Coming off his controversial fight with Lamont Peterson, Amir Khan (26-2) makes his return to the ring today. His opponent, junior welterweight titlist Danny Garcia (23-0), is a late replacement for Peterson, whom Khan was supposed to fight in a rematch (Peterson tested positive for performance enhancing drugs). While Garcia is looking to establish himself as an elite boxer within the division, Khan will most likely be fighting for the last time at 140 lbs. Read below for the keys to the match. My official prediction will be at the end of the piece.
1. Khan vs. Khan.
On paper, Khan has a number of advantages over Garcia. He has better hand speed, more championship experience, a larger offensive arsenal and one of the best trainers in the sport. However, as the Peterson and Marcos Maidana bouts illustrated, Khan doesn't always make fights easy for himself. He sometimes may be too slow to change tactics (for instance, transitioning to boxing instead of seeking a knockout), he can lose focus during rounds and he can fall into bad defensive habits (moving straight back, getting caught along the ropes), which let opponents come back into fights. Khan needs to avoid the lapses in focus or judgment that have caused problems for him in the past. Garcia has demonstrated that he gets better as the rounds progress and he will keep coming forward. Khan can't afford to repeat the technical, strategic and tactical mistakes that he made against Peterson and Maidana.
2. Is Garcia continuing to develop?
Although he is only one year younger than Khan (24 vs. 25), Garcia lacks Khan's big-fight experience and he certainly doesn't have his opponent's Olympic pedigree. Garcia has not fought a particularly tough slate of opponents on his way to winning a title belt at junior welterweight. His most notable foes have been former 140-lb champion Kendall Holt and an aged Erik Morales.
To this point, the Philadelphian has shown excellent punch placement, decent power, a predilection for throwing combinations and poise in the ring. However, there are areas where Garcia needs to improve if he wants to become an elite fighter. He can be inconsistent from the outside. His jab is fine but he doesn't always throw it. He seems uncomfortable from distance; he's a much better fighter the closer he gets to his opponent. Garcia also takes a while to establish himself in fights. Against his better opponents, he hasn't let his hands go in the opening rounds. If he can make improvements in even one of these areas, Khan may be in for a much tougher fight than expected.
3. What has Khan learned?
Khan was his own worst enemy in the Peterson fight. He lost two points for excessive pushing but he committed a host of other fouls for which he was not penalized. In addition, Khan seemed uncomfortable with Peterson's body attack and pressure. Getting caught along the ropes or not letting his hands go as freely as he did earlier in the fight, Khan had a number of tough rounds against Peterson.
You can bet that Garcia will try to take the fight to the inside. He doesn't have an overly long reach and his weapons like his left hook and straight right hand are far more effective at close range.
For Khan, will he stand and trade on the inside, which wasn't a great strategy against Maidana and Peterson, or will he try to outbox Garcia for 12 rounds? Has he improved his inside fighting? Sometimes, he doesn't turn over his punches like he should, reducing their power. Has Khan learned to tie up opponents better than he has in previous fights? Has he developed an ability to fight off of the ropes, or has he finally decided to avoid them entirely? These aspects of Khan's game will directly affect his ability to control this fight.
The fighters have opposite problems with respecting their opponents. Garcia was way too cautious early in his fight against the elder Mexican legend Morales. Garcia enabled Morales to have early success because he didn't use movement like he should have and his punch output was too low. In addition, Garcia used a few rounds to feel out Holt. Eventually, Garcia works his way into fights, but this strategy most likely won't be successful against Khan, who is one of the best frontrunners in the sport. If Garcia is too hesitant early in the fight, he will suddenly find himself down four rounds. He needs to start his offense from the opening bell.
Khan's problem is that he believes he will win every moment of ever round, and he exhibits shock when opponents rise up from his knockdowns or continue to fight hard. Overly impressed with his power, Khan falls into traps where he thinks that his dominance in early rounds will lead to easy fights. He also hasn't respected the power and will of his opponents. He can get caught with punches, often because he believed that his foes had diminished power. He also gets frustrated when opponents continue to apply pressure. Although Khan has more skills than Garcia, he has to expect some physical rounds, where Garcia is able to assert himself on the inside. Garcia's power is good enough to hurt Khan, especially if he is being taken for granted.
5. The early rounds.
Quite simply, Khan's a great starter. He dropped Peterson and Maidana in the first round. His hand speed, lateral movement, angles and quick combinations can overwhelm opponents. As mentioned earlier, Garcia can be a bit too deliberate in the beginning of fights. Khan will look to dazzle early in the match, either going for the quick knockout or attempting to take the wind out of Garcia's sails. Garcia must contest the early rounds. If he's down three or four rounds, he can't count on a knockdown or a Khan self-destruction to get back into the fight. For Garcia, he must win two out of the first six rounds of the match to have a chance of winning.
Khan jumps out to the early lead. Moving beautifully in the center of the ring, he tags Garcia repeatedly with his jab, left hook and straight right hand. Garcia just won't have the foot speed to compete with Khan in the opening few rounds. Khan looks like he is in cruise control as the fight progresses, but Garcia works his way into the fight during the second half with lead straight right hands and left hooks to the body and head. There will be a number of competitive rounds as the fight continues but after the scores are announced, Khan's arm will be raised; he built up too large of a lead for Garcia to overcome.