Amir Khan came to the Birmingham Arena. He conquered.
The comeback tour post the crushing loss to Canelo Alvarez and the following two-year sabbatical, remains on track. A unanimous points win over Samuel Vargas. The dazzlingly fleet-footed, fast-handed skills remain intact at 31.
But despite a comfortable W on paper, ‘King’ Khan failed to convince pundits ringside and beyond after another flirtation with the canvas. Failed to convince, they say, he’s capable of reigning as a Welterweight World Champion - of mounting a credible challenge to the main trio of Keith Thurman, Errol Spence Junior and Terrence Crawford.
The ageing Manny Pacquiao, who holds the WBA regular belt, may be a realistic target analysts concede. But that conclusion’s based more on the perception that Pacquiao, in his 40th year, is slowing rather than a conviction Khan’s defence has been remodelled sufficiently to frustrate big hitters.
Vargas, a pugnacious-but-prosaic fighter went down in the second round after a bewildering blaze of Khan shots. But, unbroken, he bounced back to knock Khan down at the tail-end of the same round with a straight right.
In doing so he became the eighth professional opponent to floor the Bolton man.
Khan was credited with a less clean-cut knock-down in the third. And for large stretches he pummelled the Colombian-come-Canadian. Blood poured from the bridge of Vargas’ nose yet he continued to march forward.
Vargas seemed bedazzled by the constants flurries of punches bombarding his face. Hardly bothering to try and block them though, he kept coming. Strangely, still confident.
He’d said pre-fight he just needed to land with his right or left and he’d have THE headline win of his career. He seemed to believe wholeheartedly in this theory.
Coming in with a KO percentage of just under 50% this was a guy who’d been ruthlessly exposed at the elite level by Errol Spence Jr and Danny Garcia (Garcia, also a conqueror of Khan). But this was a man who neither believed Khan’s blurring hands could batter him to a standstill, nor doubted his ability to bring the show to a shuddering halt.
And Vargas’ plan again threatened to reach fruition in the final seconds of the 10th round as a random, reaching right induced a momentary ‘chicken dance’ in Khan... before the bell intervened.
I watched the fight with former middleweight world champion Darren Barker and he credited Khan with the way he regrouped to see out the remaining two rounds and claim a wide win on the cards.
Credit for the smart boxing of those late stanzas should no doubt also be thrown the way of new coach Joe Goossen, who remained calm in the corner even in the diciest of dicey moments.
Perhaps it’s no wonder Goossen remained calm if you believe Khan’s post-fight interview. He claimed all went according to plan. They wanted it to go 12 rounds and getting caught is all part of boxing, the former two-belt world champion at light welterweight maintained.
In the era of immediate internet judgement, it seemed few watching subscribed to the summary that this was a solid stepping stone to another glory day. Tweets were thumped out demanding Khan fight Kell Brook next and then retire.
Brook, his long-term British nemesis who sat ringside in a flashy jacket and afterwards reiterated his desire to make the match. His very presence provoked angry boos from the massed Khan fans and Brook beat a hasty retreat after appearing in the ring to reassert his confidence of winning the proposed fight.
Eddie Hearn, who now promotes both men, said Khan-Brook needs to come next, if ever. Khan, tactfully, remained open to the possibility, but the glint in his eye when Manny Pacquiao’s name was mentioned suggests a return to the lights of Las Vegas for a meeting with his former stablemate remains a bigger lure.
And if we put aside our Britishness, and regard it as cooly as we can, Khan under the lights in Vegas, the capital of show business, makes sense. Other boxers may more confidently promise victory on the big nights than Khan, but who else can offer a better guarantee of a show? He’s boxing’s P.T. Barnum, its greatest showman.
In an era of multiple platforms, with media outlets competing furiously for attention, desperate to produce compelling content, Khan holds a strong hand. His Matrix-fast bunches of punches, his furious feet, his bullish bravado, and his vulnerability, continue to make him a huge draw.
As ‘AK’ made his way to the ring Saturday night, a visceral wave of excitement surged through the crowd. As journalists we try to remain detached, but that’s challenging when our brains and bodies remember the thrill of a Khan fight. The adrenaline, the spectacle and the uncertainty of see-saw battles are etched into our cells.
Khan may not win a welterweight title. But his boxing legacy is secure. An Olympic silver medallist at 17. A world champion at 22. The man who demonstrated incredible courage - if foolhardiness - in jumping weight divisions to tackle legendary middleweight Saul ‘Canelo' Alvarez.
His cultural legacy is also secure. A British Muslim who made his pro debut the same month as the seven-seven bombings in London, has been a spokesman for his community and a figure to unite around in a time when fear threatened to divide. A man who follows a Halal diet, tailors training to accommodate Ramadan, but is also a keen football fan from Bolton who did the quintessentially British thing of appearing on reality TV.
The legacy secure. Why carry on? Darren Barker remarked to me that after three crushing KO losses, Khan’s family will be desperate he retires. He may bring guaranteed entertainment, but excitement doesn't steel the brain against repeated blows.
Few things are guaranteed in boxing. Ask Sam Eggington. Hailing from down the road in Stourbridge, Saturday night was supposed to be a tune-up for a huge murmured fight (and big payday) in the near future.
Instead, his train was derailed by a 23-year-old quarry worker from Tanzania, Hassan Mwakinyo. Egginton’s tune-up became a golden moment for a young man who breaks rock in the African sun, to break through towards a better life for him and his siblings. The siblings he’s duty bound to support in the wake of his parents’ premature passing.
At 24, Eggington, a European champion at welterweight last year, should come again. The fight of the night, a midlands middleweight derby between Jason Welborn and Tommy Langford reminded us that while road blocks suddenly appear in boxing, doors can also open after years of knocking.
Welborn, a 13 year-career pro has had to support himself through his paving business, waiting for the big moment. But at the age 32, after defending his British title in a bloody and bruising rematch with Langford, big paydays in the ring could be imminent.
So, what next for Khan? Discussions with Eddie Hearn should bring more clarity soon. But few who filed out into the fresh Birmingham air, even his staunchest fans, could offer cast iron confidence he’d beat Brook or the other big names at 147.
But one of the surest bets in boxing, is the next match will be worth watching - win, lose or draw.News Now - Sport News