Nov. 3, 2001: Tszyu vs Judah

The word ‘unification’ is magic to a boxing fan’s ears. It conjures up the ghosts of yesteryear, from a time when each weight class had a single champion willing to take on all challengers, when world titles actually meant something.

The super lightweight class may not be one of the eight original weight divisions but it does have a rich history. Hall of Famers such as Wilfred Benitez, Aaron Pryor, Nicolino Locche and Antonio Cervantes have all held world titles there, but since the inception of the major alphabet organizations (WBC, WBA, IBF, etc.) its championship had never been unified. In fact you have to go back to 1967 to find an undisputed titlist at 140 pounds.

That changed when two boxers of radically different backgrounds, styles and dispositions clashed for the right to be called the one-and-only light welterweight champion of the world.

Zab Judah and Kostya Tszyu would battle it our for the undisputed 140 pound title.
Judah and Tszyu hype their showdown.

Kostya Tszyu was born in Serov, Russia but trained and fought out of Sydney, Australia. He owned a 27-1 pro record, the WBC and WBA world titles, and a thunderous right hand. Zab Judah, slick, brash and undefeated, held the IBF strap and was 27-0.

Prior to the match, the native of Brooklyn, New York displayed his usual propensity for trash talk, belittling his opponent at every chance and claiming Tszyu’s stand-up style would pose no difficulties. “Tszyu’s style is made for me. He’s strong, stands up straight and comes forward. His style is like Swiss cheese: full of holes.”

Unlike Judah, Tszyu was a man of few words, but he was also a thinking man’s fighter who meticulously studied his adversaries before each bout. He was quick to point out that he had indeed learned enough about his undefeated opponent to ensure a victory. “I’ve studied Judah and know what it takes to beat him. He wants to prove he’s the best and so do I. Everything has been said and now we have to prove who the great champion is.”

Tszyu was a real student of the game and a highly decorated champion.
Tszyu showing off his belts.

The day of the weigh-in, after weeks of taunts from his opponent, Tszyu showed he was also adept at playing mind games when he put his arm around Judah and asked him about his newborn daughter. In an interview, Tszyu later explained why: “Boxing’s not really physical, it’s mental … I [asked] him about his daughter. And this was [a] shock for him. … Look, I love kids. And his daughter is Destiny; I did some homework. And [I asked] ‘How’s your daughter?’ He expected something different before [the] fight. And he lost himself in that question.”

Despite the awkward weigh-in moment, the American was heavily favoured to win with many pundits and writers expecting the slick and speedy style of “Super Judah” to overcome the power punching of Tszyu. But even the few who picked Tszyu could never have anticipated what was to come.

Judah was young, brash and undefeated in 2001. He was also favoured to defeat Tszyu.
Judah was young, brash and undefeated in 2001. He was also favoured to defeat Tszyu.

Tszyu vs Judah began as most expected, with Zab, the quicker man, darting in and out, landing his crisp jab and keeping his distance from the stalking power puncher. A minute into the fight, the flashy American landed a huge left uppercut which sent Kostya reeling into the ropes and Judah followed up with a flurry of punches before Tszyu clinched. Judah won the first round convincingly and his slick boxing style appeared too much for Tszyu, but everything was about to change.

Early in the second, Tszyu continued stalking to little effect. Zab kept his distance and pot-shotted but Kostya was finding his rhythm and timing. With four seconds left in the round, his right hand found its mark, landing flush on the point of Judah’s chin and sending him crashing to the canvas. Giving himself no time to recover from the blow, Zab jumped back up on unsteady legs and wobbled around the ring for a few seconds before falling heavily once again. Referee Jay Nady immediately stopped the fight.

Judah reels after rising too quickly from the knockdown.
Judah reels after rising too quickly from the knockdown.

The ensuing scenes sparked controversy. An enraged Judah protested the stoppage vehemently and when the realization hit home that his perfect record and world title belt were gone, he threw a tantrum, putting his fist to Nady’s throat and later throwing a stool at the referee.

History had been made that day but not by the man many predicted would be holding aloft all of the belts. It was Kostya Tszyu, not the much vaunted Zab Judah, who unified the 140 pound weight class with an impressive, albeit controversial, stoppage victory.

In the post-fight interview, a beaming Tszyu was asked whether he was open to a rematch and his reply only further cemented the fight into boxing folklore: “Do you remember at the press conference, when he was asked the same question?” said a smiling Tszyu. “’Winner take all.’ I answer the same way.”             — Daniel Attias 

3 thoughts on “Nov. 3, 2001: Tszyu vs Judah

  • November 18, 2015 at 3:42 pm
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    Thanks for the memories, this was a great fight I remember watching it on replay via YouTube. Kind of shocking and heartbreaking seeing Zab’s reaction afterwards. I don’t think it even crossed his mind that he would lose, making it very hard for him to work his way back to the top.

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  • November 13, 2018 at 3:56 am
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    Did Judah ever apologize to Nady ?
    He allowed Judah to still have a career after this defeat.

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  • September 23, 2020 at 6:01 am
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    I don’t agree with the comments that Zab looked slick at all. This is merely media hype and Judah, even in the first round, was out of his depth, then the second round proved this conclusively.

    Reply

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