Saturday, November 5, 2011

Is Khan Ready for the Elites?

At just 24, Amir Khan has already fashioned an impressive career.  He won the silver medal for Britain in 2004.  As a professional, he captured titles in two divisions.  Earlier this year, he defeated Zab Judah to become a unified belt holder at junior welterweight.  The only thing that Khan has yet to accomplish is a victory over an elite opponent.  However, as he ascends the pound-for-pound rankings, Khan won't have to wait much longer for that opportunity.

To this point, Khan's war with Marcos Maidana in December 2010 has been the most pivotal fight in his career.  After knocking down Maidana early in the opening round, Khan cruised through the first half of the fight.  In round 10, the tides turned when Maidana was able to land a pulverizing right hand early in the frame that severely wobbled Khan.  Throughout the rest of the round, Maidana threw the kitchen sink at Khan, landing numerous right-hand bombs, left uppercuts and left hooks – all power shots.  It seemed as if Khan was ready to crumble, but somehow he survived Maidana's onslaught.  Maidana further dominated the last two rounds of the fight, but Khan was awarded the decision victory, which was a just verdict.

Two schools of thought have emerged in interpreting Khan's performance against Maidana.  On one hand, he erased the specter of the Briedis Prescott debacle, where he was knocked out in the first round.  Against Maidana, Khan was able to take vicious power shots from the best puncher at junior welterweight.  Certainly, he proved that his chin and conditioning would not be liabilities as his career continued. 

However, Khan also showed that he could still be vulnerable against punchers.  Maidana was a crude brawler.  His defense was shoddy and he didn't even throw a jab.  A boxer with the pedigree and aptitude of Khan's should have been able to stay out of harm's way against a fighter with slow hand speed and no lateral movement, yet there Khan was, hanging on in a life-and-death battle.

Khan's next significant fight was against Judah, a junior welterweight belt holder who had previously been the lineal welterweight champion.  (Khan's bout against Paul McCloskey was a marking-time title defense.)  Because of Judah's knockout power, more than a few boxing experts picked Khan to lose. However, in perhaps his best performance as a pro, Khan dismantled Judah, both physically and psychologically.  He dominated Judah in the first four rounds, featuring sharp jabs, crisp combinations and a renewed focus on body punching.  In the fifth, Khan knocked Judah down on a borderline-low body shot. Judah didn't beat the count, claiming it was a low blow.  Judah and his camp went through the motions of protesting the decision, but there was no real controversy with the referee's decision.

Next month, Khan faces mandatory challenger Lamont Peterson, a solid fighter with decent power and technical skills.  Peterson is a worthy opponent; however, Khan does everything that Peterson does, but better.  Already, Peterson has lost to Tim Bradley and was awarded a disputed draw against Victor Ortiz (he should have lost).  Fittingly, Khan has been installed as a prohibitive favorite in the bout.

Khan is now big game hunting, calling out Floyd Mayweather.  He's in an enviable position for major fights.  He draws boxing fans from three continents (North America, Europe and Asia) and has aligned himself with Golden Boy, who has the ability to get him the biggest fights in the sport.

Assuming he gets by Peterson, Khan will most likely face two of the following five fighters in 2012: Bradley, Maidana, Ortiz, Mayweather and Andre Berto.  All five of these matchups would be significant events in boxing and Khan would only be a resounding favorite against Maidana, who almost knocked him out last year.

Khan has assembled a winning team as he tries to reach the top of the sport.  With the combination of trainer Freddie Roach and conditioning guru Alex Ariza, he will be expertly prepared to take on these elite-level fighters.  But the most pressing question remains: how will he fare?

Roach has done a magnificent job in augmenting Khan's boxing skills with some of the finer points of ring generalship and strategy.  He has worked with Khan to lead more with his jab and control distance better.  Under Roach, Khan has become a well-rounded offensive fighter, cultivating his power by sitting down on his shots.  He also has better utilized his array of weapons, including his excellent left hook.

Roach has also been able to correct a few flaws of Khan's.  Khan used to stay in punching range too often without throwing shots (Maidana's success illustrates this).  In his last two fights, Khan has stayed busier in the pocket and has done a better job of getting out of range after punching.  This has made him a much more difficult target to find and hit than he was in previous fights.  He also has learned to tie-up better in close quarters, which minimizes his opponents' offensive opportunities.  In addition, Roach has emphasized Khan's need to win the fight in the center of the ring.  In the past, Khan would retreat to the ropes later in fights, which were disconcerting displays of passivity.  Under Ariza's guidance, Khan's conditioning has advanced and he hasn't relied on the ropes to get him through 12 rounds.

With all of Khan's progress, he still has room for improvement.  He can overcommit with his straight right hand and left hook, leading to countering opportunities for a quick puncher like Bradley or Mayweather.  In addition, he often reverts back to headhunting, forgetting about body shots.  Also, he hasn't yet demonstrated the ability to throw punches under duress.  In the Maidana fight, Khan's offense stopped once he was hurt.  Fighters like Berto and Ortiz leave themselves open when they are attacking.  Khan, even if he gets tagged, must continue to throw punches.

There are also a couple of unknowns.  How will Khan react to a master craftsman like Mayweather, who can pick apart an opponent's flaws?  Will Khan continue to stay aggressive or will he retreat into a defensive shell, like so many others who have fought Mayweather?  How comfortable will he be against the aggression and constant pressure of Ortiz or Bradley?  Khan also cuts fairly easily which could be hindering factors in those fights.  Finally, will his chin hold up to Ortiz or Berto (not to mention another encounter with Maidana)?  As he moves up to welterweight, the fighters in the division feature a lot more power than do the Malignaggis and McCloskeys of the world.

Khan has placed himself in an excellent position to face many of the elite boxers in the sport.  He has made significant improvements under Roach and Ariza that will give him the best chance at slaying the dragons at welterweight.  Although there are still legitimate questions about his prospects against the elite, he has earned the right to face them with his solid body of work at lightweight and junior welterweight.  

2011 has been an important year for Khan's growth, where he has consolidated his varied offensive skills and further developed his ring identity of quick starts, high work rates, fluid combinations and control of the center of the ring.  This year has provided him with the necessary ammunition to battle boxing's best.

Despite Khan's successes, he still has room for growth.  If he continues to apply Roach's teachings and further harness his physical and technical abilities, he could become one of the top-five fighters in the sport by the end of 2012.  However, there are no guarantees that Khan will reach that lofty perch.  By this time next year, Khan's ultimate ceiling will be much clearer. 

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