Lessons learned for Khan

Khan you believe it? The young prospect was hit with a dose of reality in September. Getty Images/John Gichigi

In his mother's home near Ajusco in the south of Mexico City, Marco Antonio Barrera recalled his savage brawl with Kennedy McKinney. He was drawing parallels to his intriguing encounter Saturday at the MEN Arena in Manchester, England, against Amir Khan.

"Like Khan, I was 22 years old at the time and McKinney had more experience, but I had heart and I wanted to prove that I was a champion," Barrera said. "For Amir Khan, this is a similar kind of fight."

But the similarity ends there, Barrera vowed.

"You remember my fight with Naseem Hamed? Khan will suffer the same fate," he said. "Yes, I am older, but I have much more experience and he has not faced any fighter with my level of skill and expertise.

"I know about his fast hands and his footwork. I know about his chin, too, though I am not concentrating on this. Experience will be the key in this fight. This will be a lesson. I am going to teach him what this sport is really about."

After 18 professional fights without a loss, Khan, Britain's Olympic silver medalist from the Athens Games, became acquainted with the brutal realities of his profession when he got knocked out in 54 seconds by Colombian Breidis Prescott in September.

It was a stunning reversal, clinical and emphatic, but it may also have been a blessing in disguise.

As young and gifted as Khan was, his transition from amateur prodigy to the little wars of the prize ring had not been without dire signs of vulnerability and a distinct lack of development in the fundamentals.

Oliver Harrison, who trained him for his first 17 bouts, failed to instill defensive discipline in his charge, and Jorge Rubio, the Cuban coach who replaced Harrison and picked Prescott as an opponent, proved that George Armstrong Custer, Saddam Hussein and Goliath do not stand alone in history for choosing bad battles.

Khan needed a keener eye to watch over him, and in boxing there are few pairs of eyes more capable of understanding what they are looking at than Freddie Roach's.

Chastened by such a devastating defeat but determined that it should not define him, Khan left behind his home comforts in Bolton, rented out an apartment above a Borders bookstore on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood and went to work with Roach as his new teacher.

Their association has been hugely productive.

No witness would place a great deal of value to Khan's one-sided drubbing of a compliant, hopelessly outgunned Oisin Fagan three months ago in London. But anyone who has stepped inside the Wild Card Gym on Vine Street to watch Roach take Khan to school cannot fail to be impressed.

I would never say that defeat is a good thing but you can make it into a good thing

--Amir Khan

Whereas Khan's assaults on opponents were once helter-skelter and guileless, he has begun to demonstrate a newly acquired tactical awareness and genuine purpose in sparring. Having Manny Pacquiao come out of the opposite corner regularly has contributed to Khan's conviction that now he is on the right road.

"I would never say that defeat is a good thing but you can make it into a good thing and, if I had not been beaten, I would never have taken the step to come and be trained by Freddie," Khan said. "Freddie is one of those coaches who likes things to be perfect, and the work we do on the pads is a perfect example: hitting and dipping under the punches, not waiting there to get hit back.

"If I take a few shots on my gloves Freddie will say, 'What's the point in being there? Don't be there. You have the footwork to move.' Meanwhile, Michael Moorer, a former world heavyweight champion who is Freddie's assistant, is looking at my feet and lower body. If I'm reaching over to throw the right hand or the jab, if I'm going over my front foot, he pulls me up. So I'm learning all the time. It's like being at university."

And the professor is pleased.

"There are fighters who work hard but they're just not athletic enough, so they only go so far," Roach said. "Then you have guys who are great athletes but they're lazy, and they can only go so far, too.

"But guys like Pacquiao and Amir have both qualities and that's what has made one of them a world champion and the best pound-for-pound boxer in the world and this can make Amir a world champion as well. I have no doubt about this.

"He has a tendency to stand in front of you after he punches to admire his work. But when you throw a combination against a guy like Barrera he's going to throw one right back. Amir's got such speed, why not use it? I'm not talking about his hand speed; I'm talking about foot speed. I'm more impressed with this, and if he uses it, Barrera won't find Amir all night long. If he does, I'll be mad at him."

A former holder of alphabet world titles in three weight divisions, Barrera has been one of the foremost fighters of his era. He exposed Hamed with a virtuoso display of counterpunching, and he engaged in three classic encounters with his compatriot, Erik Morales, solidifying his reputation as one of the great Mexican warriors.

But he beat Hamed in 2001 and the last of his bouts with Morales took place in 2004. Pacquiao stopped Barrera in 11 rounds in 2003 and outpointed him in a rematch 17 months ago, after which the 35-year-old Barrera retired.

He has labored in two comeback bouts, requiring eight stitches in a wound over his left eye in a messy disqualification victory over Cuban journeyman Freudis Rojas in January.

"Amir made a young man's mistake against Prescott," Roach said. "When he threw a left hook to the body he had a tendency to reach for it, and when he reached for it he dropped his hands, sending out an invitation. He's not doing that anymore.

"I know that you can't teach a chin to take a punch better, but you can teach defense and you can teach fundamentals. Amir wants to learn and he has great fundamentals now. This is the opportunity of a lifetime and I think we have the perfect opponent for him at this time.

"Barrera is not a young man anymore fighting at 122 pounds; he's 35 years old and he's fighting at 135. It's a different ballgame. I took this fight because it's perfect timing for Amir."

Khan must only hold his nerve and deliver on all that Roach has told him.

Brian Doogan is a sports writer for The (London) Sunday Times.