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Classic Fight: Miguel Cotto wears out Zab Judah in sizzling MSG battle

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Zab Judah was looking to get back on top, and Miguel Cotto was looking to get established at 147.

13 years ago, Miguel Cotto was unbeaten, a rising headline attraction in New York, particularly at Madison Square Garden. He’d won the WBO title at 140 pounds and generally looked like a terminator in that weight class, but the bigger money and bigger fights were at 147, so in late 2006, he moved up.

Cotto’s first two fights at welterweight proved no trouble. He stopped fellow Puerto Rican Carlos Quintana, a skilled but somewhat chinny southpaw, in five rounds, then dominated Germany’s Oktay Urkal en route to an 11th round stoppage, which was the last time Urkal ever fought.

With his devastating body attack, calm and icy demeanor, and the Puerto Rican fan base looking for a new superstar in a post-Tito Trinidad world, the 26-year-old Cotto (29-0, 24 KO coming in) had the makings of a major box office attraction.

Zab Judah had fallen on some hard times. A former titlist at 140 and 147, Judah was still just 29 but sort of an old 29. By the time he met Miguel Cotto on June 9, 2007, the Brooklyn star hadn’t won a fight in two years.

His drop started with a shocking Jan. 2006 upset loss to Carlos Baldomir, a massive underdog who was a mandatory challenger that had to be dealt with before Judah could meet Floyd Mayweather in a big fight three months later.

The plodding Baldomir, who came in 41-9-6 and didn’t even have power (just 12 KO wins), was expected to be easy pickings for Judah. But he wasn’t. Baldomir kept applying pressure and Judah just didn’t step his game up, losing a fair decision and dropping the WBC title. He’d keep the IBF and WBA belts, as Baldomir didn’t pay sanctioning fees on those, but Zab would lose those to Mayweather three months later in a fight that had its moments but is ultimately more remembered for an in-ring brawl between the corners.

The Mayweather incident led to Judah being fined $350,000 and suspended for a year. When he returned a year later in 2007, he did a tune-up with club fighter Ruben Galvan in Mississippi, which ended in a first round no-contest due to a cut caused by an elbow from Judah to Galvan’s skull.

But the target had been a June fight at Madison Square Garden with Cotto. Though Judah (34-4, 25 KO coming in) wasn’t exactly on a hot streak to say the least, he still had die hard fans and name value, particularly in New York. And if his head was fully on straight on a given night, it’s not like he’d become some old man; he could fight, and on paper, his speed and southpaw stance figured to give Cotto some issues.

They did, at least early on. Cotto had some problems with Judah’s speed in the early going, and he was hurt in the first round on an uppercut. MSG was buzzing.

So what did Cotto do? He went a little low. Judah oversold it (he was a dramatic character), but it was a borderline shot in the first round. One in the third, which Judah also went theatrical on, was definitely low.

Judah was in the fight in that he didn’t just give up, but I have personally always seen this fight as something of a beatdown from Cotto to Judah. I had him well ahead most of the night and his style and determination and just his focus seemed to give Zab serious issues. Judah couldn’t crack the guy; once Cotto proved that Judah’s speed wasn’t going to be enough by itself, Judah seemed lost for answers. It was another night where Zab, who had elite level natural ability and talent, seemed to be less than the sum of his parts, a recurring theme in his career.