Boxing has always been able to create superstars, even if those days seem to be slowly drawing to a close. Only time will tell whether the sport can still see a prizefighter through to the realm of megastardom, but Floyd Mayweather Jr. may be the last of a dying breed. Even so, his path to the apex of contemporary pugilism was an often complex one and stardom didn’t catch on right away; it’s just that the second half of his professional career was so loud and brash, what came before seems forgotten.
Mayweather built a career in the usual way, climbing the ranks and defeating several good, or even great, fighters, collecting belts and staying undefeated. By April of 2006, Mayweather’s legacy was impressive, but not so outstanding as to allow him to become a breakout star. That month he took a necessary step towards becoming a full-fledged sports celebrity when he tangled with Zab Judah, a talented underachiever who sometimes threatened to rise to the occasion.
A decade prior, Mayweather and Judah attended the same Olympic Box-Offs tournament in Augusta, Georgia. The outcome proved a microcosm of their respective careers and how each dealt with adversity, as Mayweather moved forward by dominating an opponent who had narrowly beaten him once before, while Judah was pushed out of Olympic contention by a second loss to eventual lightweight titlist David Diaz. Judah demonstrated excellent defense and athletic ability but didn’t punch enough to vanquish Diaz, and after the decision was announced he went over to complain bitterly about his loss to reporters. Judah’s father Yoel chimed in, stating that “[Diaz is] not in our league.”
Mayweather may have fallen short of Olympic gold in Atlanta, but it was by controversial decision and his final loss to date. It was Judah who needed the lesson, and Diaz let him have it, but it never sunk in; maybe Yoel got in the way. Though Judah wound up an Olympic alternate, he was left off the team while Diaz made the squad.
Mayweather and Judah’s careers traveled along similar trajectories in the pro ranks. They won their first world titles within a few months of each other, ten pounds apart, Mayweather on HBO and Judah on Showtime. Both men possessed blinding hand speed, surprising punching power, and bewildering defensive skills. It wasn’t until Judah was knocked out in 2001 by Kostya Tszyu, subsequently throwing a violent hissy fit in the ring, that it became apparent these were two very different fighters. Floyd stayed nearly flawless from 130 to 140 pounds, while Judah moved to welterweight and lost to the division’s tricky champion, Cory Spinks.
A title has a funny way of drawing attention, though. Mayweather hadn’t ever talked about fighting Judah, his friend, until the possibility of championship involvement became a reality. In February of 2005 Judah seized a handful of welterweight belts in violent fashion by stopping Spinks in their rematch, and in doing so he became a target. A prompt defense by TKO over Cosme Rivera came in May before Mayweather entered the equation.
Headlining his first pay-per-view event against Arturo Gatti in June, Floyd performed a surgical execution of one of boxing’s most beloved warriors in six one-sided rounds. Over 350,000 paid for the card, confirming Floyd’s arrival as a major attraction and nudging him toward welterweight, a division with a better track record of creating stars. But Judah’s promoter, Don King, gave Mayweather one more reason to put on weight when he issued a press release inviting Floyd to move up and challenge Zab. It should be noted that, at the time, Mayweather fought for King’s long-time rival, Bob Arum.
“Sometimes your mouth can write a check your ass can’t cash,” pointed out Mayweather in an interview, going on to remind Judah of a sparring session years earlier where Floyd apparently got the better of the welterweight champion. The comments both sparked a feud and jump-started negotiations. An agreement was reached in December, securing a match to take place after Judah’s defense against Argentinian Carlos Baldomir.
“[Mayweather] crossed the line of disrespect,” Judah said. “There ain’t gonna be no nice guys out there. There is a lot of money involved and both of us need it. This is the fight the world wants to see, but first I have to annihilate Mr. Carlos Baldomir.”
Baldomir had no interest in that plan though, and he battered Judah, taking an upset decision win and the lineal welterweight title. But political shenanigans prevailed when Judah retained the IBF belt due to Baldomir’s failure to pay their sanctioning fee. Though Mayweather was no longer under any obligation to face Judah, the prospect of winning a belt in a fourth division, however bogus, was too enticing and the promotion moved forward as a pay-per-view event, albeit with purse adjustments.
In one of the final pre-fight interviews for an event dubbed “Sworn Enemies,” Mayweather said, “This is not Kostya Tszyu. This is not Cory Spinks. This is not Baldomir. He’s facing the best, pound-for-pound. I’m at the top of my game… This is ‘Flawless against Jawless.'”
Those were almost famous last words, as Mayweather not only failed to test Judah’s jaw early on but ate a right hook himself in round two that caused his glove to touch the canvas; that stumble should have been scored a knockdown. In his last major title fight, referee Richard Steele flubbed the call, but more importantly, Judah, a five-to-one underdog, built momentum in the first two rounds with a higher work rate, comparable speed, and a tactical approach that Mayweather appeared to have not anticipated.
Floyd adjusted and walked Judah down in round three, cutting off the ring and finding a home for lead right hands, a version of Mayweather that didn’t appear often above 135 pounds. But Judah wasn’t done, and he caught Floyd with several sharp lefts in round four. It had been a while since anyone had built even a small points lead over Mayweather, but it was the Olympic Box-Offs all over again: Floyd was going to find a way to win, and Zab was going to find a way to lose.
Mayweather reached the champion with a volley of right hand leads and hooks over the top in round five, and from there on Judah was forced to the ropes more and more, relegated to mostly defending the precision shots coming his way. Zab’s nose and mouth were bloodied in the seventh and after round eight Yoel Judah begged his son to stop talking trash and just let his hands go. But how could he when Mayweather was killing his body at every turn? Judah’s nose bled freely and in the ninth the contest devolved into a beating.
After absorbing punches for another round, a desperate Judah reached down and nailed the challenger below the belt and then to the back of the head. Steele called a time-out while Mayweather hobbled to the ropes, but his uncle and trainer, Roger Mayweather, ran into the ring to confront Judah, sparking a huge brawl that spanned the ring and had to be broken up by security and police. Order was eventually restored and the bout resumed, but not without the sheen of cheap drama that came to be attached to Floyd’s name thereafter. Nonetheless, Mayweather stayed focused and picked Judah apart in the final two rounds, cementing a wide decision victory and a trinket around his waist at welterweight.
For their parts in the brawl, Zab, Yoel and Roger all had their licenses revoked and were fined by the Nevada Athletic Commission, but the defeat to Floyd marked the beginning of a serious downturn for Zab’s career and he wouldn’t pick up a significant win for quite some time.
Later in the year, Floyd answered the criticism he received for going through with the Judah fight by defeating Baldomir for the lineal title, though not in entertaining fashion. But it didn’t matter, because the path to realizing his stardom didn’t have to be bloody or vicious for Floyd, so long as it was intriguing. By then he had walked away from Bob Arum, “Pretty Boy” giving way to “Money May,” and a huge showdown against Oscar De La Hoya was just around the corner. — Patrick Connor