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The Chosen One

Nov. 05, 2001
Nov. 05, 2001

Table of Contents
Nov. 5, 2001

Boxing [bonus Piece]
Photo Credits: Jeffery A. Salter/Saba

The Chosen One

If you've never heard of Zab Judah, who will fight to unify the junior welterweight title this weekend, then you don't know boxing's strangest family saga

Time's chewing, Zabdiel. It's nearer dawn than midnight. No one should be awake now, let alone a guy 20 hours from stepping inside a roped-off square and fighting for the championship of the world.

This is an article from the Nov. 5, 2001 issue Original Layout

But no wonder you can't sleep. You're going into the ring with everything. You're going in with nothing. You've got rattlesnake hands, radar in your head and neck—you land and leave while they're still loading up. You've got 27 wins, no losses, the IBF junior welterweight title and the perfect name for a boxer, strong and short as a one-two combo: Zab Judah. Yet who outside of boxing junkies has ever heard of you? Your goal is for people 30 years from now to utter your name in the same breath with those of the greatest boxers in history. The biggest name you've beaten so far is Terronn Millett.

Now comes your first real test. It all begins tomorrow, Saturday night, in Las Vegas. Or it ends.

You've come into the ring with smoke billowing and rap musicians barking and light flashing off the platinum and diamonds on your front teeth, off your glittering silver jacket and trunks. Kostya Tszyu, the Russian-born WBA and WBC champ, just comes, straight on, like a Tartar on horseback.

Your hotel room's finally quiet. All your siblings and aunts and uncles and cousins and nephews and boxing pals have been swept out. Everything's turned off, all the electronic devices you use to push stillness away. All turned off except you, still bursting out of the chair and throwing flurries at the night, shouting, "Total destruction! Undefeated! Undisputed! Knock him out!"

Lie down, Zab. I'll tell you a bedtime story. It's hard to believe, sort of like a Bible story, but it's all true. It's your story.

In the beginning there was confusion. Everywhere. Picture it: Your father, Prince Yo'el Judah, was wearing a robe and a turban and clutching a wooden staff. It was 1977. Not before Christ. After. The year you'd be born.

Your mother was fighting mad. So were the two women beside her. They'd just stumbled upon an astonishing coincidence, something they all held in common: your father's seed.

They closed in on the prince, demanding an explanation. How could he possibly lie? They were Israelites, God's Chosen Ones. They were standing in a temple. Not in Canaan or Samaria or the Golan Heights. In Brooklyn.

The prince had wits, a warm smile and the Book on his side. The Book was filled with holy men who never settled for just one bedmate, and it permitted the males of their tribe to do the same. That didn't calm the women. They still wanted to throw the Book upside your daddy's turbaned skull.

Idah gave birth to a daughter. Dinah delivered a son. From Yemima's womb came you, Zabdiel. A child born into an Old Testament life in a 20th-century ghetto. A boy who'd travel anywhere and strike anyone to find his way to his father's arms. A black Jew.

There was no way to sort it out, Zab. You'd just have to live it.

Sundowns on Saturdays, Zab. Remember them? The darkest of the week's seven dusks. Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath, was ending: the service done, the Israelites' kosher meal eaten and the cleanup finished at the two-story brick temple and community center in Crown Heights that they called "camp." It was time for heads to turn as members of the sect spilled onto Buffalo Avenue.

Those first half-dozen years of your life, Zab, your mother still took you to camp, carrying the scar in her heart and you in her arms. Your pantaloons flashing and long braids slapping your back, you'd throw on your coat and race to the door to wait when you sensed that your father was ready to leave, or you'd scramble into Abba's car in hopes of going with him. Abba, that's what Prince Yo'el's children called him. It's Hebrew for father.

Yemima, your mother, would pull you sobbing from the backseat. By now Abba and Dinah had three sons, your half-brothers. They'd take your place in the car, and Abba would pull away.

Why them? You were more Abba than any of them. You had Abba's handsome face, his heart-melting smile, his volcanic temper and restlessness and rat-tat-tat speech, spitting words faster than an ear could take them in or your tongue could serve them up, leaving listeners lost.

You craved something else he had. Abba had an aura. It wasn't the dark shadow that the gangbangers dragged past the tenement in Brownsville where you lived with your mother. They had two weapons, their left and right hands, maybe a third stashed away beneath a belt or in a pocket. Abba? He had hands registered at Brooklyn's 77th Precinct, he had feet, knees, elbows and forearms, thunderbolts he could launch from angles those cats never dreamed of. And he had something else in his arsenal: heart. His shoulders rolling like a wave in a fish tank, he'd yo-yo toward and away from people as he talked, making eye contact, making them grin. Who'd be the first to dash to a wrecked automobile, glass and blood sprayed everywhere, crawl in and pull out the screaming passengers? Your dad. Who'd stand up to companies working on the big construction sites in Brooklyn and insist that they hire minorities? With Abba at your side, each breath of Brooklyn you took lost its acid taste of fear.

Nearly every little boy, when he's four or five, wants to be his dad, Zab. Then that urge slowly dies away. With you, somehow, it never did. But who was Abba? The answer must've seemed as mysterious as the Hebrew verses etched on his wooden staff, as the pythons of hair coiled inside his turban, as the darts and jagged stars he kept hidden in pouches on his belt to hurl at anyone who might attack when he ran alone at midnight. Abba was a man of contradiction, a disciple who held open palms to the East to pray for peace by day, and cracked heads at night; a devoted dad who could strike you, or leave you, in a flash; a man who drew women to him, drove them away, then turned them into friends. Go ahead, Zab, try to make him add up: a seventh-degree black-belt, black-Jew ninja, a future champion kickboxer and something more dangerous than that—a pilgrim in pursuit of one thing pure.

Before he was Prince Yo'el Judah, before he was Abba, he was Robert Harvey—but his family called him Boobie. Did he ever tell you that, Zab? One night when he was nine, Boobie didn't come home for dinner, and his mother grew panicky.

Boobie had just found his first temple: a dojo. He stared through its window, nine blocks from home in Bedford-Stuyvesant, then slipped inside and stared for four hours more. He was spellbound by the structure—by the crispness of the karate uniforms and the mats and the motions and the verbal exchanges between student and master. It could never happen here, what had happened twice at home: the police barging through the door, toppling furniture, ransacking closets and drawers in search of stolen goods while his father stood silent, head bowed, hands manacled.

Those hands were where the thunder in yours originated, Zab. You never knew your grandfather because he died two years before you were born. He was a foster child who entered the New York Golden Gloves as a teenager and found out, with those hands, who he was: a welterweight champion. Then the Korean War came and took him with it. He returned to Brooklyn with all sorts of souvenirs: a Purple Heart, a Silver Star, scarlet welts on his face, a metal plate from a bullet he'd taken in the leg, a bellyful of shrapnel from a grenade. . .and a chestful of bitterness. Your grandfather's hands ended up jimmying locks, popping windows, emptying cash registers.

Now and then Boobie got to see him, in the visiting room at the state penitentiary in Walkill, N.Y. The same question always burst in the boy's head when his eyes met his father's: Should he hug him—or run?

Boobie craved order. He kept his bed and floor so immaculate you could dine off them, pressed a crease in his pants that could cut you, another sort of disguise: Where there's Johnson's Wax and hospital corners, there's always rage. He'd bust a bottle over the head of a guy 60 pounds heavier who barreled over him playing basketball; he'd end up punching and kicking and gouging boys on the sidewalk every other day. But damn if the guys he'd fought with the evening before wouldn't come to his door the next morning to walk with him to school. Your dad had that charm.

You know how it is, Zab, growing up where you and your dad did. You have to choose. Guys would turn you into their slave if the stench of fear froze you, if you didn't fight. A kid in the cafeteria flung milk on Boobie one day. He threw up his fists, but the kid's two pals jumped Boobie. He had no chance. Never, never again.

He got home from the dojo that first night at 10 p.m. His mother and her broomstick were waiting. Three days later he snuck out to the dojo again, paid a guy five bucks for his uniform pants. He begged his mother, promised his grades wouldn't slip. She relented. He became relentless: one and a half hours every weekday, five hours on Saturdays, sets of 300 sit-ups and 75 push-ups, until he had joined the school's elite corps, the Demo Squad.

Boobie had received the gift of his daddy's lightning hands, but what would he do with them? The dojo solved that, placed them at the service of a sensei, made Boobie part of a pack pledged to purity of body and mind. The members of the Demo Squad helped one another perfect each movement, went out together to eat and talk. "Yo, either you're part of something, or you're part of nothin'," Boobie would say. "If you're part of nothin' in Brooklyn, yo, anything can happen to you. Like your ass gettin' 50 bullet holes."

When your dad was 16, a bully at his high school, a boxer, threw a punch at him one day in the hallway. Boobie slipped the punch, spun and exploded a back kick in the bully's face. His head struck the wall, then the floor—out cold. Boobie was wearing platform heels that day. He was suspended for two weeks, but that was fine. No one seemed itchy to fight him anymore. He could walk anywhere, anytime, and control his fear.

That same year, 1971, he heard a young man at the dojo speak of a black religious movement that he belonged to. Boobie had rarely been to church. He admired the man's proud carriage, the vast knowledge of God and of man's origins that he seemed to possess. He accepted an invitation, walked into the B'nai Zaken Sons of the Ancient synagogue—one of roughly 10 Israelite congregations across New York City—and learned something startling: He was much more than the son of a convict. He was a descendant of God's Chosen Ones, the original 12 tribes of Israel, the fruit of a glorious family tree. Soon he could cite, thanks to his new mentors, the evidence in the Old Testament that suggested the Chosen Ones were brown-skinned or black, a race warned in Deuteronomy that straying from God's path would cause it to be scattered across the earth as other nations' slaves. Well, hadn't that happened? Hadn't they brought it upon themselves, and now, if they banded together and revived the ways of the tribe from the days when God first smiled upon them, couldn't they regain their rightful power, their sacred standing? With a nod of his head it could all be his: an identity, a structure, a haven from the streets, a clan with its own language and uniform and code of conduct, a tribe so much larger and tighter than the Demo Squad.

Boobie drank it in, to the bottom of the chalice. He began studying Hebrew, studying the ancient passages and psalms, thrilling to the Torah's tales of betrayal, revenge, redemption and grace. No longer would he eat pork, any sea creature that lacked scales or scavenged, any fruit without seeds, as the Old Testament dictated. He grew his hair halfway down his back and coiled it into braids. His mama was aghast.

When their arguments grew fierce, he packed a few items in a bag and moved, at 17, into the B'Nai Zaken camp, sleeping on a cot surrounded by Hebrew verses and symbols of the 12 original tribes sketched on the walls. He studied the passages about Jacob's 12 sons, from whose loins those tribes had sprung, and searched for the one whose characteristics best matched his own: That was how a modern Israelite identified the tribe he was descended from and the name he should take. In Genesis 49:8 he found these words, spoken by Jacob on his deathbed to his fourth son, Judah:

Judah, your hand shall be on the neck of your enemies.

Your father's sons shall bow down before you.

Judah is a lion's whelp. . . .

Who dares rouse him up?

The scepter shall not depart from Judah

Nor the ruler's staff from between his feet

Until he comes to whom it belongs.

Oh, yes. In a flash he was Boobie no more. He was a Judah, Yo'el Judah, from the tribe of lions and warriors. He was the perfect recruit, a disciplined foot soldier willing to stand sentry in the cold for hours and ward off threats from gangs, to scrub the camp spotless and to fast without complaint in preparation for feast days. So skilled was he in the martial arts, which the Israelites prized, that soon Yo'el was teaching the camp's karate class. By age 18 the foot soldier had demonstrated so much discipline and gained so much respect that Yaakov Nasi Benyehudah, the spiritual leader of B'nai Zaken and several other camps in New York and Chicago, declared him an Israelite prince, the equivalent of a minister.

Now he wore a turban along with his braids and robe and wooden staff. Now he was at the fore of a thousand robed males—chests thrust out, ornate staffs clicking the asphalt, gold chains and Star of David earrings flashing—when the Israelite congregations converged on feast days and marched through Brooklyn's streets. "Power, glory, unity," he'd say. "That's what I felt. It was something worth living for. Yo, it was the beginning of a nation."

One fringe camp of Israelites, based in Harlem, ranted on street corners and called the white man a devil, but Yo'el and most of the other camps did not believe that. In his dashiki and headdress he'd stroll into a kosher takeout deli at the corner of Kingston Avenue and Eastern Parkway, the heart of a heavily Hasidic Jewish community, and eavesdrop on bearded Hasidim in black frocks as they babbled in astonishment about him, never dreaming he understood Hebrew. Then he'd undo their lower mandibles by exiting with a cheery, "Shalom aleichem, haverim!" ("Peace unto you, friends!")

On the streets, he'd inhale what he missed most inside camp walls: the adrenaline rush of risk, the urge that once sent him leaping onto moving ice cream trucks to pirate popsicles for himself and his friends. He tried to resist it. Honest, he did. But your dad was barely 20, Zab, and inside him still lived the fatherless boy aching to belong and full of contradiction. He began to hang out with a gang called the Tomahawks, young men he'd known for years, and sometimes at night he fought alongside them against rival gangs in Brownsville, Brooklyn's most hellish 'hood. He became a sort of big brother to a thick, powerful kid who was too young to be a Tomahawk but was a promising trainee. Kid's name was Tyson. Kid loved living on the edge, and the chaos it brought, even more than your dad did. After a few months Yo'el and the Tomahawks parted ways.

One night, a Jewish feast day, the Israelites were banging down shots of Slivovitz and dancing to Motown on their jukebox in the rec room at camp. It was O.K.—plenty of examples of patriarchs catching a buzz could be cited in the Torah. Yo'el's 21-year-old head began to spin: A young woman who had taken Idah as her Israelite name was looking better every minute, and Dinah, who was pregnant with Yo'el's first child, was nowhere to be seen.

Having two women was common among the 60 men in his camp, but only the bravest dared three. Yo'el took Idah's hand and slipped away from the party late that night: Thus your half-sister Elishebah was begotten. He returned to Dinah's arms, and after the birth of their son Ariel they conceived their second child, Daniel. Then Yo'el found himself in the embrace of your mom, a feisty young beauty, a green belt he'd met at the dojo who'd taken Yemima as her Israelite name.

Zabdiel, she called you—Yoel's fourth child, by three women, in 16 months. Your name means Gift from God.

Still awake, Zab? What is it about sleep? Why do you keep shoving it to the other side of sunrise? Don't do it tonight. Don't pull on your sweats and run five miles, the way you did last year at 1 a.m. the night before the Millett fight.

Do you ever just lie still. . .and feel what it felt like, back then? It wasn't as if your dad was a deadbeat. He'd pile Ariel, Daniel and Josiah—the third son he had with Dinah—into his car to visit Elishebah and Idah in Fort Greene, then you and Yemima in Brownsville, peeling off 10s and 20s and tucking them in the mothers' hands. They'd shake their heads and cluck. It was like your mom said: "It was hard to stay mad at him. He just had that way about him and made you smile and laugh. He was a good parent—he did what he could." He'd take you kids to get haircuts, to shop, to eat and sleep overnight on a Friday, almost like a family. Then, poof, he'd vanish for a week.

There was one way you could conjure up your father: Hit somebody. Remember when your first-grade teacher cracked your knuckles with a ruler for misbehaving, how you grabbed a chair and hurled it at her? You must've been the first first-grader ever suspended from P.S. 165. Abracadabra, there was Abba, scooping you up and dealing you a blow you wouldn't forget. . .nor altogether rue. Everywhere you moved in Brooklyn with your mom, from Brownsville to Canarsie to Coney Island, kids teased you for that high-pitched stutter, those long Israelite braids. "I-I-I-I ain't no girl," you'd stammer—after you beat them to a pulp.

You knew how to accomplish that because you watched Abba like a hawk, mimicked his every move: the way he would grin and rattle out words; the way he would dip and slip with his shoulders, as if evading a flurry of punches, then launch flurries in the air himself as he dined at a restaurant, walked down a sidewalk or strolled through a mall, freaking out white folks left and right. How safe you felt on the streets with Abba there, how queasy when he got ready to leave. You never knew if he'd come back.

Yo'el turned on the TV one day when he was 22. All those years of performing katas at the dojo, kicking and punching at air, had begun to bore him. On the screen he saw men kickboxing, kicking real ass. For money. Yo, he could do that. Could he ever.

You saw him kickbox. He'd go into a trance before a match. If he got hit, he'd go nuts, end fights 30 seconds into the first round. He'd leap and stun his opponents with a spinning back kick, then follow with a one-two they never saw. They'd drop like someone had yanked on a rope tied around their ankles. He won his first five matches by knockout and began traveling around the country in quest of more. He won a tournament in Miami with a fourth-round KO in '81 and returned to Brooklyn. He was on a path that would take him to the U.S. super lightweight championship. He was feeling flush.

He turned the key to his second-floor apartment in Bed-Stuy, expecting to hear Dinah's throaty voice, the tip-tap of their three sons' feet. The apartment was silent. A window was shattered. Dinah, overwhelmed by the chaos of their lives, had jumped through the window. Somehow, the life Yo'el had built had caught him on the recoil. The Bureau of Child Welfare took away your three brothers and wouldn't give them back.

Dinah lay in a hospital, her legs and wrists broken. Your brothers were shipped out to foster families. Remember, Zab? Didn't you feel safer, for once, out there where you were, on the outer limb of Abba's splintered family tree?

You love to talk, Zab. So much that your girlfriend, Meda Leacock, often doesn't even bother calling out to you as you click away manically on your cell phone and two-way e-mail pager at home. She e-mails you from upstairs.

You don't talk much, though, about how it felt to have a dad like Abba. You say it made you stronger, made you suck it up, and without him you wouldn't have made it to your first pro fight—you'd be in jail, or dead. You never saw Abba shaking, Abba sobbing, the way he did back in 1981. He had failed at a fundamental level: His family was gone. He became, he says, a madman.

The Bureau of Child Welfare wanted proof that he could be a fit father, that he could provide a stable home? O.K. He earned a promotion from laborer to supervisor at his job with Halcyon Construction, bought a car, rented an apartment with more bedrooms. He socked opponents and socked away cash—his rate for a kickboxing bout would rise to more than 10 grand—rushing back in time to see your brothers for that bittersweet hour of weekly visitation. He slogged away in the court system, petitioning again and again. After a painful year and a half, Abba got his sons back.

He took you and your three brothers to Gleason's Gym and told you to behave while he trained. You swarmed the heavy bags, ambushed the speed bags, dive-bombed off the ropes, kamikaze'd the boxers in training: four little Boobies unleashed like Biblical locusts. All of you had his movement and power, but quit grinning, Zab—you know who the peskiest, the pluckiest, the most natural of all was. The guys at Gleason's began nudging your dad, saying, "Judah, that little Zab can box."

Remember that night, back in the '80s, when Abba came to the apartment and woke you in the middle of the night? "Yo, guess who's here?" he asked with a grin.

"Who, Abba?" you whispered.

What a thrill it must've been when Mike Tyson stepped out of the shadows, brandishing his heavyweight title belt. The amazing thing was what you said. "Someday," you told Tyson, "I'm gonna have one."

"You can," he said. "Just work hard."

You were the kind of kid whose fingers couldn't be unfastened once they took hold of an idea. "A-a-a-abba, when we goin' boxin' again, whenwegoin'boxin'again? WHENWEGOIN'BOXIN'AGAIN?"

"Soon. Yo, don't start again, Zab."

"A-a-a-abba, when can I come live with you?"

A-a-a-abba? Abba?. . .Abba was gone. Dinah had recovered from her fall but had hit bottom again—this time it was drugs. The only way your father could pursue his kickboxing career and raise his family was to pack up Ariel, Daniel and Josiah and move to your grandmother Viola's home in Bradenton, Fla., so she could watch the boys while he flattened men across America. You stayed with your mom, doing the same to the youth of Brooklyn. But Abba was gone, and abracadabra didn't work from a thousand miles away.

Three years passed. Abba moved back to New York, but your mother was growing desperate to feed you and her two other young sons, your half-brothers Eliada and Katon. She gave up in '89, when you were 12, and moved with you three to her parents' property in Hope Mills, N.C., a few miles south of Fayetteville.

You took a walk and looked around. At the mongrels padding down dirt roads. At the pine trees murmuring with the wind. At the one-floor brick houses dotting the cornfields, and at the trailer you'd moved into, just off Chicken Foot Road. Oh. . .my. . .God. How had this happened to you, Abba's most hyper, hip-hop kid?

You called Brooklyn, hungry for news. Daniel was in a boxing tournament. Ariel and Josiah were training with Abba at Gleason's too. They were living your dream while you sat in the heat, brushing flies off your cheeks. There was only one thing to do.

You got yourself thrown out of Hope Mills Middle School for fighting. Ditto at South View Middle School when you pulverized the face of that cop's kid. Next was Massey Hill Alternative School, for troubled youths. Three weeks after you got there, in '91, a kid snatched your milk at lunch. Damned if you hadn't learned Abba's karate moves. One elbow strike spilled the boy's top teeth onto the floor and left so much meat flapping from your arm that it took 26 stitches to knit it back. You were expelled a third time, ticketed for a juvenile detention center. It was the darkest moment of your life.

The brightest moment of your life.

Abracadabra. Abba signed a letter promising the court he'd vouch for your behavior. He'd take you under his wing. At 15, with your fists, you'd done it. You'd made it to the furnace of your father's love.

You remember. You approached the 6 1/2-bedroom house in Flatbush, clutching your suitcase. The brown Doberman growled in the front yard. The black rottweiler growled in the back. The sign said BEWARE OF DOG, but a few steps later, on the front door, a second sign said NEVER MIND THE DOG. BEWARE OF OWNER. You were home.

You walked inside. In an aquarium in the dining room five pythons writhed. Everywhere were lions, the symbol of Judah, carved or stuffed. On the back of a black jacket lying over an armrest was the image of another lion, blood dripping from its fangs.

The house was rubber-glove spotless. A work sheet hung on the refrigerator, a list of daily tasks with names written beside them. You ascended two flights of stairs and put your suitcase in a tiny attic room. Your room.

You went down to the low-ceilinged basement. A boxing ring had been taped off on the floor, squeezed in amid two heavy bags, a double-end speed bag and a chin-up bar. Gloves and headgear dangled from nails. A gallery of faces stared at you from magazine covers on the wall: Julio Cesar Chavez, Thomas Hearns, Sugar Ray Leonard, Pernell Whitaker.

Another man's face stared from the cellar wall, on a cover of a magazine called Official Karate. Beneath the photo were words that made your heart race: WORLD'S MOST DANGEROUS FIGHTER. The stairs creaked. You looked up. It was the man in the picture. It was Abba.

Your eyes took in the man you'd been yearning for all your life. His clothes hung loosely from his body in the hip-hop fashion of the streets. His ears gleamed with jewelry, and his hair was shorn nearly to his scalp, emphasizing his smooth 36-year-old face and infectious grin. He looked more like your brother than your father. He carried no staff, wore no robe or braids. There had been internal strife at the camp, and he'd left the Israelites, as he'd left the Demo Squad and the Tomahawks.

Somewhere, wandering through the wilderness of Brooklyn, losing his children and regaining them, something had finally seeped into Abba's bones. He no longer needed a tribe. He had his own—the tribe of his loins—and he was going to make his stand with it. How that tribe had grown, how the complications had multiplied.

Take it slowly, now: Joining Ariel, Elishebah, Daniel, Josiah and you were Mikey—a son born six years earlier to Abba and Dinah—and Joseph, a five-year-old whom Dinah had conceived with another man but whom Abba had adopted. Then there was little Yo'el, a newborn whom Abba had fathered with a Brownsville woman whom he'd known during his Israelite days as Tamar. Joining them, in summers, were Yemima's boys Eliada and Katon, who had come to consider Yo'el their father, and sometimes even your cousins Everlasting and Original. And, of course, the stable of boxers your dad had begun training, half of them for free, who all called him Abba. Team Judah, he called his tribe, outfitting them with two-way radios and jackets emblazoned with the lion's head. When they moved through Brooklyn in a pack, which they did almost compulsively, Abba felt a unity more pure and powerful than any he had known.

Should someone ask him to explain this Judah tree, this is what he'd say: "The Book said, Yo, be fruitful and multiply. The Book was geared to getting seven women and having babies, and that's how you carry on. Sure, it's a tangled family tree, but when anything happens, all the tanglements come untangled and we all come together and we go after the culprit. You have to be a certain way, or the world will destroy you."

Abba's house rules were fierce. Thirsty? Get a drink, wash your glass, dry it and put it away—now. Lapse and you'd find yourself taking over your brother's chores on the work sheet. Grumble and you'd find yourself on the concrete driveway, doing knuckle push-ups till your knuckles bled. Disobey and you'd find yourself on the floor from a blow you never saw.

You lived by the Israelite faith and dietary laws, even though you no longer attended camp. On Fridays at sundown you'd all face east, raise your open palms and pray. Abba would open the Old Testament after dinner, read a few pages and interpret the tales. He relished telling you stories of the woe that came to clans that separated, of Abraham leading his men to rescue his kidnapped nephew Lot.

"Your family's like a hand," he'd tell you, holding up his own. "When the fingers spread apart, like this, anything can get in and run through the family—but when it's closed and tight like this, it makes a fist, and nothing can harm it." Abba had you and your brothers write essays to prove you understood, then sent you out on weekend nights with walkie-talkies to protect building materials at properties Yo'el was renovating or was being paid to guard in Brownsville, Crown Heights and Bed-Stuy. You carried a pipe; Daniel, a spiked stick; Ariel, a razor blade. Josiah had teeth. Josiah would bite you.

Every afternoon you and your brothers took the train from school to Gleason's, did your homework in a side room, trained under Abba for two or three hours, then returned home for dinner and chores. But that wasn't enough for you, Zab. Abba still talks about that first time, that 3 a.m. when he woke up to a rhythmic thud that bewildered him. He searched downstairs, searched the yard and found nothing. A light in the basement window drew his eye. He crouched and saw you, dancing and ripping furiously at the heavy bag. Still feeling behind, Zab, still the outsider late getting into the game. "Don't worry, Abba," you panted, "I'll be up in time for school." Abba smiled. The dead-of-night second workout became your habit.

You turned 16. The 1994 New York Golden Gloves were approaching. The age of entry was 17, but everything you wanted, Zab, you wanted now. "Please, A-a-a-abba," you begged. "Get me in the Gloves, please, youknowI'mreadyyougottagetmeintheGloves!"

You wore Abba out. With a dab of Wite-Out and a copying machine, he produced a birth certificate that made you 17, the same as Ariel, who'd also entered the tournament's 139-pound division. With Abba working your corners, you and Ariel chopped down the opposition and reached the semifinals. You won yours. If Ariel could beat a kid named Courtney Ellis, the Judah boys would be declared co-champions, as tournament rules forbade bouts between brothers. Ellis outpointed Ariel. The flock took that personally.

You entered the ring two weeks later, the blood of the lion's fangs in your eyes. "Double bullet!. . .Cut!. . .Stay in the pocket!" yelped Abba from the corner. It was his personal lingo, encoded now in your brain, in your dreams. It meant, "Throw the one-two combo!. . .Uppercut!. . .Stay still, make him move, then counter!" Your hands were blurry daggers, stabbing Ellis, then dropping him, and when he tried to respond, your head flitted away like a fly from the flyswatter's wind. You won the Golden Gloves that you were too young to compete in, wrought the tribe's revenge and leaped into your father's arms.

Seasons changed. The time of testing came, as Abba had always warned it would. No one in the Book got a free ride. All the big cats got knocked down.

You won the next two New York Golden Gloves, made it all the way to the Box-off of the Olympic trials. If you won there, you'd go on to fight for the gold medal in the 1996 Summer Games and for the million-dollar paydays that went with it. Yet you danced too much that night, Zab. You lost a tight decision to an awkward but persistent fighter named David Diaz, then cried in the bathroom and hid in your room for days. You were back there again, the little boy watching someone else climb into Abba's car. It was an emptiness so large, you vowed you'd never box again.

Remember how Abba came in, sat next to you and used his other weapons, the ones people didn't always see? He was gentle, encouraging. Finally you realized something: that this, like the older hurt, could be turned into fuel. You came out of that room with a stronger, slower-burning resolve.

Smart of you, when you turned pro later in '96, to hook up with the wizened ones, veteran co-managers Lou Duva and Shelly Finkel and trainer Ronnie Shields. Abba trained you at Gleason's, but on fight night he took a step back, became the third man in the corner behind Duva and Shields. Duva, who'd groomed world champions Pernell (Sweet Pea) Whitaker and Evander Holyfield, helped sharpen the defensive wizardry in which Abba had apprenticed you. Duva flew you to Virginia Beach again and again to spar with Whitaker, one of the most elusive men ever to lace up gloves. Sweat Pea came out of the ring saying that fighting you was like fighting himself, and Duva went one step further, comparing you, at a similar stage in development, to Sugar Ray Robinson. "The way Zab moves his head," says Duva, "the quickness, the way he comes at you from all angles and can knock you out with either hand, that's what reminded me of Sugar Ray. Zab against [welterweight] Shane Mosley is the great fight waiting to be made—I really think he could be even better than Mosley. That fight could be like Leonard-Hearns. You wouldn't be able to move your head back and forth fast enough to see the punches coming both ways."

But who noticed? The Olympic failure still cast its shadow, and the men you kept demolishing were unknowns, and that only fueled your impatience to be recognized, to be the chosen one. You couldn't help yourself. Whenever you came near boxing's glare, out came the showman, the hip-hop and hype and arrogance. "Listen, I'm on Venus right now," you crowed to the media early this year. "I'm on another planet. Ain't none of these fighters with me now. None of 'em are on my level."

Moses stuttered so much that he had his brother speak for him to the pharaoh. Noah got drunk. All the great men in the Book had a weakness to overcome, and so did you. You boxed sometimes as if you believed your own words, as if no one could touch you; you let down your guard, turned off the radar. That old restlessness, the feeling you've always had that you were missing out on something somewhere else—the one that keeps you tapping on your cell phone and pocket e-mail pager when you're talking to someone standing right in front of you—could be deadly in the ring. Jan Bergman dropped you in the second round last year, and Terronn Millett did it in the first round six months later. "See," says Duva, "Zab takes too many chances sometimes. He loses focus, starts listening to the crowd and showboating. You can drop a pin and he'll get distracted. Sometimes he moves his feet too much while he's throwing a punch, and that takes away from his power. But focus is the main problem."

Sure, you became a lunatic after Bergman and Millett knocked you down, Zab. You bounced up and TKO'd them both. Sure, you swept your first 27 fights, 21 by knockouts, and won the IBF crown. The true tests, though, against men who carve up those who lose focus, are only beginning.

First, this Saturday night—seven days after your 24th birthday—comes Kostya Tszyu, and the chance to become the first undisputed junior welterweight champion in 33 years. Tszyu's right hand is devastating, but his straight-ahead style seems made to order for you. Then, for your name to be written in history, you'll have to move up to the welterweight division and meet the formidable champions there: Mosley, Vernon Forrest, Andrew (Six Heads) Lewis. You'll have to prove you can adapt, shift gears and tactics when you're in trouble, as all the great ones have. You'll need a great one in your corner. Will Abba meet the test?

Because it's only him now in your corner, with his brother James as number 2 man. Gone are Duva, who's suing you for breach of contract, and Shields, both let go last year because you found your ears shutting them out, listening for the man who was your reason to box: Abba. Let go because you love the feeling that it's just you and him going to war.

The other Book, the boxing one, says no. Says it's dangerous for a boxer to have his old man screaming in his ear in his moment of greatest peril, his old man telling him what he'd have done—or worse still, afraid to scream in his son's ear, a yes-man blinded by his blood connection. It's working because Abba recedes into the shadows when the cameras come for you, Zab, and because his nearness makes losing unthinkable for you. "I can't let anyone hurt me in front of my father," you say.

Still, what might it do to you, Zab, to the deepest part of you, to look to your corner in your moment of crisis and see the man who can not only lift you but also drop you? Wasn't it only a few years ago that you shrugged off a question your father asked and found yourself on the kitchen floor?

You dismiss any such obstacles. Your lust to dominate, you say, is larger than them all. "A fetish," you call it. "A fetish for control. It's a crazy thought pattern. It's psychotic. This sport is for lunatics. People a quarter past three. Bugged out. God put me here to fight. My goal is, when I'm in my 50s and 60s, people will talk about Ali and Tyson and Zab Judah."

So. The bedtime story didn't work. You're still wired, way past a quarter past three. Your father's still a paradox, a man you'll never unravel, and maybe you don't really want to, because he's the only blueprint for survival, for controlling your fear and becoming a man, that you've got. And because the friction of his contradictions sparks the flame that you take into the ring.

There's no use kidding ourselves. You'll sleep the only way you ever do the night before a fight. Abba will lie down on the bed beside you. You'll finally let go.

You'll get up when daylight comes. You'll be missing two brothers who'd normally be at your side: Ariel and Josiah, both in jail for theft. Daniel, the light heavyweight who hasn't lost in 13 fights, will be there, along with your other brothers, your sister, and mom, grandmothers, uncles, aunts, cousins, half-thises and half-thats.

Your girlfriend, Meda, will be trying to keep your three children hushed: the daughter you fathered as a teenager with a girlfriend in North Carolina; the son of another ex-girlfriend, whom you've taken in as your own; and the baby girl you and Meda brought into the world. Uncle James and Abba will be trying to keep you from fighting all 12 rounds right here in the room. Maybe all this would drive other boxers crazy, but you're Abba's boy, and there's a kind of ecstasy on your face, one that your mom has noticed before fights. This is what you crave now: your confusing family, from all over the East Coast, together. Thanks to you.

Abba will give the signal. Your brothers will stand aside and watch. You'll walk with him toward the roped square that some people call the loneliest place on earth. They don't understand magic, the way you understand it now that you've finally perfected it. You'll close your fist. You'll hit a man. You'll be a son. You'll be a tribe. You'll be hell for any man to put to sleep.