Monday, July 2, 2012

Amir Khan Fights Others, Himself

Amir Khan has a problem; he thinks that he's a power puncher. He attributes his knockdowns to superior force instead of his blazing hand speed and expert punch placement. This miscalculation has caused numerous problems for him in the ring.

After dropping Marcos Maidana in the first round and dominating him throughout the first half of their fight, Khan believed that he had vanquished the threat which Maidana presented. He kept working for the knockout, but it was to no avail. When the Argentine finally landed his right hands, they caused serious damage, and Khan didn't know how to react. Throughout the final third of the fight, Khan hung on for dear life. In the 10th and 12th rounds, he was practically too dazed to even throw more than a handful of punches. Khan seemed unprepared for Maidana's onslaught.

Prior to the fight, Khan's trainer, Freddie Roach, predicted that Maidana wouldn't win a round. The gross overconfidence of Team Khan clearly manifested in that fight. It's almost as if the Ortiz-Maidana fight had never happened – that Victor Ortiz was completely beneath Khan's level.

Facing Paul McCloskey, Khan seemed perplexed when he couldn't drop him. McCloskey spent the majority of the fight thwarting Khan's attempts at landing fluid combinations. Khan won every round of the fight because of activity, but his performance was disjointed. He didn't seem equipped to dominate by an easy decision victory. He was mystified when McCloskey showed no signs of give.

In his next fight, Khan faced an aging Zab Judah who didn't seem all that interested in engaging. Khan put together his best performance as a champion. When he landed a borderline shot in the fifth round, Judah stayed down on the canvas, trying to claim that the punch was a low blow. Unfortunately, this scintillating performance from Khan may have reinforced bad habits.

Khan's last fight against Lamont Peterson truly showcased his best and worst abilities. He knocked down Peterson once in the first round and it's quite possible that with another referee, Khan would have been credited with a second knockdown. Ref Joe Cooper called it a slip. Khan, in his estimation, applied punishment during the first three rounds. By the fourth, it became obvious that Peterson wasn't going away. It took until the fifth round for Khan to realize that perhaps he shouldn't engage in a slugfest.

As Peterson advanced, Khan often retreated to the ropes, where he refused to throw punches, a habit that had surfaced in the Maidana fight. Although, to my eyes, Khan boxed very well in the last few rounds of the fight, he didn't sit down on his punches as well as he could have; he was so worried about leaving the pocket that his quick one-twos didn't have a lot of mustard on them.

Khan lost the fight however with his arms. Cooper deducted two points for incessant shoving. In addition, Khan repeatedly used his elbows, hit on the break, threw rabbit punches and placed Peterson in head locks. It's almost as if Khan spent the night before the exam cramming Bernard Hopkins' "How to Foul Without Being Penalized" book, but Khan didn't have adequate time to command the material. And while I believe that Khan still won the bout even with his two penalized infractions, the fouls placed him in the position to lose the fight.

All of this is perhaps a way of saying that Amir Khan has not assumed a consistent ring identity that will allow him to consistently win big fights. Ignore his one loss to Breidis Prescott; he simply got caught with a shot. Khan has shown a solid chin in subsequent fights. However, his defeat at the hands of Peterson and his life-and-death struggle with Maidana suggest a fighter who has yet to harness his considerable set of skills.

Khan, whether he wants to believe it or not, is best suited as a boxer. He has fast hands, excellent lateral movement and command of angles. However, he has let early knockdowns and perhaps even Roach's love of KO victories cloud his best attributes in the ring. With a high self-regard for his power, he tries to blitz opponents; he doesn't respect his foes enough in the ring. When they come on, he seems woefully unprepared on the finer points of defense and using the ring to his advantage.

In short, Khan is an offensive fighter who becomes far less formidable the minute he goes on defense. He hasn't learned how to use the ring, plant his feet, fire off a solid combination and continue to move. With his lateral movement, he could become an expert at pot shotting, but that's not part of his game. He also has no idea of how to effectively fight off the ropes.

These problems are not mysteries. I'm sure that Khan and his team have watched his tapes many times. It's up to Khan and Roach to recalibrate their training. Khan may one day become a top fighter, but if his defense doesn't improve and if he doesn't learn how to turn defense into offense, he will continue to struggle with aggressive fighters who have at least moderate power.

Before the Peterson fight, Khan talked about a future fight with Floyd Mayweather. Clearly, the Peterson match demonstrated that Khan would have been out of his depths against the master boxer. Khan's rigorous protesting of the Peterson verdict did eventually help mandate a rematch (which has since been aborted), but these complaints outside of the ring won't necessarily help Khan become an elite boxer.

Khan must realize that he has more to learn. According to various statements, he already believes that he is a top fighter, but his ledger says otherwise. He's going to have to work hard to gain every edge needed to rise to the top. It's not that Khan doesn't train hard in the gym, but he may have to work smarter. He needs to watch more videotape of vintage Mayweather and Hopkins; when he does, he'll comprehend that those two fighters have literally dozens of tools to help them win fights. If Khan's honest with himself, he’ll find ample room for improvement.

Yes, Khan lost to a boxer who used PEDs in the fighter's home town, with an arbitrary referee and a strange person handling the official scorecards. But the Peterson bout reinforced the central narrative of the Maidana fight. Khan can cruise for many rounds and then suddenly find himself in imminent danger, lacking the tools to turn back aggressive challengers. Only his chin permitted him to survive Maidana. Khan's fouls couldn't stop Peterson from charging forward and he didn't know how to pull out enough rounds against an aggressive opponent.

I believe that Khan must become more of a pure boxer. He should win fights based on his elusiveness, superior hand speed and sharp combinations. Khan's power is solid but it's not world-class. In addition, as Khan eventually moves up to welterweight, his power will become less of a factor. If he knocks boxers down (especially early), he must stick to his game plan. He must become a better judge of his opponents; he needs to understand when a foe is truly hurt, as opposed to temporarily bested. If he's opportunistic with his power shots, some knockouts will follow naturally from an accumulation of punishment. If he's chasing KOs, he'll continue to get into trouble.

Once Khan understands that he is there to win decisions, fights will get easier for him. He will learn how to tie up properly. Maybe Roach can bring in one of his former pupils, James Toney, to show Khan how to fight off the ropes. Or maybe Khan will realize that he is a fighter who must win fights in the center of the ring.

Khan will not win inside wars against top punchers and the sooner he comprehends what his true ring talents are, the faster his career will ascend. If the status quo remains, expect the pattern of steps forward and backward to continue. At age 25 and with 28 pro fights, Khan no longer has the excuse of youth. His prime is now; the talent is there. If he fails to progress, it’s on him.

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