Tuesday, July 10, 2012
Is 'King' Khan ready for the throne?
By Brian Campbell
There hasn't been much separating Amir Khan over the past few years from the pound-for-pound adulations that his outstanding talent has merited.
With a rare exception: the element of doubt.
From the self-doubt following a shocking first-round knockout loss to Breidis Prescott in 2008 to the increased critical skepticism of his chin in the wake of a hazardous victory over Marcos Maidana two years later, the exact appraisal of Khan's stock has been in flux for years.
Down it went again in the wake of a controversial split-decision loss to Lamont Peterson in November, igniting mainstream doubt whether Khan, 25, will ever be truly ready to make the leap.
As Khan (26-2, 18 KOs) readies for Saturday's fight against unbeaten junior welterweight titlist Danny Garcia (23-0, 14 KOs) in Las Vegas, that familiar uncertainty follows him.
There's little question that Khan is the favorite to dispatch the 24-year-old Garcia, a game yet still somewhat green fighter. But it could be argued that the pressure has never been higher, because a dominant victory would offer Khan a unique opportunity at a time when the landscape surrounding him appears more ripe for the taking than ever.
With nearly every marketable fighter outside of Canelo Alvarez in boxing's "glamour" divisions (140 to 154 pounds) in a state of damage control following a defeat, controversial victory, jail term or drug suspension, the door is wide open for Khan to crack the P4P top 10 and likely place himself in line for a meeting with boxing royalty (e.g., Floyd Mayweather Jr.) within the next 12 months.
The Peterson loss was dismally ill-timed in light of Khan's projected career arc, and was equally undeserved given the fight's gratuitous point deductions and questionable scorecards (not to mention, Peterson's failed drug test). But what the loss did was provide Khan the invaluable opportunity to see his shortcomings so brightly illuminated.
The hard-charging Peterson consistently pushed Khan outside of his comfort zones, exposing vulnerabilities to aggressive, volume punching -- particularly to the body -- and an almost allergic (and at times incompetent) reaction when forced to fight on the inside.
Khan's fastball is well-regarded as elite, fueling the flashy combinations that combine with genetic advantages in height and reach to make for a dangerous package. But a closer look reveals an inability to harness that breathtaking sparkle -- Khan is probably the most sensational opening-round fighter in the sport -- and iron out a level of consistency for a full 12 rounds.
The fact that Khan was able to ward off Peterson with pockets of inspired counterattacks late in the bout -- sandwiched around alternating rounds of inactivity -- showed maturity and an ability to adapt on the fly under pressure.
Khan also tempered questions about his ability to take a punch by standing and trading with Peterson for sustained periods. Although it would be disingenuous to imply that a good chin is a skill that can be acquired, an increase in self-confidence and maturity never hurts (see: Wladimir Klitschko).
Had Khan won the Peterson bout, he would have been in line for a good deal of praise for gutting out a victory in the face of an unexpectedly dire challenge. The fact that he received nothing but criticism shows the tenuous nature of his reputation, specifically in the eyes of American fans who often view him as pompous and overrated, the same way they once saw fellow Brits Lennox Lewis and Naseem Hamed.
When Khan commits to attacking the body -- a strategy that produced knockdowns against Maidana and Zab Judah -- he is at his most dangerous. But until he balances the same athleticism that allows him to shine offensively and puts it to use on the defensive end, Khan will be considered a vulnerable, incomplete fighter.
Khan has shown a tendency to be a front-runner, able to put fighters away with an arsenal of lethal methods when things are going his way, only to panic when the chips are down. But even that assessment doesn't get it entirely right.
Those who criticized Khan for getting rocked by Maidana failed to properly credit him for the way he stood his ground, forcing his opponent back on his heels by the end of the final round.
Where Khan's loss to Prescott forced him to rededicate himself and seek the full-time services of trainer Freddie Roach, the Maidana victory similarly helped him cross an internal threshold of self-belief. Considering those trends, it wouldn't be foolish to believe Khan can reap similar stores of career-altering wisdom from the Peterson fight.
It's very unlikely that Khan will have to endure the same level of impassioned blitzkrieg from Garcia that Peterson unleashed in front of his hometown crowd. But if there was ever a time for Khan to fulfill the promise that began with him winning silver at the 2004 Athens Olympics, this is it.
His path to validation begins Saturday, when we'll begin to discover whether or not Khan was ever truly fit to be king.