Zab Judah overcomes Lucas Matthysse

NEWARK, N.J. -- The junior welterweight division is one of the deepest and most star-studded in boxing.

It boasts young American titleholders Devon Alexander and Timothy Bradley Jr., British star titleholder Amir Khan and exciting contenders such as Marcos Maidana and Victor Ortiz.

And then there is, at age 33, the elder statesman, former undisputed welterweight champ and two-time junior welterweight titlist Zab Judah.

Seven years after Judah left the 140-pound division for bigger money and bigger fights at welterweight, he returned to junior welterweight in July with a smashing third-round knockout of Jose Armando Cruz.

But he was not nearly as explosive on Saturday night -- and probably won't give any of those young guns too much to fear -- as he survived a 10th-round knockdown to escape with a split decision against the stalking, brawling Lucas Matthysse of Argentina before 4,172 at the Prudential Center.

While the victory in the title eliminator propelled Judah into a mandatory fight with Kaizer Mabuza of South Africa for the belt recently stripped from Alexander, he was in big trouble over the second half of the fight and did show heart to make it to the final bell.

"I have a lot of respect for him," Judah said. "He's a really strong fighter. I knew it was going to be a tough fight going in but I didn't expect him to be that strong. Conditioning is what kept me in the fight."

Judah (40-6, 27 KOs) started fast, jabbing and moving to avoid Matthysse's big blows. But Matthysse never stopped coming at him and by the end of the fight he had Judah on the run and in survival mode.

It certainly wasn't the kind of performance from Judah that would make anyone beg to see him against one of the big names, although HBO's prefight desire was to see Judah, if he won, against Victor Ortiz, if he wins a Nov. 27 fight against Lamont Peterson.

Judah won because he put so many early rounds in the bank, the first five on two scorecards and four of the first five on the third.

In the end, judge Joseph Pasquale and Hilton Whitaker each had it 114-113 for Judah while Waleska Roldan had it 114-113 for Matthysse. ESPN.com had it for Judah, 115-112.

Matthysse was bitter about the result, although he showed the kind of fighting spirit that should make fight fans want to see him again.

"I won the fight. This was a bad decision," Matthysse said. "I was undefeated. I came here without any losses and this type of a decision hurts boxing. Zab never hurt me. I fought my fight and pressured him the whole time and I closed the championship rounds.

"What more do they want? I clearly won. This must be because we're in his backyard."

Matthysse is being a bit overly dramatic. He really has nobody to blame but himself for not starting to really go after Judah until the second half of the bout.

Matthysse began to get to Judah and finally, in the 10th round, he finally found a home for his power punches. He had been just missing a flush shot throughout the fight when he knocked Judah down to a knee after a series of shots, including a hard right hand.

The crowd, which had been booing during the early rounds, was finally on its feet as Judah got off the floor and landed a big shot as soon as the fight resumed and Matthysse responded with his own.

Matthysse (27-1, 25 KOs) continued stalking Judah in the 11th and 12th rounds, while Judah continued to jab and try to move away as he was in survival mode during the final few rounds.

Judah began the fight showing the quickness he is known for as Matthysse was reduced to following him around. He just didn't start fast enough and Judah won too many early rounds and held off Matthysse's strong close.

An accidental head butt in the eighth round opened a cut in the corner of Judah's left eye, which seemed to bother him. Matthysse fouled Judah several times with his head and was also warned by referee Earl Brown for holding and hitting.

"Every time I looked up he hit me with head butts," Judah said. "He fought this fight with head butts."

Despite the fouls and rocky moments late in the fight, Judah made it to the final bell because he appeared in tip-top condition and focused on the task at hand.

"I didn't take any shortcuts in training and I knew that was what was going to pay off," he said. "The mother [expletive] was a strong fighter. He was every bit of 160 [pounds on fight night]. He was really strong, but I kept my jab and that's what worked for me in the end. I'm never ever going down [to defeat] ever."

That, of course, is hard to believe, especially if he fights one of those young guns.

Dan Rafael is the boxing writer for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter @danrafaelespn.