Friday, July 22, 2011

Khan-Judah Preview: 7 Keys

I give up.  Before most big fights, I usually do a "Four Scenarios" preview piece where I project the match's most likely outcomes.  However, the fight between Amir Khan and Zab Judah can conceivably go in dozens of directions.  Both fighters have power and excellent speed.  They both fade down the stretch and have chin problems.  With all of these elements in play, Khan-Judah could end at any time, and in any round.  Trying to figure out the most likely four endings for this fight is a fool's errand.  Instead, I'm going to talk about seven key factors that will likely play a role in determining the final result.  I will make my final prediction at the end of the piece.

1.  Pernell Whitaker 
Pernell Whitaker was one of the best pure boxers of the last 30 years.   Specializing in slick, subtle movement in the pocket, accuracy and ring generalship, Whitaker was probably the most gifted defensive boxer of his time.  Somehow, the southpaw could stand right in front of his opponent and never get hit cleanly.  In many ways, Floyd Mayweather Jr., despite his orthodox stance, is the closest modern-day ring approximation to Whitaker.

Whitaker retired having won belts at lightweight, junior welterweight and welterweight.   He retired in 2001 and was away from boxing for a few years.  He had some drug problems and slowly got back into the sport.  Whitaker briefly trained former junior welterweight titlist Paul Spadafora and had some success with him.      

Earlier this year, Whitaker was brought in to train Zab Judah for his fight against Kaizer Mabuza.  Whitaker was one of Judah's idols when he was growing up.  In their first fight together, Judah scored a 7th-round knockout to capture a title. 

It remains to be seen whether the Whitaker-Judah combination will be a panacea for the inconsistency that has plagued Judah's career.  It's an odd pairing in that Judah is an offensive gunslinger while Whitaker was a cautious ring presence.  I think it will be a mixed bag. 

As a fighter, Whitaker trained for 12, tough rounds because he had no power.  Judah, who hasn't been known for his conditioning, can only be helped by Whitaker's zeal for grueling training camps.  

Judah and his father/former trainer, Yoel, have an interesting dynamic.  Obviously, Yoel taught his son much of the finer points of boxing and molded him into a champion.  However, Judah didn't always respond well to his father between rounds.  Yoel often ran a frenetic corner, boisterously demonstrating between rounds what Zab needed to do, and supplying his son with too much instruction.  The two literally yelled at each other between rounds of tense fights. 

It's questionable if Yoel's exhortations sunk in with his son.  In many of his tougher matches, it didn't seem as if Zab had a Plan B or C.  Whitaker's voice may help Judah become more relaxed and focused in the ring.  

With that said, Zab was a special fighter at his best.  He featured destructive power and a willingness to take chances in the early rounds of a fight, when most boxers are content to feel each other out.  He was one of the best frontrunners in the sport.  Even in many of his losses to better opponents, Judah started out of the gates like the best speed horse on the track.  He pummeled Miguel Cotto, landed bombs on Kostya Tszyu and dominated many of the early rounds against Floyd Mayweather. 

It would be unfortunate if Whitaker completely reins in Judah's unpredictable offensive outbursts.  It's a significant challenge to maintain a veteran boxer's ring identity while emphasizing new technical and strategic aspects of the sport.  How Whitaker will retain Judah's explosiveness while adding some caution and needed discipline will be one of the key factors in the fight.  Hopefully Whitaker will enable Judah to fight a smarter 12 rounds, offering the fighter multiple pathways to victory.  However, it would be a mistake if Whitaker de-emphasizes Judah's early-round aggression, especially in light of what happened to Khan against Breidis Prescott.

Furthermore, there's no guarantee that Whitaker is great trainer, or even a good match for Zab.  A great fighter does not necessarily make a great trainer; in fact, it might be a hindrance.  In baseball, Ted Williams was one of the most talented hitters of all time, yet he couldn't communicate well with players who weren't as skilled as he was.  In basketball, Isaiah Thomas was one of the best team leaders in the sport's history but couldn't coach his players to sustained success.  It's a risky assumption that Whitaker will be able to transfer his considerable ring knowledge and technical mastery to a fighter who can be difficult to coach.  It will be fascinating to observer if Whitaker's teachings will manifest in Zab Judah's performance against Kahn.  

2.  Alex Ariza  
Alex Ariza is Khan's strength and conditioning coach.  After firing Ariza prior to the Paul McCloskey fight, Khan has brought the coach back into the fold.  Khan's conditioning against McCloskey was substandard, as he lacked the explosiveness and sharp punches that he routinely features at his best.  Ariza made his bones in boxing by working as the strength and conditioning coach for Manny Pacquiao, one of the superior athletes in all of sport.  Ariza's ability to keep Khan fresh, past Judah's early explosiveness, will be one of the most important aspects of this fight. 

3.  Can Khan Finish?
As Khan has faced better opposition, it's become clear that he is not a classic knockout artist.  Although he dropped Marcos Maidana with a beautiful left hook to the body and made Paulie Malignaggi's corner stop the fight due to an accumulation of punishment, he doesn't have that one weapon to put fighters away.  Maidana was a wounded puppy in the first two rounds of their fight and Khan couldn't get him out of there; thus Khan had to endure a hellacious 12 rounds.

In short, Khan will be able to hurt Judah during the fight.  But can he finish Judah off?  What makes Judah so dangerous is that, with his power, he can end a fight at any point.  If Khan is unable to put Judah away, then he risks exposing himself to a very real threat.  Khan has not yet learned to be a great finisher at the highest levels of the sport.  Against Judah, not mastering that skill could have dire consequences.

4.  Will Judah Stay Focused 
What frustrates so many about Zab Judah is his ability to completely lose his focus and/or composure in the ring.  He'll dominate for three rounds and then, inexplicably, take three rounds off.  When his opponents make adjustments, he can suddenly look tentative and confused.  Judah has also been known to throw low blows or illegal punches behind the head when frustrated.

Judah will be facing a powerful and skilled opponent who has a high work rate.  He can't afford to give away rounds with lapses in concentration or petty fouls.  Most important for Judah will be the middle rounds of the fight, if he is unable to significantly hurt Khan at the beginning of the match.  Judah will have to dispense with the notion of going for the knockout and focus on scoring points.  How he makes that transition will be telling in whether or not he can pick up the victory.

5.  Will Khan Tie Up? 
Khan has a bad habit of refusing to tie up when he is hurt.  Against Maidana, he just stood in front of his opponent during the 10th and 12th rounds, permitting Maidana to hammer away at him at close range.  Veteran boxers survive by clinching with their opponents when they are hurt.  There will be a Judah left hand or right hook that stuns Khan, but will he have the savvy to reduce his risk by tying-up Judah?  Unlike Khan, Judah knows how to finish.  If Khan stands in front of Judah wounded and diminished, the fight will soon be over.

6.  Victor Conte
The disgraced former head of BALCO is embarking on his second act in sports by becoming a legitimate conditioning coach.  No longer providing performance enhancing drugs for his clients, Conte now works with Judah.  Bantamweight knockout sensation Nonito Donaire credits Conte with helping him with his explosiveness.  With Judah, Conte will have a different objective.  Judah's problems in the ring never revolved around his power; it was his ability to fight hard for 12 rounds that was called into question.  Perhaps Conte's methods will have a marked difference in Judah's performance in the ring.

7.  Will Khan go to the Body?
Next to Wladimir Klitschko, Khan is the most notorious headhunter in the entire sport.  After dropping Maidana with a left hook to the body, Khan practically abandoned that punch throughout the rest of the fight, even though Maidana repeatedly squared up to him in close range.

It's tempting with Judah's chin problems to go right at the head.  It's not a bad strategy to start the fight.  However, the fastest way to break down an older fighter is to attack the body.  If Judah's chin holds up and Khan refuses to do body work, Khan may find himself facing difficult moments in the later rounds.  This fight will be a lot easier for Khan if he remembers to go downstairs and make investments for the later rounds.

I think the combination of Pernell Whitaker and Victor Conte will enable Judah to go the distance in this fight.  Khan's work rate and consistent attack will put a lot of rounds in the bank.  Judah will have a couple of good moments early in the fight and Khan will have to suppress a late Judah attack in the 9th or 10th round.  Khan's volume, consistency and side-to-side defensive movement will be enough to secure the victory in a tense battle.

Khan defeats Judah 116-112, or 8 rounds to 4. 

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