Khan: A gamble worth taking
When Boxing Monthly last caught up with Amir Khan (31-3, 19 KOs) the former WBA and IBF light-welterweight titlist was chasing big money showdowns in America against the likes of Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao.
Mayweather opted for Andre Berto; Pacquiao is likely to bow out after beating Tim Bradley in April, which left Khan seemingly twisting in the wind while some British fans poured cold-water scepticism over his claim that a mega-fight was within reach.
Many assumed that his only other viable option was a domestic showdown with IBF welterweight title-holder Kell Brook. There were rumours that it was close at one point. However, Khan’s handlers were also locked in secret negotiations with Saul Alvarez, the lineal and WBC middleweight champion.
The discussions bore fruit. Brook was left disappointed when Khan announced that he would meet ‘Canelo’ in Las Vegas on 7 May - Cinco de Mayo weekend - in a move that few saw coming. Surprises are rare in the age of social media so it was refreshing to see Alvarez-Khan come flying out of leftfield.
As Khan explained, his team has learned some harsh lessons in recent years, most notably when and when not to go public about a fight. “I left it down to my team and [advisor] Al Haymon to do the deal,” explained Khan.
“We kept it quiet, we never let anyone know what we were doing or risked it getting out in anyway. We learned that when stuff gets leaked out it can prevent fights from happening.
“That happened twice with Mayweather and we swore it would never happen again, so that’s why we made sure of that this time. No one talked about it so it was a massive surprise when it was announced.”
Amir’s father, Shah, helps put the deals together so that his son can concentrate on training; he told me that the fight practically made itself. He said: “It was close to happening with Brook. Amir was ready to take that Brook fight, but Matchroom didn’t keep their promises and Canelo’s people approached us. We were speaking directly with Oscar [De La Hoya], who promotes Canelo, and there were no middlemen involved, which helped us keep it quiet.”
Amir echoed his father’s sentiments. “I think it is a great move, a wise move, because beating Canelo would be massive, one of the biggest wins in boxing for a long time. It is also a global fight where with Kell it is just big in the U.K., so that’s why we looked at the bigger picture. This fight brings Britain, America and Mexico into things - it will all combine into a massive night.”
Despite the size of the task and the prospect of walking out in front of a big pro-Alvarez crowd, Khan is thrilled to be fighting a Mexican in Vegas during their national holiday weekend.
“Meeting him there is special,” he stated. “Mayweather used to fight on that date, so someone needs to take that spot. It will be me and I’ll do it by beating Alvarez. I can do this and take that date for future fights, I can take over that whole weekend.
“People want a new star, this is what it’s all about and why we’re doing what we’re doing with this fight. We ignored other fights because we wanted a once in a lifetime chance.”
Khan had never looked Alvarez up and down as a potential opponent until they came together for the press conferences. The 29-year-old felt buoyed after their first face off, rather than awed by the size of the task.
“I’ve now seen him face-to-face, gauged his actual size and now can think about the fight properly, I can visualise it better,” he said.
“People have talked about the size, but if I said I was going up to fight at light-middleweight they’d think that was OK. People hear the word ‘middleweight’ and think I am jumping up two divisions - it is only a pound more than the weight above me.
“Then they might think I’m jumping a bit too far, look at it properly and it won’t cause much difference. When I’m in there, I might fell his pressure and the power, but that’s when you set your plan out and think about what you will do next.”
“You never know, this could be my ideal weight, I might settle at 155,” he said when discussing how he will handle the transition.
“I’ll maybe drop down again [after the fight], it just depends. I just want to make sure I am comfortable making the weight, which I will be. I want to also make sure I don’t eat up to the weight - I will train up to it.
“I’ll be hydrated, feeling natural and will add muscle, I’ll be stronger so it could be better for me. Once I go in, there I’ll be happy, strong and at my natural weight. No dehydration or anything like that.
“I’ll admit that he might be stronger than me, I’m not just going to stand there in front of him though. The speed will still be there, the power can only get better and it’s all going to be new to me, I’m excited to see it (the physical change) myself.”
Boxers and trainers do not like discussing pre-fight tactics, unlike football managers they like to keep things under wraps until fight night. Khan, though, was happy to talk about how the two men line up both physically and stylistically. Khan always sits down with Virgil Hunter, his coach, to assess his own attributes before committing to a fight.
“We look at both sides, really, my strengths such as speed and movement and weaknesses like not standing there trading, looking for a knockout and big shots. It’s all about picking the right shots and fighting smart.
“We looked at Mayweather’s win over Alvarez. Mayweather is not a big puncher, plus not the best mover as he’s got older, but he still judges the distance well - he just didn’t have that youth behind him so was slower in that sense.
“His experience came into it, which I think I have on my side as well as youth, speed and power. Alvarez is a strong guy who puts both pressure and combinations together well. You can’t let him settle down, once he settles he will get to you and go right into throwing his shots.”
Fans have asked if Khan is brave or plain crazy; he believes this fight has finally silenced the people who believe he swerved Brook.
“It is good that people talk about me, they can’t say I’m afraid of anyone because I’ve taken a dangerous fight that some people might see as a stupid one to take - it shows my character and the type of person I am. I’m not scared of going up against anyone.”
Either way, Khan’s dogged faith in getting a big one has paid off. It is a huge gamble yet it was well worth taking as the rewards will be enormous should he overcome the odds.
Sidebar: A father’s pride
Shah Khan always believed that his son would make it to the very pinnacle of his chosen profession. A meeting with Ricky Hatton, a rising star at the time, cemented that belief.
“We were at Manchester United’s ground,” he recalled. “Ricky turned professional when Amir was 12 and we were there watching an international tournament. Ricky was sat at a table, everyone was having photos taken with him and getting autographs.
“Amir went over with a programme for Ricky to sign, he said to Ricky: ‘You should watch out for me’. Ricky looks up and says: ‘What’s you name?’ Amir told him his name and that he boxed for Bury ABC with Mick Jelley. Ricky told us he knew Mick and that was that. It just shows how confident Amir was, how confidence you have to be in your mind - it’s why he’s achieved what he has.”
Amir picked up his father’s point. He said: “I’ve always had that belief. All fighters should have that confidence. I think it’s why I’ve got so far. I kept pushing myself when times got hard, even after losing fights, and look where I am now. Self-confidence is something that you are either born with or is within you.”
Shah has supported his son throughout his career. Once Amir decided that he wanted to pursue the life of a boxer his father attended every fight and lived every blow with him.
“It is very important for parents to be there for their kid, it is your duty as a parent to support their dreams whether they are a success or not,” said Shah.
“He came to me and said he loved the sport and wanted to do it so I took him to the gym and was there for him. I’ve been there through his entire amateur career, every fight. Other coaches would stay back to watch him box, so we knew he was special.”
Amir is now a doting dad to his young daughter; Shah has seen a difference in his son since he shouldered the responsibilities of fatherhood.
“I know how Amir feels about his child, it is a great feeling,” he said. “I see him do a hard training session then still have time for his little girl. It relaxes him. He has matured a lot, he knows he is working for her as well and he wants the best for her.”
A new experience for Khan
Going into a fight as the underdog is a new feeling for Khan. Sure, his fight against Rene Marcos Maidana in 2012 was seen as a ‘pick ‘em’ by some yet he was by no means a rank outsider going in.
Khan, though, is relishing the new experience; he argued that it will help him raise his game and improve on his last performance, a hard-fought 12-round decision win over Chris Algieri in May of last year.
“I’m looking forward to this, people need to believe in me,” he said. “This is maybe the second fight I’ve gone into where I am not the favourite. That can be a good thing as the pressure is not on me in the same way. I can just go in there and do what I do best.
“Going into a fight as the underdog is amazing. I went into Maidana with it seen as a fifty-fifty fight and that just motivated me to prove to people that I could win that type of fight - that’s what I did. In this fight, a lot of people will go for Canelo so that is motivating me.
“It is a factor that wasn’t as strong in the last fight [against Chris Algieri] when I was favourite going in, so you will see a different fight and fighter.”
Shan Khan concurred with his son, he told me that: “The bigger the challenge the better Amir boxes: [Andriy] Kotelnik, [Paul] Malignaggi, Maidana, [Zab] Judah, [Luis] Collazo and [Devon] Alexander - he boxed at his best in all of them fights. Then you have someone like Algieri, who really raised his own game because he was fighting Amir.”
Team Khan hope that their fighter will once again produce his best form, he will have to if he is to add the biggest name yet to the list of fighters who prompted his best performances.