The Curious Case of Khan

By Julie Cockerham: On December 8, 2007, Amir Khan turned twenty-one. Most of England’s boxing enthusiasts were committed to celebrating another event. It was the same day that the pride of Manchester, Ricky “The Hitman” Hatton was gearing up for the fight of his life.

He had been chosen as the opponent for Floyd Mayweather Jr., the boxer every boxer seems always to be after -- then and now.

Hatton fit the criteria. One can imagine that when Mayweather selects opponents, he concentrates on their shortcomings first.. If they are numerable and severe enough for him to take certain advantage of, they’re the men Floyd wants. Hatton provided those shortcomings and more. He was smaller, with a seven inch disadvantage in wingspan. But he also fought with a style that epitomized toughness and grit. The fact that his defense was negligible only emphasized his rugged image. He had an enormous following, and Mayweather knew that half the island would cross the pond with him.

Such inconvenient paper statistics were largely ignored prior to the fight. Fans wanted to believe that Hatton, with his unrelenting pressure and impressive inside fighting skills, would possibly be able to bully Mayweather into abandoning his impregnable fortress. Hatton’s capabilities were not questioned; his methods had been cultivated and utilized to their best potential. The fate of the fight was therefore hinged on only one unknown element: whether Floyd could become flustered by unrelenting aggression and finally fall victim to the contesting force.

Hatton’s often overlooked trainer, Billy Graham, had more insight into the realities of the super fight than he was given credit for. He had confidence in his fighter that was not undeserved; but at the same time, he knew the origin of Ricky’s best chance for victory. He knew it so well, in fact, that he went out of his way to protect it.

Saturday night’s fight between England’s lauded prospect Amir Khan and Marcos Maidana shared a feature of that super fight from a few years ago. Both were refereed by Joe Cortez. The night of Hatton’s fight with Mayweather, Billy Graham was seen talking to Cortez when he came to the dressing room. Graham appealed to him to be aware of Hatton’s style, to be aware that he would burrow in to launch his inside attacks. The appeal was further justified by the fact that Hatton needed to find some way to compensate for the reach deficit.

Ultimately, that fight was marked by the characteristic performance of both fighters: Mayweather was the guarded sharp shooter, Hatton was the dogged aggressor. Graham was the trainer whose request went unfulfilled.

It’s likely that Hatton would have lost regardless. Fighting a technician as skilled as Mayweather was always going to be a nearly insurmountable task for the defense-be-damned fighter. But in the bout, Cortez was no aid to England’s dream of capturing pound for pound glory. He interfered with the natural flow by not allowing Hatton to get too close to Mayweather, and breaking them during clinches too frequently. The bully wasn’t allowed to bully, and he could find no other way to let his presence be known.

Amir Khan turned twenty-one on the day that England saw its aspiration for glory in the sport dashed.

He rushed up the ladder to vaunted heights quickly. A lean and elegant fighter, he has a style that can trick the eye. Thus far, it has proven to be both his greatest asset and his greatest liability. But Khan can’t be accused of being any kind of impostor of a gifted fighter. Some have considered him to have been pushed forward too rapidly by those who want immediate gratification. Some of them have since learned. His arsenal might have flash on the surface, but it has been curiously tested before the tools within it have been substantiated. If he is to restore the hopes of his country that were dashed by the Hatton loss, more focus should be geared toward nurturing the promise that he shows.

The illusion was shattered for many in September 2008, when Khan faced Breidis Prescott in Manchester. Khan was heavily favored to win. In a shock upset, he was knocked out in the first round. Everything done subsequently has been a reaction to the resounding question of the veracity of his chin.

On Saturday night, Khan was given the platform to test his resiliency. The parallel to the super fight between Hatton and Mayweather saw a reversal of roles between Khan and Maidana. The former entered as the sleek boxer, the latter as the tough puncher. Supposedly, Khan wanted the fight to ease the doubts that he could be blown over by little more than a strong wind. But it’s doubtful that the fight was actually designated to challenge Khan’s chin; more likely it was to see if Khan could compensate for the lack of a dependable one. Restored confidence wouldn’t necessarily come from withstanding blows to the head; it would come from the technical proficiency to avoid them in the first place.

When Maidana tagged Khan in the 10th round, he was affected. He stood through it, but he was affected by it. Maidana, for his part, was unable to finish the job. He tired from trying to match Khan’s mobility in the ring. With his constant movement, Khan was demonstrating a craftier, but less spectacular, facet of defense. He aimed to keep himself out of the line of fire of Maidana’s shots. For someone with concerns for his chin, it was a wise ploy, but there is a difference in the ring between mobility and running. Joe Cortez again unintentionally assisted the sleeker fighter: when the two were in a clinch, he would break them up, even though an active fist was still free, doing its work.

Khan came away with the victory and with his WBA junior welterweight title still intact. But the fight didn’t prove his chin to be a known quantity. He was staggered in the 10th, and might have been saved by the fatigue of Maidana alone. It suggests that a fighter with greater endurance, with greater speed and tactical aggression, could still pose a serious threat.

Khan’s trainer, Freddie Roach has leaned toward the idea of a possible bout with Mayweather in the not-too-distant future. It’s hard to imagine he would be ready at this stage to fight the ultimate defensive artist. Rather, Khan is more like a version of Mayweather in development. He is lanky, fast, and loath to be struck. While he has gained a greater confidence in his chin, and reasonably so, he will not likely have complete faith in it for some time. With the way Khan’s handlers are directing their focus though, it can hardly be expected that he will have the time or practice to enrich that faith before he is thrown into the den of a greater beast.

Ricky Hatton was defeated by Floyd Mayweather on Amir Khan’s birthday, and while it could have hardly been considered a gift, it is ironically the countryman who may prove to be the fighter with the capability to mimic and recreate the style of the masterful Mayweather. With the need to compensate for an unreliable chin, he will sharpen his accuracy, choreograph a more balanced, effective kind of mobility, and mind the protection of his body rigidly. He will do this if he wants to gain fluency with the formula for further, more effortless wins. It is a formula that is practically impervious to peril when mixed properly. Mayweather has proven it time and again.

England may have lost in its quest for pound for pound supremacy in 2007. But much can be learned from the examples of both the vanquished and the victorious. Khan does not resemble his countryman Hatton in any way. He is better suited to a vague reflection of Hatton’s conqueror. But in that fight, the winning element was exposed. It was not contingent on heart or brute strength, but rather on the steady progression of technique, the beautiful mastery of form that separates boxing from scraps on the street.

Article posted on 17.12.2010

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