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Can Khan protect his chin?

Amir Khan boxing photo and news imageBy Joseph Hirsch: The junior-welterweight division is probably the deepest in talent right now, of all the lighter weight-classes. After Amir Khan made his American debut against Paulie “Magic Man,” Malignaggi, HBO commentator Max Kellerman made it very clear that a four-man tournament was developing to see who would reign supreme in the division. Those four are: Amir Khan, Timothy Bradley, Devon Alexander, and Marcos Maidana. Of the four, Khan is the fastest, while Maidana probably hits the hardest.

Khan is a superstar in his native England, and wants to have the same effect on the American public. His fight with Paulie Malignaggi was a step in the right direction, but it is not enough to erase the lingering fears about Amir’s ability to handle all comers.

Everyone remembers Khan’s fight against heavy puncher Breidis Prescott. We all watched as Prescott shattered Khan’s dreams in less than one round, planting Amir on the canvas with a solid shot. Amir regained his footing, stood on wobbly legs, and gamely tried to get back into the action. Prescott rocked him one more time, and Khan had his first defeat by way of spectacular first round knockout.

Following the fight, much of the adoring public did an about-face and turned their backs on Khan, and criticism began to circulate in all quarters. Fellow Englishman Carl Froch questioned Khan’s ability to continue at the elite level, pithy articles began to appear titled “A Mere Khan,” and the Bolton lad was considered to have a glass jaw.

Lost in all of this was that Prescott had a knockout percentage of almost one-hundred percent, and that on the right night and with the right punch, he probably could have knocked out nearly anyone in his division. Also forgotten in the hoopla was that other men considered to have questionable chins, Lennox Lewis and Wladimir Klitschko, went on to become world champions notwithstanding a set of suspect whiskers.

Given the right coach and trainer, a fighter with any one glaring weakness can be taught to hide or protect his deficiencies. With the legendary Freddie Roach in his corner, it is more than possible that Khan not only survives in a very dangerous division, but that he prospers. He proved he had the heart of a champion by showing just how well he could bounce back from defeat by winning five consecutive fights over the course of the next two years.

He won a decision from Oisin Fagan to close out 2008 before going on to face Marco Antonio Barrera. By all rights, the “Baby-Faced Assassin,” should have retired years ago, but old habits die hard, and he went into the ring to face a man who had been two years old when he had his first professional fight. A horrendous cut was opened on Barrera’s eye in the first round, and the fight should have been stopped then. Barrera’s face was covered in blood and he had trouble seeing, yet the action wasn’t halted until the fifth round, when it went to the scorecards and Khan was determined the winner.

Khan’s next fight proved much more, and his ring smarts were on full display as he out-boxed Andriy Kotelnik over the course of 12 rounds. Kotelnik only had two defeats in 34 outings and was considered one of the fight best junior-welterweights in the world. Before his next fight with American Dmitri Salita, his opponent said it was no secret that Khan was “chinny,” and that he was going to take full advantage of his glass jaw. Khan showed Salita exactly how chinny he was by knocking Salita down in the first fifteen seconds of the fight, and knocking him out in well less than three minutes. Although Salita was a major force in the amateur circuits, he had been basically untested as a professional. Still, the rapidity with which Khan dispatched him in the first stanza sent a reminder to anyone who wanted to make jokes about his chin.

During this period there were some shakeups not only in Khan’s coaching staff, but in his management. For years people have criticized Frank Warren for the way he handles his fighters’ careers and how he does not provide them with prime opponents. Many boxers in his stable have been vocal about their displeasure with Warren, including Ricky Hatton. Warren is a fairly controversial figure, having litigated against fellow promoters (including Don King) and has sued various newspapers for libel and slander. He was also shot by an unidentified assailant, believed to be one of his former fighters, whom he owed money. Warren survived the attack, but lost a lung as well as several ribs for his troubles.

Khan wisely extricated himself from Warren’s grasp and traveled across the pond to battle Paulie Malignaggi. “The Magic Man,” was once one of the division’s rising stars, but had lost two of his last four fights, one of them by a controversial decision. Many people noted that Malignaggi was a brilliant piece of match-making, and was considered one of the safer opponent’s Khan could take. He had a big name and a large fan base, but he was relatively feather-fisted; Malignaggi had one of the weakest knockout percentages in the division, and therefore was tailor-made to pose no threat to Khan’s Achilles heel, a weak chin.

But even though Khan was favored to win the fight, and did, there were a couple of remarkable things about his performance. For one, people had beaten Malignaggi, and beaten him up, but no one had out-boxed him before; no one had shown more speed or more natural ring generalship. It was a high-speed chess match and Khan picked him off, pawn by pawn. Paulie was by no means an old man, and that night he was as fast as he ever was. But Khan was faster.

Not only that, but Khan debuted a new, high guard courtesy of trainer Freddie Roach. It was not tight enough to be considered a shell, a la Winky Wright or Arthur Abraham, but it was both high and tight enough to demonstrate that Khan was protecting his weakest link. The question now is whether or not anyone will get through it, and how.

It has only been a couple of months since Khan’s impressive victory over Malignaggi, and he does not yet have another fight slated. It will be interesting to see who he picks next: Of the Maidana, Bradley, Alexander triad, Maidana is probably the easiest opponent, but promises the least financially, and in the way of Khan’s stated goal of growing his American audience. Alexander is now tied up due to a scheduled fight with Andriy Kotelnik. It will be interesting to see whether Alexander is as effective against Kotelnik as Khan was.

As of this writing, Bradley has not announced any upcoming fights. This might be the time for Khan to throw it all on the line. Promoters are cautious match-makers. Fifty years ago, losing came with the territory. In this era, a loss can do serious irreparable damage to a fighter’s image and star power, and many are unforgiving of anything but perfection.

Still, when the best fight the best, someone has to lose. It’s better to come up short against the greatest than it is to continually pad your record with the very good. Khan has fought some very good opponents, and beaten almost all of them. But there is only one way to find out if he is truly great, and that is to make this fight happen.

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