Max Kellerman

Tuesday, November 6
Max: Judah stoppage was very premature

By Max Kellerman
Special to

Let me begin by congratulating Kostya Tszyu on his performance against Zab Judah last Saturday night. In the biggest fight of his life, after being hurt twice in the first round by the most dangerous opponent he ever faced, Kostya made adjustments, dominated the second round, lined Judah up for a right hand, and knocked him down. With five seconds to go in the second round Tszyu's right hand landed flush on Judah's chin and separated the Brooklynite's legs from the commands of his brain -- for about eight seconds. Within 10 seconds from the moment the punch landed, Judah was walking around the ring, complaining about the stoppage.

As an unabashed Judah fan (boxing analysts are not exempt from the human tendency to play favorites), part of me was a little relieved that the fight was stopped when it was. The stoppage gave Judah supporters a reasonable complaint, something we would not have had if he'd been knocked out clean in the following round. However -- and as the person who has been pulling the Judah bandwagon, I know what I am about to say will sound like sour grapes, but nevertheless -- the truth is that it was a premature stoppage.

I am not convinced that Judah would have lost the fight had he been allowed to continue. In the past, Zab has demonstrated the ability to come off the canvas to score knockout wins. Granted, when Jan Bergman knocked him down, Zab was not badly hurt when he rose to win. But Judah's bout with Terron Millett was similar to the Tszyu scenario. Zab had Millet in trouble early, just like he had Kostya legitimately hurt twice in the first round. After Millet knocked him down, Zab rose on unsteady legs, his head clear but the oxygen supply between his brain and legs clearly disrupted. He wobbled when he rose, but by the beginning of the next round Zab's legs were back. A few minutes later Terron was on the canvas and the fight was over.

Now, certainly Kostya Tszyu is a better fighter and finisher than Terron Millett, and had Zab been allowed to come out for round three, Kostya would have been considered the favorite to go on and win the fight. But I am not convinced that Tszyu would have gone on to win, that he wouldn't have gotten caught and hurt again with another Judah left uppercut, that Zab wouldn't have begun to exploit the holes in Kostya's defense that he found in the first round.

The result of the fight was simply inconclusive. One thing we can say is that Judah's chin is no longer a question mark. The fact is, his legs are frequently short circuited by punches that hit him clean.

Among those I watched the fight with was former light heavyweight champion and Cus D'Amato protege Jose Torres. Jose made several interesting comments during the course of the fight, the first being that Kostya's punches were beautifully straight. The right hand that clocked Zab certainly was. In response to my remark that Judah's Achilles heel is his chin, Jose said that no one has a good chin, no one takes a great punch on the chin. The fighters that don't get knocked out are the ones who avoid getting hit on the chin. My immediate reply was "what about LaMotta?" Jose insisted that Jake LaMotta was a master of tucking his chin into his chest and taking punches anywhere but there.

While I do think that fighters have varying degrees of resistance to the effects of punches -- even on their chins -- I also believe that Jose is basically correct. Almost any fighter is in trouble when hit directly on the chin with a good punch. This leads to a confusing conclusion: Zab Judah, a fighter who has made defensive maneuvers in the ring as spectacular as any seen in recent years, is a flawed defensive fighter. He is too easy to hit on the chin. Sharmba Mitchell, a slick southpaw like Judah, doesn't have Zab's remarkable, did-you-see-that defensive moves, and lacks Zab's natural ability. However, Mitchell's chin was not as easy for Tszyu to find as Zab's was.

In the Bergman, Millett and Tszyu fights, Zab was caught right on the point of the chin. Of course, in all three fights he popped right back up. In the Tszyu fight, it was this popping right back up that lead to Zab's defeat. Judah was caught flush, and the messages sent from his brain to his legs were disrupted, but his other mental capacities seemed to be okay. He seemed to be aware of where he was and what was going on around him. In other words, he appeared to be fully conscious. Rather than take a knee and maybe an eight count and then rise, his fighter's pride (and lack of big fight experience) told him to jump up quickly, to demonstrate that he had not been badly hurt.

As a result of his premature initial attempt to get up, Zab got to his feet before he had regained control of his legs. He immediately fell again, and looked silly doing so. Before he could attempt to stand up once more -- five seconds after Kostya's punch landed and with no time remaining in the round -- referee Jay Nady stopped the fight. Had Judah collected himself first and then risen before Nady reached the count of 10, he likely would have been allowed to continue.

The bottom line is that no matter how silly Judah looked doing his Trevor Berbick impersonation (flopping to the canvas more than once from the effects of a single blow), the fact remains that after Zab was knocked down, he had control of his legs before 10 seconds elapsed. That is why there is a 10-count -- the fighter has 10 seconds to recover (more or less -- counts have been known to be both slow and fast). Zab Judah was not given his 10 seconds, or even the referee's interpretation of 10 seconds.

At this point, those who care primarily for the fighter's safety make the argument that it is better to err on the side of caution. In principle I agree. I was the color commentator for the tragic Khalid Jones-Beethaven Scottland fight this last summer. By the fifth round that fight became alarming. Scottland was knocked out in the 10th and eventually died as a result of injuries he sustained in the fight. Several years ago Jimmy Garcia suffered the same fate at the hands of Gabriel Ruelas. Fights that end tragically almost always fit the same pattern: at least one fighter takes consistent and traumatic punishment to the head over the course of several or more rounds.

There are very few instances in boxing history where a fighter has been seriously hurt from a single punch landed in an early round. I thought Nady, who is not a bad referee, but has had a few bad moments, acted prematurely in this fight, while in the Felix Trinidad-Fernando Vargas fight, he didn't act soon enough. Vargas had taken a lot of punishment over 12 rounds before being dropped by a vicious left hook in the final frame. Vargas got off the deck and Nady allowed him to continue. He was dropped again. Again he rose, and at this point it would have been appropriate to stop the fight. Nady allowed the fight to continue until Vargas was floored for a third time and the fight was stopped.

Nady's judgement in the Trinidad-Vargas fight was not bad, but it certainly was not a decision made primarily with the fighter's safety in mind. And Trinidad-Vargas was a very good example of a dangerous fight, the kind of fight where the fighter on the end of most of the punishment needs to be watched very closely. Thankfully, Vargas was not, as far as can be told, permanently damaged. The point is, Tszyu-Judah serves as a good example of the type of fight where a referee need not act hastily, while Trinidad-Vargas is a good example of the kind of fight where the referee should err on the side of caution and perhaps stop the fight before it comes to a conclusive ending by way of force. Nady's judgement in the Tszyu-Judah fight was better suited for the Trinidad-Vargas fight, and vice versa.

As for Zab's future, well, he obviously needs to do a better job of protecting his somewhat fragile chin. Meanwhile, he can look to two recent examples of fighters who were knocked out in title fights against more experienced opponents, but went on to have successful championship careers. Julian Jackson stormed out against junior middleweight champion Mike McCallum and seemed to be carrying the fight in the first round, but McCallum caught him in the second round and stopped him. That didn't, however, stop Jackson from attaining championship glory later in his career, and seeing his name join the all-time power-punching debate. Fast forward a few years, and now Terry Norris is challenging Jackson for what is by this time Jackson's junior middleweight belt. Norris is winning the fight until he gets caught with one of Jackson's bombs and KO'd. Still, Terry Norris goes on to become one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in boxing. Just to make the Zab parallel even neater, both Jackson and Norris were knocked out in the second round of fights they were winning.

Does it seem like I have forgotten about the winner of Saturday's fight, the new undisputed junior welterweight champion of the world? I haven't. Kostya Tszyu fought intelligently during the fight and spoke eloquently afterwards, as usual on both counts. All boxing fans should be proud of him, not just for his performance, but because the way he conducts himself adds luster to our beleaguered, beautiful sport. Tszyu must also now be considered one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world. The top 10 is mighty crowded nowadays, but he's earned a spot in it. If it sounds like I am underrating him by not putting him in the top five, consider: Bernard Hopkins, Shane Mosley, Roy Jones Jr., Floyd Mayweather Jr., Marco Antonio Barrera, Ricardo Lopez, Oscar De La Hoya and Felix Trinidad. Tszyu is a powerful, experienced, rugged, intelligent fighting machine. And Jose is right; he punches straight as an arrow. If you are not a Kostya Tszyu fan by now, you just don't get it. Of course, this article has been mostly about Zab, so maybe I don't get it enough. I'm trying.

Finally, Zab's behavior after the fight was inexcusable. Personally I root for Zab when he is in the ring and when he is not, but my professional opinion is that he should be both fined and suspended. Nothing too severe, but enough to let him and other fighters know that such behavior will not be tolerated. Certainly not by the Nevada State Athletic Commission, which regulates boxing in Las Vegas, our sport's unofficial capital.

My nightmare weekend: Zab Judah and the New York Yankees lose on consecutive nights. If you don't like me, be happy, because this hurts.

Max Kellerman is a studio analyst for ESPN2's Friday Night Fights.

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