NEWARK — The fights Saturday night were in Newark. Not in the actual stadium, the Prudential Center, but next door, in a big, boxy, white warehouse where the New Jersey Devils practice. The ice rink was covered with a green, turf-like carpet that wasn't quite sized properly, resulting in large carpet waves that presented a serious tripping hazard. The atmosphere wasn't "international title fight" so much as "high school JV basketball game."
Additionally, the press section in which I sat was positioned diagonally off the corner of the ring, behind a pole. And on one side of the pole was the turnbuckle, and on the other side a cameraman. I could see only about 50 percent of the ring at any given time and was forced to lurch comically from side to side as the fighters moved back and forth in the ring. One of the fighters in the first bout of the night pulled down his trunks in the ring and later started a fight in the crowd, which earned him only a 20 percent penalty on his purse. New Jersey rules. The next fight featured Vinny O'Brien, a feather-haired welterweight with the look of the star of a 1980s boxing movie, taking on David Navarro, a prematurely balding Philadelphian with the look (and fighting style) of the anonymous opponent who gets knocked out in a 1980s boxing movie. As for the particulars of the fight, I will defer to my notes: "I am sitting behind a pole."
I can't fault the fight's promoters for not wasting the good seats on the non-paying press, of course. When you're staging a title fight on top of an ice rink in a glorified warehouse, you need to do everything you can to keep the paying customers happy. Such countermeasures included ring card girls who doubled as a dance troupe— instead of just waltzing around in a circle, a half-dozen of them came in between fights to perform some Dallas Cowboy cheerleader-esque routines. But sluttier. New Jersey rules.
The live pay-per-view action started with the next fight, in which Shemuel "The Chosen One" Pagan battered Marcos Garcia (who was "appearing in his fourth professional bout," code for an 0-3 record) for half a round before Garcia slid down the ropes and his trainer ran up to ringside, waving a white towel. Garcia's cornermen were both sporting t-shirts that read "Team Figueroa." When your own corner doesn't think you're worth the price of screenprinting two t-shirts, your chances are never good.
That farce was followed by Jersey City's own Jose Peralta— in extra-short blue trunks that he'd apparently stolen from a muay Thai fighter— taking on Clifford "The Magician" McPherson. The magic happened in the very first round, when the overmatched McPherson collapsed, clutching his wrist, and allowed himself to be counted out. He'd apparently broken his wrist, which saved him several rounds of beating by Peralta. A fair deal, for the fighter if not for the crowd.
So far, not the most shining night of boxing in Newark gymnasium history, and only two fights left to see something worthwhile. Tarvis Simms, a good but not great middleweight, faced John Mackey, who came into the ring in an exact replica of Mike Tyson's black-trunks-and-white-towel combo. The Tyson similarities ended there. Mackey had — and I say with total respect for the difficulty of the sport of boxing — the worst sense of distance I've ever seen in a professional boxer. He seemed to believe that his arms were much larger than they were. Or perhaps the neural pathway that connected his thoughts and intentions with his movements was just exceptionally slow. But several times he swung and whiffed on punches so violently that he spun himself around 90 degrees, once prompting a writer next to me in press row to break out laughing.
Tarvis Simms is a very textbook boxer: a southpaw, lead hand low, back hand up by his chin, standing very straight, advancing very deliberately. He moves cleanly, but is not particularly fast; his reflexes are precise, but not blinding. But he was able to walk in and hit Mackey at will, and then simply step back and watch Mackey flail at the air that Simms had occupied a second or two before. Simms's body is very solid, but unless he set his feet underneath himself and pushed off his back foot, he tended to throw weak arm punches. He could stop and push a hard right hand to the body that would knock Mackey backwards, but when he was moving his punches had no weight on them. Simms liked to jab, and he is a very methodical rhythm fighter, meaning he likes to set himself into a comfortable pattern of punching, moving, punching, moving. He looked preternaturally calm at all times. What Mackey should have done was to use his own jab to break up Simms's rhythm and stop him from getting comfortable. What Mackey did instead was to spend the first half of the fight paying Simms more respect than he deserved — fighting in retreat, never jabbing, and missing several swinging hooks by remarkable margins. In the later rounds, the two men started fighting inside more, nose to nose; but Mackey was a poor inside fighter in general, and Simms, who was at least technically decent at it, was still throwing arm punches, so no real damage was done on either side. Simms took a unanimous decision. Still, nothing to justify a $29.95 pay-per-view.
The crowd was restless. All of the hard rock guys who'd come with girls wearing absurdly provocative outfits just so they could stand next to them and look intimidating were doing just that. One girl idling on the bumpy green carpet had attended the match in fishnet stockings and the world's shortest pair of shorts. They were purple.
The star of the night was Zab Judah, the comeback kid, the Brooklyn boy who found Jesus and unretired and is, I suspect, just hunting for one last big money fight before he gives it up again. In his last fight, Zab had looked horribly gun shy, scared to engage, and generally washed up. Which didn't stop him from earning an undeserved decision in his favor. New Jersey rules.
Tonight, he was taking on Kaizer Mabuza, a fantastically fit and long-armed South African who could rival Zab, at the very least, in the name department. His coach was white and bald and looked suspiciously like F.W. De Klerk.
Mabuza looked to have a significant reach advantage, but Zab touched him at will. Zab made his pro debut 15 years ago, and his movement in the ring is still as great as ever. He bounces on his toes, and he circles backwards as if he's floating. He jabs continuously, and ducks out of harm's way automatically by breaking straight over at the waist, like a pinball flipper. He would sometimes duck under one of Mabuza's hooks, pop up momentarily on the other side, then duck back under the way he came, two or three times in each direction. Then he'd spin out of the corner with his right shoulder high, his left glove up by his face like a catcher's mitt.
His defense was beautiful to watch. He looked incredibly frustrating to fight. What he wasn't doing, however, was punching. It was the same problem as in his last fight: good movement and lots of flicking jabs, but the powerful straight left never came behind the jab. All floating and no stinging.
It was worrisome, for a relatively mature fighter like Zab. It made him look like he didn't really want to fight. And Zab Judah, please don't forget, has goddamn dynamite in both hands. He can knock you out with his right hook or his bullet-like straight left, and his left uppercut is the beautiful vision you see right before you die. So why didn't he set them free? In the third round, Mabuza backed into the ropes and went to throw his right hand, only to find that his glove had been wrapped in cord holding the ropes; he was momentarily trapped, a target begging to be smashed. Too late; Zab had already floated on over to the other side of the ring. No punishment was forthcoming.
By the third round, the old-timer reporter in front of me, who carried around a laminated photo of himself with Muhammad Ali in 1977, had fallen asleep. Over and over again, Mabuza would back Zab into the corner. Zab would stand there defiantly, feet wide, his left hand poised at his chin, a cocked pistol hammer just waiting to drop. And over and over again, Zab would not throw that left hand — that killer, lights-out left hand. "Throw. The. Left. Uppercuttttttttt!" screamed a man in the crowd, repeatedly, as the rounds went on. In the sixth, Mabuza finally found Zab, staggering him twice with straight rights. He'd lost his fear of the Zab counterpunches that never came. Zab Judah's continued career as an elite fighter seemed to be in serious doubt as he came out of his corner in the seventh round— and promptly got pushed back into that same familiar corner, left hand cocked in that same familiar position.
Have you seen the old Batman comics? The ones in which every punch on every villain is illustrated with "POW!" in vivid block letters? Well, I saw it vivid reality the other night in Newark. It happened right then, in the seventh round, as Mabuza faced Zab in that corner, and, emboldened by a night mostly free of hard left hands, stepped forward to punch. At that moment Zab pulled from his pocket the left uppercut, the punch that he'd been keeping in there so long that I thought he'd permanently misplaced it. POW, MOTHERFUCKER. BANG. That beautiful zippy left uppercut cracked Kaizer Mabuza flush on the front of his face and knocked him out clean on his feet. Zab stepped aside, and the top half of Mabuza's body proceeded to fall all the way down through the middle rope, like a zombie trying to tie his own shoes. He snapped out of it just long enough for the ref to let the fight continue, at which point Zab stepped forward and knocked him out on his feet again, leaving Mabuza doing a wobbly voodoo dance in the corner as the fight was stopped and pandemonium ensued.
Thank you, beautiful left uppercut. Everything — the bootleg arena, the bootleg fight card, the bootleg carpet, Zab's bootleg last fight, the ups and downs of bootleg life in general — was all worth it, thanks to you. POW, MOTHERFUCKER. Redemption.