These aren’t your prototypical career arcs for two headliners in an HBO fight, the headliners coming up this Saturday. Usually you’ll usually see one of the main event contestants who’s become consistently hot, maybe both of them, and then occasionally one of them is coming off a loss or shaky performance. Between them, Amir Khan’s and Zab Judah’s career arcs look like Stephen Glass hooked up to a lie detector.
Khan started out blue chip, got shockingly knocked out by a merely decent boxer, found trainer Freddie Roach and rebuilt himself into a world-class fighter with unanswered questions, answered the questions but raised new ones and now is coming off a lackluster performance. Judah started out blue chip, got shockingly knocked out be a great boxer, took a second loss only to reverse it in a rematch for the best win of his career, lost to a bunch of people he both should have and shouldn’t have, found Jesus and trainer Pernell Whitaker and now is coming off some shaky wins over good competition.
One thing is a constant: These two are fast. Real fast. Upper crust stuff. Just in terms of raw talent, Khan’s right there and Judah’s always been right there, although maybe Judah has slowed down a little; it’s unclear. Khan’s the #2 man and Judah’s the #6 man in the top-notch junior welterweight division. And there’s a sense that Khan-Judah is a better fight aesthetically than the one Khan tried to make with Timothy Bradley before Bradley decided to implode his career, even if Khan-Bradley was the more meaningful match-up.
The thinking in Khan’s camp is that he’s too young for the long-in-the-tooth Judah. The thinking in Judah’s camp is that he’s too experienced for the young whippersnapper. As always, there’s more to it than that.
I wonder if people haven’t gotten a little too excited about Judah’s career revival. At 33, I do think he’s become slower, although he’s still faster than most everyone. I have concerns that he’s developed trouble pulling the trigger, because he didn’t throw enough punches against either Lucas Matthysse in a debatable decision win and against Kaizer Mabuza in a come-from-behind knockout win. It’s possible he’s just been adjusting to a new style. Whitaker is a defensive master and in the Mabuza fight, Judah showed clear signs of having learned much. Sometimes when a boxer is picking up a new defensive style, he doesn’t throw as many punches.
Anyway, he made one of those punches count against Mabuza, that beautiful counter that effectively ended matters. Judah still has one-punch power, right, Kaizer? And he says he’s in shape, something you couldn’t count on in Judah’s early days when he was said not to train hard enough — a deficiency that probably helped contribute to his tendency to run out of steam late in fights. (He’s got a pair of shady characters hovering around that might have something to do with his so-called revival: Victor Conte, of the BALCO scandal, and, allegedly, banned-from-boxing Panama Lewis, although that affiliation came to light with a documentary a year or two ago.) His new focus on conditioning allows him to fight at 140 rather than 147 lbs., a weight more sutable to him. That focus might also have helped him stay upright for the final bell against Matthysse, a pretty good puncher, although it didn’t keep him off the mat entirely. Judah’s chin has betrayed him in the past, as has his willpower, although he has said his new found religiosity has given him purpose he lacked before.
And he is more experienced. He’s been in with pound-for-pound top fighters like Kostya Tzsyu (KO loss), Cory Spinks (decision loss, KO win), Floyd Mayweather (decision loss) and Miguel Cotto (KO loss). Experience is a good thing. But it’s also the case that, more often than not, when Judah runs into top talent, he loses. Is that the kind of “experience” that’s going to help him here?
Khan is top talent. His speed is outrageous, both his feet and his hands. He’s a very big junior welterweight at 5’10”. When he’s on his game he’s making great use of his speed, reflexes and size by pumping out his jab, firing combinations and getting his hands up to block return offense with his gloves. He’s not a power-puncher, but he’s got enough pop to knock a lot of people out and definitely enough to keep them honest.
And he’s young and fresh. He’s 24. But he’s not totally green. He’s seen a lot of different styles, starting in the Olympics. He’s beaten speed (Paulie Malignaggi), power (Marcos Maidana) and veteran savvy (Marco Antonio Barrera, Andriy Kotelnik). Of course, he’s not beaten a boxer who has speed, power AND veteran savvy the way Judah does — except in sparring with pound-for-pound king Manny Pacquiao, and sparring isn’t the same as mixing it up sans headgear.
Against Maidana, he answered some questions about whether he could take a punch with a “mostly, yes.” The lightweight version of Khan that got wobbled by a Breidis Prescott jab took a lot of murderous shots from Maidana and although he was badly hurt late in the fight, Khan survived. On the other hand, he got a little sloppy in that fight, a trend that continued in a poor showing but ultimately a win over Paul McCloskey. Now, he’s back with conditioning coach Alex Ariza, and that, he says, will improve his performance from McCloskey to Judah.
Judah is a highly dangerous and live underdog. His speed and power makes him just that against nearly anyone. But against a boxer in Khan who has only put to rest most of the questions about his ability to take a punch, Judah’s power could be pivotal at any moment. If Khan gets out of position and Judah tags him with a great counter, it could be over.
I’m not the biggest believer in Judah’s career revival, not because I think his renewed dedication is a lie. Rather, it’s because I think it came too late. I tend to err on the side of thinking that Judah’s problems pulling the trigger are due to age. It won’t help him win a decision against Khan, who can lead and keep Judah at distance if he cares to play it safe. Judah has a puncher’s chance, but Khan’s the overall better fighter in almost every way. Judah has to win by knockout, because if you are lucky enough to escape with a win against Matthysse and needed a monster shot to come back against Mabuza, you aren’t going to outbox Khan. I think Khan could deliver a beating that would force the fight to be stopped, a la his win over Malignaggi, but more likely I think it goes the distance in a bout where Judah flashes signs of his danger once or twice but Khan wins a clear decision.