We have seen not nearly enough of Amir Khan, the lost superstar of British boxing. Just five fights since December 2012, unless you include the Twitter spat with his wife, happily resolved.
Thus a career that might have been so much more, rolls into Saturday’s meeting with enthusiastic trier Phil Lo Greco at the Liverpool Arena in need of oxygen. Even Khan admits a fifth defeat would be terminal.
This is his first engagement since the devastating loss to Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez 23 months ago in Las Vegas, an ill-fated leap into a middleweight division beyond his genetic coding.
It made little difference that the fight was made at five pounds beneath the conventional 160 pound limit since a rehydrated Canelo would have walked in the ring at least a stone heavier than Khan, who would struggle to match his opponent’s weight with lead in his pockets.
That Khan was ahead on one judge’s card should not surprise.
The lad can box and has the heart the size of a cannon ball. You don’t make it through the Olympic qualifying process at 17, let alone come home with a silver medal without talent and ticker.
You might argue he has too much of both, a problem when a vulnerability about the chin is exposed along the food chain, as it was so brutally by that Breidis Prescott anvil a decade ago.
CLIMBING OFF THE CANVAS
Khan was not the first nor will he be the last great fighter to hit the carpet. Felix Trinidad made a habit of climbing off the canvas to erase the opposition. Indeed the look of terror in the eyes of Kevin Lueshing when he had the Puerto Rican over in the second round of their 1997 meeting in Nashville was forever burned on my ringside retina. Lueshing could dig but his domestic dominance had never been tested at world level.
Promoter Frank Warren, at the top of his game, engineered the duel on a Terry Norris undercard. Lueshing was like a rabbit staring at a temporarily wounded yet salivating Doberman, unable to locate the neutral corner when directed by the referee.
Trinidad duly rose to his feet to begin the onslaught that would conclude in emphatic victory one round later. Khan did not sustain a beating against Canelo. A sledgehammer right did the job in one ‘lightsout’ moment, as it did against Prescott.
In a revealing interview with Sky, Khan explained how his yearning for the big show on the Vegas strip, where he had already fought five times, led him into Canelo’s hands. He had hoped to lure Floyd Mayweather Jnr. and Manny Pacquiao, but neither saw the value in dancing with Khan late in their careers, so, in exchange for $6m dollars, Khan persuaded himself that Canelo was a good idea.
“The reason I took the fight was I got desperate,” he told Anna Woolhouse. “I wanted a big super fight. To see my name lit up on the Vegas strip. There's fights I've wanted, like for example the Floyd Mayweather fight - that was talked about for years and years, and didn't happen. The Manny Pacquiao fight, which was talked about and didn't happen. I don’t regret taking the fight. If I hadn’t I would have always thought what might have been. He was the better man that night. It was my mistake. I dropped my left, but I’d rather be knocked out with one shot rather than 1,000.”
In stepping in against the odds Khan was revisiting his youth, staring down opponents twice his age, career amateurs from the former Soviet states for whom Olympic representation was the end game, not the springboard to the paid ranks. In December 2003, having just turned 17, a resistant ruling body finally gave in to his appeals and invited him to test out with the seniors in Sheffield.
He impressed enough to be included in his first senior squad at a tournament in Germany, three fights to prove his Olympic credentials. He won them all, stopping a German former world bronze medallist in the second. Khan was still a schoolboy in Bolton. Only the great Cuban, Mario Kindelan, a double Olympic gold medallist, was good enough to beat him six months later in Athens.
On his return to Blighty, a fizzed-up Hummer, dispatched by an enterprising executive car hire firm in Bolton, was waiting for him at Manchester Airport. It was a set of wheels that would come to symbolise a ride that would make him one of the richest sportsmen in Britain with a bank balance estimated at £30 million.
Now 31 he is not fighting for money, but to restore some of the lost lustre, to re-establish his credentials as a marque name. The knockout defeat to Prescott was unfortunate, the split-decision loss to drug-cheat Lamont Peterson a travesty, the fourth-round KO to Danny Garcia a nasty case of hubris. Only against Alvarez was he in too deep.
At his best, as he was against Marcos Maidana on his Vegas debut in December 2010, as he was on his return to Nevada seven months later, taking Zab Judah apart in five rounds, Khan is a match for any welterweight in the world. Similarly, as he also showed against Maidana, those who get off the deck in championship fights will always have a chance against Khan over 12 rounds.
Kell Brook is an obvious opponent for a big stadium fight in England, though Khan would not start favourite were the match made at light middle. Brook’s conqueror Errol Spence is the big fight at welter, but there is jeopardy there, too since he is just as quick, heavy handed and has the better chin.
SNAKES AND LADDERS
All that depends on seeing off Lo Greco first. Two years is a long time away, and dodging snakes in a celebrity jungle is no preparation for ring warfare. Lo Greco is a decent pro who loses to high class opponents, three times in fact, including a defeat to Spence.
Khan has also been disrupted by a change of trainer, Virgil Hunter going sick at the start of this camp in January forcing a switch to Joe Goossen, who has worked with the likes of multi world champions Joel Casamayor and the late Diego Corrales. He says the hand problems from which he has suffered for years are behind him after an operation. That he felt he might never fight again during his recovery tells us how profound was the damage, and how precarious still is the future.
“I'm 31, in my final chapter of my career. I want to win a world title, to have those big fights and walk away happy,” he said. “At one stage I thought this is it, a sign from God, look this is your time. I felt down. I didn’t want to finish with a loss, especially the way I lost. It did dishearten me a little. It would have been hard to walk away like that. And I can’t afford to lose again. If that happens I hang up my gloves and call it a day.”
To end a story that began with an Olympic odyssey in Athens with defeat to ‘the Greek’ would be an irony Khan does not deserve. The blurring hand speed and withering combinations of peak Khan were always worthy of the big show he still craves. If they are in evidence again in Liverpool, if the hands are truly healed and Lo Greco duly dispatched, the Vegas valedictory might be Khan’s yet.