June 9 -- Madison Square Garden, New York, NY
Winner: Miguel Cotto TKO-11
The first of Cotto's two star-cementing wins in 2007 was his rugged -- some would even say dirty -- destruction of former undisputed welterweight king Zab Judah. The fight, held the day before New York City's annual Puerto Rican Day parade, pitted a rising young basher against a veteran with flair, who also had plenty of support, given that he was born and raised in Brooklyn.
Cotto-Judah did a lot for everyone involved. For Cotto, it made him an undeniable attraction, as well as a real deal top-tier fighter at welterweight. For Judah, it was a bit of a career rebirth, even in defeat. And for the sport, it proved that Madison Square Garden, or any other venue, can be sold out and rocking if you make the right fights. Cotto-Judah on June 9 in New York City was perfect -- both have great New York fanbases, Cotto is probably Puerto Rico's biggest boxing star currently (though Tito Trinidad is, of course, ready to come back), and Judah used what was left of his name and reputation to sell this fight from his end. Though I've always strongly disliked Judah, I'll give him that.
And I'll give him this, too: He fought his ass off. Judah hadn't looked so good in a long, long time, probably dating back to his 2005 avenging victory over Cory Spinks. After that, Judah had demolished Cosme Rivera (though he should have), found himself on the wrong end of a stunning upset loss to Carlos Baldomir, and then been both dominated and disgraced in a loss to Floyd Mayweather, Jr., in the infamous "Riot Fight" of 2006.
He returned in April 2007 to tune up for Cotto, going less than a round with Ruben Galvan before the fight was stopped on a cut and ruled a no-contest. It had been so long since we'd seen the Zab Judah that became one of boxing's top stars that it was hard to imagine him really returning, especially nearing age 30. The Zab of old was surely gone.
And, really, he is still unlikely to return to form. His two wins following the loss to Cotto were lackluster performances against marginal opponents. But for one night in June, Zab Judah fought his heart out. It wasn't enough to win, or even come very close to it. But in losing, his career was back on track. He was, if only for a moment, Zab Judah once more.
The atmosphere at MSG was electric, with the heavily Puerto Rican crowd breaking an all-time attendance record for the Garden and rabidly cheering their man on. With Judah's Brooklyn contingent also in the house, I feared what might go down should the fight go all 12 rounds and look like a close one. Would I want the judges to get it right or get it wrong? All hell could break loose.
Judah hurt Cotto in the first round, exhibiting his superior speed and boxing ability against Cotto's intensive body attack. But the first round will always be remembered most for a roundhouse low blow from Cotto, which Judah reacted to as if he'd literally been shot in the groin. But Zab took the first round. In the second frame, Cotto got the pace more to his liking and dominated the round, landing a big hook to the body and pinning Zab against the ropes.
The third round saw another vicious low blow, with Judah flying across the wrong and giving the impression that he now did not actually have a groin. Cotto stood, stoic, across the ring with blood leaking from his chin to his chest. This time a point was deducted, and with Judah winning the round on my card, it was a two-point swing in Zab's favor.
In fact, I had Judah even with Cotto, 66-66, through seven rounds, when he had his best round since the first one. His left hand was ripping into Cotto and he was beating the younger fighter to the punch. Then, he made his fatal mistake.
Instead of trying to keep working away with the blistering left that was winning him some rounds, he tried to get physical with Cotto. Not a good idea. The body shots started landing with aplomb, and Zab even started taking really substantial shots to the head. He was hurt, clearly, but showing his toughness. A three-punch combo to the body rocked him, hard, and the momentum swung. As it turned out, it had swung for good.
The ninth round was the seal on the deal. Try as he may, Zab Judah was not going to win this fight. Manny Steward, at ringside for HBO, thought Judah was close to done. I had to agree. Moments later, Judah missed an uppercut, and moments later took a knee. His right eye was swelling shut and he was being battered from the inside out. He got up at eight, but Cotto opened up with combination shots that made me think Judah wouldn't even get off the stool to start the 10th round.
And, in fact, referee Arthur Mercante, Jr., told Judah in his corner between rounds that he had to start showing something or the fight would be stopped. In the ninth, it was more Cotto domination, but with Judah showing an iron will that had never exactly been his calling card. The whole thing was pretty amazing; in getting soundly beaten, Judah was impressing my natural, more macho, boxing fan instincts more than he ever had in any of his wins, even when he was at his most destructive.
Judah managed to hang on for the tenth round, but I had him trailing, 96-92. On the official cards, he was down 97-91 on all three. Zab went down again early in the eleventh round, and though he got up once again, it was just moments away. With Cotto smothering Judah, Mercante stepped in, telling Zab, "I love you too much." He was being pummeled at that point, had no realistic hope of winning on the cards, and would've been given perhaps a 1.3% chance of knocking Cotto out in the next round-plus. It was the right call.
49 seconds into the 11th round was the official time, and that was also the moment that Miguel Cotto became a bona fide star. He landed 170 more punches than Judah (292-132), over twice as many power shots (214-90), and just flat-out beat the hell out of Zab Judah, who came in very game and put for this best effort. It wasn't good enough to win, but it was good enough to make for a very good fight.
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