Zab Judah feels reborn in more than one way — his religion and his boxing career.
Judah describes himself as a born-again Christian and speaks reverentially about his belief in God, saying his faith has helped him mature after numerous ups and downs during his tumultuous 14-year career.
“It’s a beautiful experience,” Judah said. “The Lord has restored my gift back to me again. I was rebellious for awhile. I thought everything was just about me. I was young, I had fame. I had money. It led me the wrong way but the Lord was merciful on my life. Instead of Him whacking me out of there, He had a plan for me. But I have no regrets. Without me going through what I went through, I wouldn’t be where I am at now.”
Where Judah (39-6, 27 KOs) is now is back with his original promoter, Kathy Duva’s Main Events, back on a big stage and in the mix for a number of major fights in the talent-rich junior welterweight division. But only if he can defeat Argentina’s Lucas Matthysse (27-0, 25 KOs) on Saturday (HBO, 11:15 p.m. ET/PT) in the “Boxing After Dark” main event at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J.
The winner of Judah-Matthysse will face South Africa’s Kaiser Mabuza for the belt recently stripped from Devon Alexander, setting up that winner for huge business in a division that boasts a plethora of young rising stars — Alexander, Timothy Bradley Jr., Amir Khan, Marcos Maidana and Victor Ortiz.
But Judah, because of a résumé loaded with major fights, is more well-known than any of them and his presence in the weight class sure adds some spice.
“Khan, Maidana, Bradley and Alexander may be younger than me, but I have something up my sleeve,” Judah said. “Every time I go to a weight class, it’s the hottest division. It was like that when I went to welterweight. Now we back in another hot division with talented fighters. I just so happen to be blessed enough to be campaigning in it and I feel great.”
Said Duva: “We are bringing back a renewed and revived Zab Judah. We know he is capable of what he’s expected to be. When he decides to turn it on, he’s a force to be reckoned with. Zab is a former junior welterweight world champion, a former undisputed welterweight world champion and the future junior welterweight world champion.”
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Judah expects to have support in the crowd from longtime buddy Mike Tyson.
“I watched Zab in the gym a few days ago and he looked spectacular,” the former heavyweight champ said. “Better than I’ve ever seen him before. I will be at the Prudential Center sitting front and center to support my friend Zab.”
A pair of California lightweights — former two-time featherweight titlist Robert Guerrero (27-1-1, 18 KOs) and 2004 U.S. Olympian Vicente Escobedo (22-2, 14 KOs) — meet in the scheduled 10-round co-feature. They’ve known each other for years and fought three times in the amateurs, with Guerrero winning twice.
An 18-year-old prodigy when he turned pro in 1996, Judah quickly rose to the top. He won versions of the junior welterweight title twice. He also became the undisputed welterweight champion in 2005, when he went to Cory Spinks’ hometown of St. Louis and knocked him out in the ninth round of their rematch.
But Judah also had his share of problems. Twice he was suspended for in-ring meltdowns. After Kostya Tszyu stopped him in the second round of their 2001 undisputed championship fight, Judah threw a corner stool and put his hands on referee Jay Nady. It earned him a six-month suspension and a $75,000 fine from Nevada officials.
There was also the 2006 incident during his welterweight title bout with Floyd Mayweather Jr. when the corners spilled into the ring after Judah had fouled Mayweather. Judah’s involvement in the melee earned him a $250,000 fine and the revocation of his license for a year by Nevada officials.
There were also financial problems, multiple promoter changes and a shocking decision loss to Carlos Baldomir, who outpointed an unfocused and unprepared Judah to take the welterweight crown in a massive upset in 2006.
Judah, who turned 33 last week, says he’s learned from those experiences and is ready to make another run.
“Life is about growing up,” Judah said. “As you get older, you mature. I’ve been to the highest of the highs, I’ve been to the lowest of the lows. At this point of my life, I just choose to walk a different path. I’m doing everything by the book, I’m doing everything I was asked to do in the past and didn’t do. I’m walking the right path in my life. I’ve pretty much seen it all. I want to do everything right for my son, Zab Jr., to set a good example.”
Judah is the elder statesman of the division he left in 2004 for bigger fights at welterweight. But although Judah became the undisputed champion, he believes he was in the wrong division, just a tad too small to topple the best of the 147-pound weight class. Other than the knockout loss to a prime Tszyu, all of Judah’s defeats came at welterweight — to Spinks in their first fight, Baldomir, Mayweather, Miguel Cotto and Joshua Clottey.
“No matter what came out of those fights, I gained information and knowledge,” Judah said. “Now, with my life turned around, I’m moving in a whole different manner. Yeah, I didn’t get the victories in those fights, but no regrets.”
Judah figures he should have been a junior welterweight all along.
“I think with this win, the way I’ll do it, it will let the junior welterweights know I am a threat to all of them at 140 pounds,” he said. “I busted my butt training this time. I had no trouble with the weight. I went down to like 138 I was working so hard and I had to bulk back up. Remember, I haven’t been 140 pounds in like seven years. But I got the weight down early and worked on my speed and my power. I prepared myself for a hard, tough fight, like I was going against Mayweather or Manny Pacquiao. I can’t say what’s going to happen Saturday, but you’ll see a spectacular showdown.”
When he fought Clottey in August 2008, Judah weighed just 143 pounds and made that weight easily. That’s when he decided he would better served returning to the 140-pound division. His next two fights (with a year off in between) also came below the 147-pound welterweight limit. Then, after reuniting with Main Events, he faced Jose Armando Santa Cruz on ESPN2 in July. Judah was 141 pounds and very sharp, scoring a third-round knockout to set the stage for the title eliminator with Matthysse.
“I didn’t get beat out of this division, I bowed out of this division,” said New York’s Judah. “I vacated my 140-pound title and left it to go to welterweight to fight for something else. I left this weight class a champion and I’ll come back to get the championship. Everyone knows that it’s just a matter of time before I’m looking at one of the titles or all of the titles. Sometimes I do get selfish and I want all of the titles. I’m back to one of my selfish moments.”
His road toward that goal starts with Matthysse, 28, who has a glossy record built against a collection of nobodies. The most notable name on his record is badly faded former titlist Vivian Harris, who was competitive with Matthysse until their February fight was stunningly stopped in the fourth round, despite Harris not being hit with anything that would remotely warrant a stoppage.
“Lucas has a 93 percent knockout rate and only one guy has gotten past the fourth round,” said David Itskowitch of Golden Boy, Matthysse’s promoter. “He is one of boxing’s best kept secrets but it will be out on Saturday night.
“We realize that Lucas Matthysse is a bit of an unknown quantity here in the United States but in a way we like that because there are two other guys who were unknown quantities in the United States and have come up here from Argentina and made a pretty big splash. Their names are [middleweight champ] Sergio Martinez and Marcos Maidana. We strongly believe that Lucas Matthysse is going to be the next great Argentinean fighter. He recently sparred with Shane Mosley, and Shane was raving about him, saying he was one of the best fighters that he’s seen in a while.”
Matthysse trained for the fight in Martinez’s training camp in Oxnard, Calif., where Martinez is preparing for his Nov. 20 rematch with Paul Williams.
“We worked really hard and I know I’m going to take this win back to Argentina,” Matthysse said. “I trained for speed working with Sergio Martinez. I’ve never seen a fighter train like Sergio. I will benefit from the experience of working with him. Zab’s speed will not be an issue on Saturday night. I’m going to hurt him with my body shots. It’s only Zab and myself come Saturday night. No one can help him.”
Judah, of course, begs to differ.
“Lucas Matthysse is a young, up-and-coming fighter,” Judah said. “He’s knocked out a lot of fighters early, but when you start comparing those guys that he’s knocked out to a Zab Judah, it’s a different comparison.
“You’ve got to understand this. If you were to compare Zab Judah with Lucas Matthysse, they’ve both got power, they’ve both got high knockout ratios. Cool. Now we get to speed. Whoa! Now we get to talent. Whoa! Now we get to skill levels. Whoa! I mean hands down, he’s gonna find out.”
Judah simply plans to win and move on to those bigger fights that loom in his division.
“I’m looking to get myself back to the top again. I am ready. I am so ready, they’ll go ‘wow’ after they see this fight,” Judah said. “I want to become world champ again. I want to become undisputed champion in a second weight class.”