- Dan Rafael, ESPN Senior Writer
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One year ago, Amir Khan was a unified junior welterweight titleholder on a strong run and moving up the pound-for-pound list after successful title defenses against such top opponents as Paulie Malignaggi, Marcos Maidana and Zab Judah.
He was even mentioned as a possible opponent for pound-for-pound king Floyd Mayweather.
But last December, Khan lost a controversial split decision to Lamont Peterson in Peterson's hometown of Washington, D.C. It was a terrific fight and viewed by many as only a minor setback for Khan because so many thought that he had been robbed in his opponent's hometown. The loss became even more suspect when, after failing a random drug test during the buildup to a rematch scheduled for May, Peterson admitted that he had been implanted with illegal testosterone pellets before the fight. The rematch was canceled because of the dirty urine sample.
After the cancellation, Khan, who had one of his belts returned to him because of the drug controversy, met Danny Garcia in a unification bout in July.
Khan stormed to a lead and was battering Garcia. He was rocking him and had opened a cut over Garcia's right eye in the second round. It looked as though it was only a matter of time until Khan scored a knockout.
But then everything fell apart. Khan got reckless looking for the knockout and Garcia dropped him in the third round and then twice more in the fourth round for an upset knockout victory.
With two losses in a row and the second knockout defeat of his career, Khan decided to make a major change. In September, he fired trainer Freddie Roach, whom he had hired in the wake of his first knockout loss to Breidis Prescott in 2008. Khan and Roach had been together since, including for all of Khan's world title bouts.
Now, as Khan attempts to right his sinking ship, he heads into battle with his new trainer, Virgil Hunter, when he meets Carlos Molina on Saturday night (Showtime, 10:30 ET/PT) at the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena.
While Khan still speaks highly of Roach, he said he needed to make a change.
"I feel I'm in great condition and I know what mistakes I made in the previous fights and we're not going to make them again," Khan said. "You will see a new Amir Khan in this fight and I just want to say that the training that I've been doing with Virgil Hunter has been going great, because we are working on new techniques and new skills and everything, and I'll be a totally different fighter. I'm excited to show you all what the new Amir Khan is going to be like."
"Amir Khan is a fighter through and through and I believe he is taking the necessary steps to continue his career and become a champion again," said Golden Boy promoter Oscar De La Hoya, who made several trainer changes when he was an active fighter. "Carlos Molina is not going to make that task an easy one as he is undefeated and always prepared to fight. We will see what happens."
Also in scheduled 10-round bouts on the Showtime tripleheader are Tuscaloosa, Ala., heavyweight prospect Deontay Wilder (25-0, 25 KOs), a 2008 U.S. Olympic bronze medalist, against Kelvin Price (13-0, 6 KOs) of Pensacola, Fla., in a collision of 6-foot-7 big men, and Los Angeles-based Mexican junior middleweight brawler Alfredo "Perro" Angulo (21-2, 18 KOs), in his second fight since a year out of the ring because of immigration issues, against Jorge Silva (18-2-2, 14 KOs) of Chula Vista, Calif.
Preceding the Showtime telecast, Showtime Extreme (9 p.m. ET/PT) will cover the crossroads preliminary fight between welterweight prospect Shawn Porter (20-0, 14 KOs) of Akron, Ohio and former lightweight titlist Julio Diaz (40-7, 29 KOs) of Coachella, Calif.
England's Khan (26-3, 18 KOs), who turned 26 on Dec. 8, has little room for error if he wants to be back in major fights at junior welterweight and eventually welterweight. He is aware that he needs a win badly in order for that to happen.
"Obviously, this fight means a lot to me and is very important," Khan said. "I can't afford to get beat. Yes, I want to fight the biggest names, but to do that, I first have to win on Saturday. I think it's equally important for me that I win and that I win impressively.
"I never treat a fight as a tuneup or go in underestimating my opponent because all opponents are dangerous. I am certainly not taking Molina lightly. I've seen a little of him. I expect a good fight and for him to come at me. I appreciate the fact he took this fight."
Molina (17-0-1, 7 KOs), 27, of Norwalk, Calif., is the older brother of twin Olympians Javier and Oscar Molina. He has fought as a lightweight throughout his career, but is moving up in weight and taking a big step up in the level of his competition against the heavily favored Khan.
"I've seen all his fights and know what he brings into the ring," said Molina, who will be fighting in his area. "There have been a lot of great fights this year and a lot of upsets. This is going to be a great fight, too, and I'm confident I can win it."
In Hunter, Khan is working with the reigning trainer of the year. He is an old-school trainer who has worked with amateurs and pros, but is best known as the career-long trainer of super middleweight champion Andre Ward.
Khan said he has been very happy working with Hunter at his gym in the Oakland, Calif., area.
"My sparring has been brilliant. The switch in trainers has been a positive change," Khan said. "I feel great and I'm in a great state of mind. You're going to see a smarter, much more mature fighter, a mistake-free, precise puncher who'll make every punch count and won't make any mistakes."
Said Hunter, "I couldn't ask for anything better, or for a better situation to be in. Amir is easy to work with and easy to train. He has an open mind and is easy to communicate with. Everything has just been great so far."
One of the things Khan said they have been working diligently on is defense. Khan's has not been very good, hence the two knockout losses and other situations where he has been badly rocked, such as against Maidana in a fight in which he was nearly knocked out.
"The other trainers have been great, the ones I've worked with, but with Virgil, I think it's just a little different," Khan said. "He tells you straight how it is. He will shout at you in the corner and also he'll teach you more defense. With the other trainers it was mainly a lot of offense and a little bit of defense, but with Virgil, there's a lot of defense at the same time, because maybe that's something I wanted to work on as well. So that's why he has me working on the defensive side, because offense is always going to be there.
"I've tried all this stuff, all this stuff he's been teaching me. It's made my sparring so much easier and so much cleaner and I'm a better fighter this way. But don't get me wrong, the excitement is still going to be there."
Although Khan did not say anything negative about Roach's training methods, he continued to laud Hunter.
"If you're making mistakes, he'll pull you up on them, and tell you how to change your style and also when we're working in the gym together, we've changed a lot of stuff, which is the defense, working a lot on the defensive side, something I've always wanted to work on with a trainer," Khan said. "I have offense, that's always going to be there because that's just the nature of the fighter I am.
"I'm that type of fighter who likes to fight and get into a tear up, but at the same time, defense is important as well. Virgil has added to my fighting style. I think he is going to help me big time."