he faced a series of very soft touches. They kept him busy, having him fight nearly once a month in 2004 and 2005. As we monitored his growth on numerous Telefutura cards, we noticed, to our amazement, that he wasn’t that bad. He improved each time out, and shot up like a bean sprout, towering over his Papi.
In the past year I concluded he’s more than “not bad.” He’s a legitimate prospect who just might win a title someday. He’s beginning to fill out his lanky, 6-foot frame. When he reaches his physical prime, he’ll probably be a middleweight.
The business at hand Saturday was for the 32-0-1 (25) boxer to dispose of opponent Grover Wiley—30-9-1 (14) going in—who’s claim to fame is that he stopped Chavez Sr. in the faded warrior’s final fight during his ill-advised “farewell tour” in 2005.
While Junior bears little resemblance to his old man, he did inherit that vintage left hook to the liver and employs it to great effect. With 30 seconds left in the first, he landed a beauty. It took a couple seconds before the pain registered on the Nebraskan Grover—now 30-10-1 (14)—but when it did he retreated to the ropes, where Julio followed with another one. It put him down till the count of six.
Another pair of liver shots came at the tail-end of the third and put Wiley down for a second time. Grover beat the count. When he rose, Chavez Jnr. moved him into the ropes and set up the body once again with straight punches and hooks up top. Another debilitating liver shot dropped Wiley for a clean KO at 2:27 of the round.
Word is that if (and it’s a big if) Arturo Gatti can get by Alfonso Gomez in his upcoming fight on HBO, a fight with Chavez Jnr. will be made. If it happens I favor the up-and-comer to stop him. Never thought I’d see the day where that would happen.
Chavez Jnr. received enormous applause when he entered the ring and inspires general interest whenever he fights. He’s a nice-looking kid with an unforced charisma that—should he keep winning impressively—will one day make him a top attraction in the game. Rumors abound that if Oscar De La Hoya sticks around long enough, the two will put on The World Awaits II. Of course, it’s got a built-in backstory/revenge scenario since Oscar twice stopped his daddy.
HBO’s Jim Lampley aptly described Humberto Soto as the Antonio Margarito of the jnr. lightweights. The Mexican from Los Mochis has some losses, which lowers his marketability as far as certain TV execs are concerned. He’s also the sleeper of this outstanding division and is wisely avoided by the elite. He’s the very definition of high risk, low reward.
Yet, his promoter Bob Arum, who also has Filipino sensation Manny Pacquiao, wants to match the two in Pac-Man’s next fight. This is why his less talented, now 27-13-3 (12) big bro Bobby got the call.
Humberto beat the hell out of Bobby Pacquiao—KO 7 at 1:48 of the round—and got the ball rolling for a grudge match. If nothing else, Arum appreciates the value of a good storyline. Manny could be seen balling his fists ringside as he took in the carnage. He recently lost his bid for political office in the Philippines, which he’d spent a bundle on. And now this! Manny will enter the squared circle fuming if/when he meets Soto
Soto, 27, is now 42-5-2 (26). While he looked devastating for the most part, his defense wasn’t stellar. Bobby, though badly cut over his right eye, stunned him a few times in the fourth with hard rights. It only made Soto more aggressive.
The beat-down continued in the next two heats. In the seventh, a crippling straight right sent Bobby into an altered state. Before he could fall Soto followed with left to the body that makes me wince just thinking about it. The brave Filipino couldn’t entertain beating the count
In a crossroads fight between jnr. middleweights in need of a big win to propel them to the next level, undefeated Yuri Foreman won a SD over Anthony “The Messenger” Thompson. Scores were 96-94, 94-96 and 97-93. Foreman is now 23-0 (8), and Thompson falls to 23-2 (17).
The bout, while close, was hard to watch. The crowd paid little attention except to occasionally boo. It consisted of a lot of holding, little heavy hitting and no drama. Inexperienced ref Charles Fitch never once warned Foreman about excessive holding—he initiated some clinches before either fighter could get off a punch!
Yuri, a fine boxer but a light puncher, is from Brooklyn via Israel via Belarus. His style might be best described as “professional amateur.” He doesn’t sit down on his punches or take risks; he looks to pile up points and dart around the ring. He’s only stopped two opponents in his last 13 bouts.
Right now there is a new mandate from the promoters for blood and guts and thrilling KO’s. To some degree, they’re putting the onus for boxing’s demise on certain fighters’ shortcomings rather their own. Regardless of titles, pedigree and records, it’s Cory Spinks out, Kelly Pavlik in. Hard to argue with this. Who would you rather watch?
This won’t make getting a title shot any easier on Yuri. His recent win was met with scattered boos as many in attendance thought Anthony was trying to make the fight, and Yuri was running from it or turning it into a clinchfest.
Thompson, who like Foreman is promoted by Top Rank, has greater expectations resting on his broad shoulders. This Philly fighter can punch. But he’s hot and cold and you never know what you’re going to get from him. This loss isn’t a deal breaker but something he could ill-afford after participating in one too many stinkers and getting flattened by Grady Brewer in 2004. An exciting win would’ve propelled him into a big fight by year’s end. Now he’s got to get back on line.
Interesting sidenote: Both fighters are practicing Jews. The dreadlocked African-American Thompson is of the Hebrew Israelite faith. The alabaster-skinned Foreman is Ashkenazi, and has become increasingly more observant over the last few years. When was the last time we’ve seen this? The Maccabee Games doesn’t count. (Let BN know if you have an answer. I sure don’t.)