NEWARK, N.J. -- Five things we learned from Zab Judah's seventh-round knockout of Kaiser Mabuza for the IBF junior welterweight title Saturday in Newark, N.J.
1. Judah is back in the mix. It seems like light-years since Judah was an undisputed welterweight champion getting name-checked in Jay-Z songs. The native New Yorker's bid for superstardom came crashing down in 2006, when he lost the 147-pound title to the lightly-regarded Carlos Baldomir before a hometown crowd at the Theater at Madison Square Garden. After years of layoffs and miscellaneous chaos, a refocused Judah is making one last run at a big-money fight, and Saturday's eye-popping knockout of Mabuza for the IBF title was a major step. Say what you want about the alphabet titles -- yes, they're largely irrelevant -- but they're useful bargaining chips and can make you a palatable opponent for bigger names. That's exactly what Judah, 33, is hoping for as he looks down the homestretch of his career.
2. Sweet Pea's influence was manifest. In Judah's previous fight, the southpaw took far too much punishment -- including a 10th-round knockdown -- in a narrow decision victory over Argentina's Lucas Matthysse. Hoping to shore up his defensive holes, Judah prepared for Saturday's fight by sparring with Olympic gold medalist and four-division champion Pernell Whitaker, whose influence was far-reaching. After Judah charged across the center of the ring at the opening bell, he spent the next five rounds backpedaling, keeping out of range and making himself an evasive target -- like the slippery Whitaker in his prime -- more move-and-occasionally-stick than stick-and-move. Judah tried to lure Mabuza into mistakes, countering with combinations to the body. Problem was, Mabuza wasn't accommodating, patiently walking Judah down and inflicting steady damage. But Judah's defensive clinic paid off, and the offense turned up when he needed it (and not a moment too soon). "That was after six weeks," said Main Events CEO Kathy Duva, who promotes Judah. "Imagine what it's going to look like after six months."
3. Judah showed lots of heart. When Mabuza caught Judah off balance with a right hook late in the fourth, referee Samuel Viruet waited a beat before ruling it a knockdown. (From ringside, Judah's glove did appear to touch the canvas, a mandatory eight-count.) An apoplectic Judah reverted to familiar offensive impulses, turning to the attack, but he still wasn't able to put enough punches together. Late in the sixth, Mabuza connected with the best punch of the fight to that point: a straight right that snapped Judah's head back along the ropes. After six rounds, SI.com had it 58-55 to Mabuza. But just minutes later, Judah's heat-seeking right sent Mabuza crashing into the ropes. Viruet let it continue, but Judah quickly finished it with a flurry of punches. "He used his experience," Mabuza said afterward.
4. Mabuza was no stiff. The oddsmakers expected Judah to win on class alone, but Mabuza was a live dog despite his paltry resume. The taller, younger South African was coming off the biggest win of his career, a sixth-round stoppage of Kendall Holt that guaranteed him a shot at the title. He cut a chiseled, strongman figure Saturday and didn't look out of his league. But Judah followed Whitaker's advice -- "Box your way into the knockout" -- and it paid off handsomely.
5. Bigger opponents loom for Judah. Judah now holds one of the major world titles in one of boxing's deepest divisions, where Amir Khan holds the WBA title, Timothy Bradley owns the WBC and WBO straps, and dangerous floaters include Devon Alexander, Marcos Maidana, Andreas Kotelnik and Victor Ortiz. Duva even mentioned lightweight champion Juan Manuel Marquez and -- "if he beats all the other ones" -- pound-for-pound kingpin Manny Pacquiao. Let's not go overboard here. Judah hasn't beaten a world class fighter since beating Cory Spinks for the undisputed welterweight title in 2005, with losses to Floyd Mayweather Jr., Miguel Cotto and Joshua Clottey in the interim. It's too soon to dream about a pay-per-view showdown against one of boxing's big fish. But is he ready to be a player in the 140-pound division? Absolutely.