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.
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.”
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.
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.
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