Zab Judah is looking to resurrect his badly fallen career. A loss would likely close the gate to another title fight forever. Joshua Clottey is hoping to pass through the same gate and emerge into the light from years of obscurity. So who's got the key to unlock the door?
Every fighter has a story line. For Judah, it's about a great amateur champion who never quite lived up to his enormous potential, despite many chances. In contrast, Clottey's "amateur" career was fought in the harsh streets of the Bokum province of Ghana, where as a member of the fierce warrior tribe of Ga, he was born to fight. Unlike Judah, Clottey has not had many chances to achieve stardom in a career spanning 13 years. It is surely a testimony to Clottey's bloodlines that he has stayed the course so long. Although his tribe accounts for only about three percent of the Ghanaian population, it has produced world champions Azuma Nelson and Ike Quartey, and title challenger Ben Tackie.
At 30, Judah is keenly aware that his back is to the wall. He has not won a bout of any significance since February of 2005 when he knocked out Cory Spinks in Spinks' hometown of St. Louis. Since then he has lost title fights to Carlos Baldomir, Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Miguel Cotto. He won his last two bouts against journeymen which somehow a sanctioning body decided qualified him to challenge for a vacant title.
Judah acknowledged his predicament in March when he was preparing to fight Shane Mosley on May 31, a bout that got cancelled when Judah lost a TKO decision to a glass shower door and needed 50 stitches to repair cuts on his right forearm.
"I am willing to gamble everything on this fight against Mosley," Judah said before he was injured, "and I know I have to win it to set my career back on the winning path. This fight is not about Shane Mosley, it is about me."
Nothing has changed for Judah except the opponent. This is a must win, all-in situation for the Brooklyn fighter. Another loss and he would go from being a gate crasher to a gatekeeper, meaning the only fights he would likely be offered were as a trial horse for a young contender or a stay busy fight for a top ten veteran.
Judah demonstrated in a valiant but losing effort to Cotto last year that he still has the fast hands and the pop in his punches to be competitive with elite fighters. The biggest obstacle he faces is one that has dogged him his entire career: he starts off fast and fades in the later rounds. Against Cotto, he gave the Puerto Rican all he could handle in the early going before wearing down and suffering an 11th round TKO. A year earlier, he fought Mayweather on an even par through the first five or six rounds, then had no gas in the tank for the homestretch and lost a unanimous decision.
Judah (36-5, 25 KOs) addressed the situation candidly in a press conference for the Mosley fight. "On May 31, you are going to see the old Super Judah, and even if it gets past the six rounds, you are going to see me finish strong and be the fighter I know I can be," Judah said.
Even if Judah manages to solve his stamina problem, it remains to be seen if his best is good enough to beat a very hungry and talented Clottey. Antonio Margarito found out how difficult it is to beat Clottey when they fought two years ago for the Mexican's title. The 31-year-old Clottey gave Margarito trouble for the first three rounds, but then broke his right hand in the fourth. While Clottey soldiered on and fought well, it was not enough. Two of the scorecards reflected how competitive Clottey had been, both seeing it 116-112 for Margarito.
What makes Clottey (34-2, 20 KOs) so difficult to beat is the manner in which he fights. Clottey is a very compact fighter with an excellent high glove defense; a counter puncher who fires precision shots and has a wickedly fast and powerful left hook to the body or the head. In the first two rounds against Margarito, Clottey seemed to land with virtually every punch he threw. His footwork, while not as slick as the speedy Judah, is very good, and he shows you a lot of angles. He also has power, as he demonstrated in his last fight in April of this year when he scored a fifth round TKO over Jose Luis Cruz, who had never been stopped in 41 fights and had gone the distance with Mosley in 2005.
Judah and Clottey have only one common opponent: Carlos Baldomir. Clottey encountered Baldomir in 1999 in London when the Argentinean was just beginning what would prove to be an 18-fight victory streak that led him to a title shot against Judah. Clottey appeared to be on his way to beating Baldomir when the referee intervened.
The Ghanaian was penalized two points in the 10th round for what the referee considered was an intentional head butt that opened a cut over Baldomir's left eye. Clottey was warned again in the round for leading with his head, and when the Ghanaian supposedly did it again in the 11th round, the ref disqualified him. At the time, Clottey was ahead on all three scorecards, 96-92 twice and 95-93. Even if Baldomir had won the last two rounds, he still would have lost the fight unless he scored a knockout, which was unlikely. Clottey has never been stopped.
A Google search of the fight brought no full accounts of it, even in the British media, and the referee's name was not listed on Boxrec.com, which is the bible of source material for every boxer's record. Clottey has said many times, though, that he strongly disputes the calls made by the referee and thought the disqualification was a robbery.
Prior to fighting Baldomir, Clottey was a total unknown with a 20-0 record heavily padded. In his five fights before Baldomir, Clottey fought and beat journeymen in London. His record included 11 fights in Ghana in which four of his opponents were making their professional debuts; four were fighters with 0-1 records; one was 1-2, and another was 0-5. Since Baldomir had nine losses on his record, and was six years away from becoming a championship contender, the defeat set Clottey's career back badly.
Judah's experience with Baldomir was entirely different. Prior to meeting Baldomir, who was a huge underdog, in January of 2006, Judah had rejuvenated his career after beating Spinks. There were plans in place for Judah to face Mayweather in a multi-million dollar showdown, and Baldomir was seen as little more than a tune-up. Judah undoubtedly was looking past Baldomir, but as the fight wore on and it became apparently the decision would be close, Judah could not find the juice to pull it out, losing a close unanimous decision, 113-115, 112-115 and 113-114.
What followed was a loss to Mayweather, a no contest against Ruben Galvin and a defeat by Cotto. Suddenly Judah was looking like a fighter whose time had come and gone. Now, through the graces of a sanctioning body which has to fill the title Margarito vacated in order to face Cotto, Judah is being handed a last ditch chance. Clottey is ranked number one by the alphabet body, nobody is ranked two and Judah is third. Go figure.
In order to win, Judah will have to find a way to penetrate Clottey's tight defense, and not make many mistakes because Clottey will punish him with precision shots in countering. It goes without saying, Judah must also come into this fight in top shape, prepared to go 12 rounds against a fighter with a solid chin.
Clottey will not have an easy time with Judah, either. Judah has quality defense, great hand speed, hits hard and shows you a lot of looks. It shapes up as a close, tough fight, and will likely be decided in the final three or four rounds. If Judah can do as promised - show stamina after six rounds - this fight would be a virtual tossup
If Judah fades late and loses, however, his career as an elite player will be all but over, and Clottey, the best fighter nobody knows, will finally emerge from the shadows and into the spotlight in a division with many attractive fights.
HBO BAD - Aug. 2, 2008