Zab Judah tries to weave his way through the junior welterweight traffic jam when he faces Kaizer Mabuza for a vacant UNICEF title at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey, tomorrow night. In a hazardous move, Main Events risks one of its two marquee names-the other is Tomasz Adamek-against an anonymous but dangerous underdog for a relatively paltry purse and a potentially slim profit margin.
Judah and Mabuza square off on an independent pay-per-view (against a live HBO card) and Main Events is hoping that the buy rate—along with a healthy gate and foreign television rights—will help offset the gamble. Such is the allure of an alphabet title. Despite how maligned these knickknacks are by boxing observers who think that they just materialize—like ectoplasm—out of thin air, championships are still pursued with oomph by promoters, networks, managers, and fighters. Winning one of these gewgaws immediately makes you a viable opponent for big name fighters and can be used as a bargaining chip during contract negotiations. Even if none of that works out, there are still hockshops and eBay.
Mabuza is a fighter whose limitations seem limitless, but whose attributes—pressure, tenacity, and work rate—may pose a threat to a boxer whose notoriety probably outstrips his talent at this point. Judah, 40-6-0-2 (27), was fortunate to get the duke against rudimentary Lucas Matthysse last November, suffering a knockdown in the 10th round and fading down the stretch. Matthysse hits fairly hard—at least when he can manage to reach the target—but he remains largely a figment of the feverish HBO imagination. Still, it was the biggest win Judah has notched in years. In fact, Judah has beaten only three solid fighters in nearly a decade: Omar Weis, Cory Spinks, and DeMarcus Corley. He looked uncomfortable and tentative at times against both Weis and Corley. At 33, with a history of tough fights behind him, Judah is trying for one last big score.
Mabuza, 23-6-3 (14), is a tall pressure fighter who throws lots of leather from wherever his hands might be at the moment. Perhaps his greatest asset, however, is the element of surprise that accompanies him for three minutes of every round. Whether by design or not, Mabuza is the sort of fighter who can sneak one over on a careless opponent. With the kind of drunk tank footwork that has become the norm for many contemporary fighters, Mabuza sometimes throws punches mid-stride, off-balance, and on the wrong foot. Sometimes he throws shots the way a fly fisherman casts his line, sometimes he throws them like a man working a machete in a sugar cane field. Sometimes there is no telling where his punches will come from. On the inside, in fact, Mabuza often switches to southpaw, and an unaware opponent who pulls out of a clinch or pulls away from infighting can find himself getting hit with right hooks from out of the blue. From time to time Mabuza, Johannesburg, South Africa, will also whip uppercuts from his hip with either hand.
In addition, Mabuza has the edge in height and reach and is coming off of the biggest win of his career, a sixth-round stoppage of erratic Kendall Holt in Atlantic City. Holt was a mere astral projection of himself that night, but a win is a win, and Mabuza might have taken away whatever Holt entered the ring with by his aggression. Working against Mabuza is a layoff of over a year and the simple fact that he is not as talented as Judah is. Mabuza, 31, has won a slew of regional titles and has faced some fairly solid competition over his 11 years as a pro. Among the fighters he has traded blows with are Sammy Malinga, Holt, Robert Medley, Isaac Hlatshwayo (twice), Ray Narh, and Serhiy Fedchenko, whom he outpointed in Ukraine. But his raw style can be exploited by a boxer, and he has been stopped twice in his career.
Look for Judah to work from the perimeter, lead Mabuza into neatly timed counter lefts, and try to finagle his way to the final bell. Chances that he actually succeeds are far smaller than they would have been in, say, 2004. In fact, Judah, with a history of cutting and a reputation as a frontrunner, may not hear the final bell at all. Mabuza may deserve to be the shortender tomorrow night, but there is a reason he accepted this fight despite a purse bid that guarantees him a pay check equal to what Andre Berto probably shells out for a wristwatch: Mabuza is hungry, in capital letters.
Not long ago a fighter like Mabuza would be easy work for Judah. Now, after years of layoffs, taxing fights, and general chaos, Judah may have slipped enough to make this fight something less than a sure thing. In the late 1990s you could find Judah, now fighting out of Las Vegas, in Gleason’s Gym down on Front Street, putting on a show like no other. A Futurist blur even in sparring, Judah had the kind of speed, agility, and power that could make spectators gasp. Before Kostya Tszyu nearly decapitated him in 2001, Judah made an awful lot of good fighters look like fools in the ring: Reggie Green, Mickey Ward, Terron Millet. But all that seems like some other lifetime ago. Actually, come to think of it, it was.