The Amir Khan story, which properly began in Athens 12 years ago, is coming towards the final few chapters and they could be gloriously uplifting or there may be a few blood-spattered pages at the end.
On Saturday night the one-time Olympic teenage prodigy has it in his quick hands to determine which way the tale shifts, because his antagonist, Saúl “Canelo” Álvarez, for all his politeness when wearing a suit, is a mean and hurtful champion, one who will outweigh Khan by at least a stone in defence of his world middleweight title.
Khan needs no reminding of the danger. As we chatted earlier in the week he revealed for the first time the slightest concern for his own wellbeing. None present could recall him ever mentioning the subject before but it is as well that he does think about it.
He trawled his history for reference points and they all fed into his updated narrative – particularly Lamont Peterson, whose drug-fuelled body allowed him to bully Khan to defeat over 12 rounds when he took his world light-welterweight title to the American’s home town, Washington DC. “As I’m getting older,” Khan says softly, “I’m starting to think about punches coming back. Before, I was just thinking about my punches, relying on my speed. Now I’ve become more of a technical fighter. I always liked to box on the back foot. This is where maturity comes in.
“The reason Peterson got so many good shots off against me [in 2012] was I was just standing there, not moving. [Fighters call this “photograph” boxing, taking a mental picture of their handiwork rather than moving away or covering up after landing a punch.]
“I was on the ropes and boxing square on. I was docked two points for pushing to keep him off. That is something I would never do again. I am more lateral in my movement and more side-on, not giving a full target to hit. Virgil [Hunter, his trainer] has taken me back to my boxing, sliding, gliding, pivoting. When you’re in the pocket, you’ve got to know when to block, when to move, when to let your hands go. Against Peterson my defence was my attack.”
That was a fight about a strong legal champion and an illegally powerful challenger, who was to test positive for synthetic testosterone. This is a fight about size, more so than most and one which Khan, in a way, cannot lose unless he is decisively knocked clean out inside a couple of rounds.
That would surely ignite derision among his detractors who have been bellicose in their snide dismissal of his challenge. More likely is a slow-burning but quick-fisted contest in which Khan operates like a rattlesnake taunting a bull until the bull ignores the stinging pain and treads on his tormentor.
There is an alternative script, of course, and it is not by any means implausible. Khan, whose pure ring skills are often ignored because he is characterised as just the fastest gun in the sport, could be so alert to the possibility of catastrophe that he boxes at the very edge of his ability and comfortably outpoints a frustrated champion over 12 rounds.
It all boils down to weight, though: will Khan be big and strong enough to hold at bay a fighter whose calling card is as subtle as a bailiff’s?
Álvarez is coming for Khan’s head, no question, and he will take a lot of stopping because of his obvious physical advantages.
At the start of the week Khan weighed 164lbs, and said: “My whole diet and training regime has changed. I honestly believe this could be a very good weight for me. I’m happier making the weight [than for welterweight at 147lbs]. When I get down to 155, I’ll be ripped.” And, at the weigh-in on Friday, so he was: totally reconstructed, almost, from the 135lb teenager who won Olympic silver in 2004. As storm clouds gathered, in wicked metaphor, perhaps, both fighters hit the scales at 155lbs – and the challenger was noticeably bulkier than when at welterweight. When the bell goes on Saturday he will be back to around 164lbs and well aware that Álvarez will weigh closer to 175lbs than 170lbs. There is no rehydration clause. These are the alleged disciplines of a crazy sport. Ideally two fighters would box each other at their most comfortable size and weight, confident they had not stripped away the excess too far or too quickly. But that rarely happens.
Khan fought at just a tick over the lightweight limit for many of his early fights as a professional, occasionally below. Two fights after the minor one-round disaster that Breidis Prescott delivered upon him, he tested himself at light-welter against a faded version of Marco Antonio Barrera, then, in his 22nd bout, won the WBA’s belt at just under 10 stones against Andreas Kotelnik.
There he would stay for nine fights, winning handsomely until suffering against Peterson then walking indiscreetly on to the left hooks of Danny Garcia.
He was done as a light-welter. Each move had followed a setback. But now there is nowhere else to go – except maybe back to welterweight. What has been consistent about Khan, though, is his continued search for perfection using the tools he has got. He has housed a lean package of muscle and fast-twitch fibres that have carried him through several outstanding performances, bringing him world titles at two weights, as well as evenings of pain and anguish against bigger and stronger opponents.
Now he is convincing himself he is a pared-down middleweight, which is palpably not the case. To put it crudely, one of the reasons Oscar De La Hoya is pitting these fine fighters against each other is they provide the almost perfect mix for drama.
“Why do you think there’s a rematch clause?” the promoter asked with just the hint of a smile. It will not be dull.
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