Psychology of a "Super" talent

23.09.04 - By Joseph Buro: In this sport, more than any other, the mental make-up of an athlete can defy the bounds of physical prowess. We’ve seen many great fighters will themselves off the canvas to pull out stunning, come-from-behind victories. We’ve also seen fighters crumble when faced with similar controversy. Floyd Patterson, for example, was a unique fighter in history in that he unashamedly admitted fears about stepping into the ring. David Remnick, author of King of the World, who spent some time with Patterson, described the phenomenon as follows:

Some great athletes experience a round, a play, even an entire contest, in slow motion, as if their superior speed, their gift of judgment and coordination, provides them with a more usable perception of time. The athlete who sees the contest this way has invariably won; he’s beaten his opponent to the punch, run down the quarterback, read the seams on a curveball and hit it out of the park.

But for the overmatched, time does not so much slow down as lose its coherence. Floyd experienced time in Chicago as a confusion of pressures and noise, as anxiety, like drowning, like falling out of a plane, and afterward he could barely remember what had taken place over the span of two minutes and six seconds. . . . [He] was frozen from the start.

What confuses many fans is the fighter born with all the physical gifts and pure talent Remnick refers to, but suffers from mental let-downs all the same.

For Zab Judah, talent isn’t an issue. He possesses unsurpassed speed and generates surprising power from his 5’ 6” frame. Technically, he possess one of the most creative offensive attacks in the game, landing straight lefts to the chin seemingly out of nowhere. In an era where most champions do their best work by countering sloppy opponents, Judah is one of the few that can overwhelm a fighter by moving forward.

Going in as the favorite against undisputed champ Kostya Tszyu, Judah worked the ring beautifully for the first two rounds. His advantage in hand and foot speed was apparent as he gracefully moved from side to side, firing off combinations and then retreating. As I watched, I couldn’t help but feel that the 140-pound division was about to change, that its old warrior was about to be replaced by a new breed of fighter, a speedy southpaw from New York with bad intentions.

Then the unthinkable happened: Judah, for all his flash and talent, made the classic amateur move and the old champ capitalized. About midway through the second round, Judah, confident that his speed was simply too much, stepped back (rather than side to side) to avoid Tszyu’s lunging right hand. The punch landed right on Judah’s chin, flooring him and paralyzing the crowd for no more than an instant.

What came next was almost mythical. Clearly embarrassed, Judah jumped off the canvas about as fast as he was placed there. As Judah made his way over to a corner to receive is mandatory eight-count, his ankle gave way, shooting a spasm throughout his body that observers later referred to as the Chicken Dance. Jay Nady, who refereed the bout and was standing behind Judah at the time, had obviously seen enough of Zab’s B-boy moves and called the bout to a halt. Whether the Chicken Dance resulted from the force of Tszyu’s right hand, the excitement of getting floored an then rising from the canvas, or hip-hop culture gone wrong, we’ll probably never know. Judah, apparently, thought the stoppage was a bit premature and showed his dismay by throwing his corner stool across the ring and threatening Jay Nady, adding melee to what was truly a bizarre night. He was promptly fined and suspended by the Nevada State Athletic Commission.

He would work his way back from that crushing embarrassment by outclassing the respectable then-WBO champ, Demarcus “Chop Chop” Corley, before getting his next big opportunity against undisputed welterweight champ Cory Spinks.

In a way, it was a fight that would define the first half of Zab Judah’s career.

Judah, who was stepping up in weight for the first time, was uncharacteristically passive early on in the fight. Spinks swept the first four rounds using mainly his jab and his superior reach to keep Judah from firing back. The next four rounds were almost a mirror image of the first four. Judah, realizing he was down on the cards, started to press forward, slipping Spinks’ jab and ripping lightning quick combinations on the inside. Like the first round against Tszyu, Judah was making the undisputed champ look foolish. But what we learned was that his ability to outclass his opposition is exactly what contributes to his undoing.

By the time the bell sounded to finish the eighth round, the fight was a dead heat. Judah, who had come all the way back, began to showboat, and Spinks was visibly frustrated by his quicker opponent. The next turning point came when Judah danced over to the ropes and hollered to his good buddy Floyd Mayweather, Jr, who sat ringside to watch the fight. In one of those rare ironic moments, Judah, with a grin on his face, swung his head back around and planted his chin right on the Spinks’ waiting left hand. The shot stunned Judah momentarily and won Spinks the round. It also changed the momentum of the fight. Spinks took the tenth and eleventh, flooring Judah once in the latter. In a final stroke of brilliance, Judah caught Spinks sleeping in the twelfth with a straight left on the chin, nearly sending Spinks through the ropes. Spinks would beat the ten-count and barely survive the round, clearly shaken badly.

When the scorecards were read, Spinks escaped with a narrow majority decision victory.

What disturbs me about Zab Judah is that he has the talent to outclass any fighter in two of the best divisions in boxing. But with each passing fight, including those against Demarcus Corley and Rafael Pineda, he always leaves me with the same questions: Is he going to focus tonight? Is he going to get over the hump? Does he even care? In the end, I don’t know these are even the right questions to ask. Maybe Larry Merchant put it best when he said that “Tonight we are going to find out whether Zab Judah is the next big thing or just a punk with a glass jaw.” Whether he is one or the other, it’s unfortunate for the fans, those waiting for this boxing phenom to explode, that these questions are renewed each time Zab laces up the gloves.

Article posted on 23.09.2004

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