The first of a two-part look into New York boxing and the people in its past, present and future. Written by Tim Smith. Photos by John Loomis.
When he was growing up in Brooklyn, Zab Judah didn't have to look beyond his New York City borough to find a boxing world champion.
There was Mark Breland, a welterweight champ who had won a gold medal as a member of the 1984 U.S. Olympic boxing team. Heavyweight champions Mike Tyson and Riddick Bowe, a silver medalist from the 1988 U.S. Olympic boxing team, were from the same Brownsville, Brooklyn neighborhood.
If Judah, who lives in Las Vegas now, were to visit his old Brooklyn neighborhood, he could knock on every door in the borough - every door in the other four NYC boroughs as well - and he wouldn't be able to find a boxing world champion.
There are none.
Judah, a former junior welterweight and welterweight champion, is dismayed about the New York boxing scene. He can't understand how or why the wealth of amateur talent in New York doesn't translate into more world champions. But he knows how difficult it is to be a highly touted amateur with a bright future and be sidetracked by fame, and later fortune.
"When you're fighting in New York you have to have a lot of discipline,'' Judah said, who will fight Lucas Matthysse in a junior welterweight match at Prudential Center in Newark, N.J. on HBO Saturday night.
"It's way harder coming out of Brooklyn. I can't speak for anybody else, but when you grow up in Brooklyn all you dream about is having endless money so you can wake up and do whatever you want to do, go wherever you want to go. When you get that at a young age it's crazy.''
Jimmy Glenn, a long-time member of the New York boxing scene as a trainer, gym owner and bar owner, has seen plenty of good young NYC prospects in his 60 years in the sport, including Judah. He knows how the lure of riches can sidetrack even the most talented prospect and derail the most ambitious contender.
"You could see just from watching him (Judah) in the amateurs that he was going to be a good fighter,'' Glenn said. "His work ethic was so good. But then it all went to his head.''
However, those good amateur prospects aren't blossoming into professional world champions. More than skills and talents, the attitudes of the fighters and trainers may have more to do with it than anything.
"When I had my gym for 40 years the kids that came in wanted to fight,'' Glenn said. "They wanted to learn. Now you have guys who want to make big money and be superstars, but they don't want to put in the time.
"Guys like Howard Davis and Mark Breland and Zab Judah were in the amateurs for something like five years. Howard Davis fought in the Golden Gloves for five years in a row. You won't find that anymore. A kid who gets good thinks he can be a star and make money right away. He's not interested in staying in the amateurs to work on doing the things he needs to be a superstar.''
Buddy McGirt, a trainer and former welterweight champion who was born in Long Island and cut his teeth in NYC boxing gyms, said there is still an abundance of amateur talent in New York. But there is a new breed of boxers coming through gyms now, and the trainers are allowing them to go unchecked.
"There are no more old school trainers and gyms that don't take shit from these boxers,'' McGirt said. "There was a time when you walked into a gym and you were a top notch fighter, everybody in the gym wanted to spar you, and they didn't want to get paid. They wanted to beat your ass. Now guys want to pick and choose who they will spar with.
"Now guys come to the gym and tell the trainer what they're going to do that day. I never asked my trainer what we were going to do or how many rounds I was going to spar. I didn't even think about it.''
McGirt said Judah, the last highly touted NYC amateur to hold a world title, was cut from that old school cloth.
"I remember watching Zab in the gym and he would box everybody in the gym. It didn't matter to him. He just wanted to learn and he wanted to kick everybody's ass in the gym,'' McGirt said. "Antonio Tarver and Laila Ali are the same way. Their attitude is let's get to work and stop bullshitting.''
Judah finds that kind of gym atmosphere in Las Vegas now. He calls it the new "Mecca of Boxing'' where hungry fighters come to sharpen their skills against the best in the gym. Judah moved there a few years ago to revive his career.
Glenn, 80, believes that there is an ebb and flow to boxing in New York.
"People are starting to work with the kids again and people are opening more gyms now. Boxing always dies and comes back.''
"It will be back,'' Glenn said. "You have to put up good fights that people want to see and the kids have to produce when they're given the chance. People are starting to work with the kids again and people are opening more gyms now. Boxing always dies and comes back.''
Lou DiBella, a New York-based promoter who was once an HBO Sports programming executive, isn't so sure. DiBella said New York's decline is symptomatic of larger problems with the sport. DiBella uses mainly local talent on his Broadway Boxing Series cards, but it's a tough sell to sponsors and fans.
"The sport is headed nowhere,'' he said. "It's headed toward greater marginalization. Where are the young fans? It's critical that boxing be strong in New York and major American markets. But it's not. The local interest is fading and the grassroots support isn't there.''
Maybe not on the professional level, but on the amateur level it is strong. The New York Daily News Golden Gloves tournament is well-supported by fans and sponsors, and it still attracts the best amateur talent in the city.
All the recent New York-born champions like Breland, Bowe and Judah came out of the Golden Gloves. And the current crop of hot contenders and prospects like Danny Jacobs and Sadam Ali, a member of the 2008 U.S. Olympic team, fought in the Gloves.
Brian Adams, a former lightweight contender from Brooklyn who now runs the Golden Gloves tournament as New York Daily News Community Affairs Manager, believes both Jacobs and Ali have what it takes to make it from highly regarded amateurs to long-reigning professional world champions.
"What we're lacking in one area goes back to the 70s and 80s when the marque fighters in New York, like Breland and Mike McCallum, were gentlemen,'' Adams said. "Not only did they have skills, but they were always professional inside and outside the ring. Danny Jacobs is the closest to that now. Both him and Sadam Ali can make it. They just have to stay on course.''
Posted 12:00 AM | Nov 6, 2010