Cotto-Judah: Why It’s Happening and Why You Will Watch

miguel cotto27.05.07 - By Taj Eubanks: One of the continuing criticisms of our great sport (along with outrageously-priced low-quality pay-per-views, poor judging, and backroom politics) is that it seems as if there is often a title bout in which the challenger is unworthy of the title shot in question.

One need look no further than the mercurial Zab Judah (34-4), who seems to have nine professional lives despite repeated meltdowns during his most important fights. Judah, a supremely-skilled southpaw who had been compared early on to Hall-of-Famer Pernell “Sweet Pea” Whitaker, possesses a skillset that most pugs would die for—quicksilver handspeed, nifty footwork, knockout power with the left hand and decent power with the right, and a better-than-average ring I.Q.

In fact, these four attributes allowed him to easily outclass (for at least the first four rounds of their matchup) the number one pound-for-pound practitioner in the game today, Floyd Mayweather, Jr. However, his deficits as a fighter too often overshadow his strengths. A questionable chin, poor conditioning, fighting to the level of his competition, and worst of all, frequent mental lapses in the ring have caused him to fall short of glory too many times and become the object of scorn and ridicule from the boxing faithful.

Judah is often seen as a gifted athlete with no work ethic, one whose constant mouth-running, braggadocio, and occasional unsportsmanlike conduct (see his kindergarten display against Carlos Baldomir as the referee read the pre-fight instructions in their match) alienate more than his skills fascinate.

So it is that he finds himself yet again attempting to resurrect a career that should never have gone south in the first place. While many writers and fans simply do not care what happens to him at this point, there are still many more that have begun to shout from the rafters, “What the hell did Judah do to deserve another title shot?” The numbers don’t lie: Judah has lost two of his last three bouts (the tune-up with Ruben Galvan being officially ruled, if unfairly, a no-contest) and only officially won two of his last five fights.

His most egregious act, many feel, was his mediocre preparation for Carlos Baldomir (despite the multi-million dollar showdown with ex-crony Pretty Boy Floyd hanging in the balance) which led to him not only losing his titles (except the IBF strap) but almost getting knocked out in the process by a 35 year-old snail-slow journeyman with only 12 knockouts in 57 bouts. When Judah was inexplicably allowed to keep his status as IBF “champion” because Baldomir didn’t pay the sanctioning fees, boxing’s fans collectively sighed in disgust as this comedy played out.

This comedy, of course, led to Mayweather-Judah being billed as a “title bout,” though everyone knew otherwise. A farce was upon us, which Mayweather himself took every opportunity to legitimize as a championship bout, despite the “champion” having just had his clock cleaned months before. We all wondered, as has become the going phrase now, “which Judah was going to show up.” Would it be the Zab who fought a brilliant fight against Corey Spinks in their second matchup? Or would we have to endure the Zab whose in-ring clowning earned him a rude introduction to the mat, courtesy of a Kostya Tsyzu right hand in the second round of their 140-lb showdown? The problem is, in the words of Forrest Gump, you never know what you’re going to get.

Enter Miguel Angel Cotto (29-0, 24 ko’s) the murderous-punching Puerto Rican WBA welterweight titlist who sits on the verge of superstardom. A product of the Top Rank superstar machine, Cotto sports an excellent amateur pedigree which culminated with his representation of Puerto Rico in the 2000 Olympics. Undefeated as a professional, Cotto has exhibited his own skillset which have prompted many to anoint him the heir-apparent to the little island’s most famous boxing figure, one Felix “Tito” Trinidad. This presumption has not been met without skepticism, however.

While Cotto possesses kayo power with both hands, a solid defense, excellent boxing skills, and a debilitating body attack, he is not without his own deficits. The whispers began after his TKO win over Demarcus “Chop Chop” Corley, a contest in which Corley’s right hand repeatedly connected and found Cotto clearly hurt. Cotto, to his credit, mustered his resolve and stopped Corley in the fifth round . Two fights later, he found his chin checked once again by the rugged Colombian Ricardo Torres, a late replacement for Gianluca Branco, who pulled out due to a hand injury.

The game Torres gave Cotto all he could handle, badly hurting the champion in a bout which saw the bloody-nosed Puerto Rican hit the canvas in what was officially ruled a knockdown (though Cotto was pushed). Cotto rallied to knock the challenger out in seven, but the damage had already been done as his reputation took a worse beating than he gave Torres. The whispers grew louder and soon the word was out: Cotto’s chin was suspect. Top Rank’s spin apparatus quickly issued the explanation that Cotto didn’t have shaky whiskers at all, the culprit actually being a ruptured eardrum sustained during the Corley bout. It turns out, however, that a glass beard wasn’t the only criticism being hurled Cotto’s way.

Cotto’s careful handling by the Top Rank matchmakers, while masterful, had begun to put a bad taste in the mouth of some fans, as Cotto was perceived as brilliant but protected. Cotto had, since 2005, seemed to be content to feast on perennial contenders (Demarcus Corley), no-hopers (Ginaluca Branco), and last minute replacements (Ricardo Torres). In fact, only Carlos Quintana and previous Olympic nemesis Mohamad Abdulaev were perceived to be serious threats. The public began to clamor for Cotto to step up his competition and finally face an elite fighter with a chance of making his “0” go. Enter Zab Judah, boxing’s prodigal son.

Many would argue that this is yet another sleight-of-hand by savvy businessmen who feel (and perhaps rightfully so) that Zab Judah’s notorious penchant for failing to show up could provide Cotto with the much-needed credibility that will undoubtedly catapult Cotto into mainstream superstardom. Others would argue that any Judah incarnation is dangerous, whether it be the razor-sharp manifestation that has made him (still) one of the world’s top fighters or the ill-prepared Judah that seems to surface with greater frequency as the years pass.

A win over Judah would signal Cotto’s arrival on the big stage and place him squarely on a collision course with the man many perceive to be the most avoided man in boxing this side of Winky Wright, Antonio “The Tijuana Tornado” Margarito. Cotto-Judah has all the makings of a classic: puncher vs. boxer, quiet menace vs. flashiness, ascending undefeated champion vs. world-class former champion at a crossroads. The winner will likely go on to great fortune and fame facing the game’s marquee fighters, while the loser will surely fall many notches in esteem.

In Cotto’s case, it will be said that he was never that good to begin with, a protected superstar who crumbled at his first “real” challenge. In Judah’s case, a loss will likely signal the end of his championship aspirations and his status as an elite fighter. These scenarios have lent high drama to this matchup and left fans salivating. This is why this fight is happening, and this is why you and I will watch.

Article posted on 27.05.2007

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