Crawford challenge may prove a step to far for game Amir Khan
Unbeaten American rated as one of the best fighters in the world regardless of weight
Welterweight world title-holder Terence Crawford and Amir Khan will meet at Madison Square Garden on Saturday. Photograph: Andrew Couldridge/Reuters
There have been unmistakable valedictory overtones in the final run-up to Amir Khan’s fight with the dangerous Terence Crawford on Saturday at Madison Square Garden.
The twice former world light-welterweight champion is plainly closer to the end than the start of his fighting days, nearly a decade and a half since he vaulted to stardom with a silver medal for Great Britain at the Athens Olympics aged 17.
The professional career that followed has not always complied with the best-laid plans, even if the narrative has never wanted for drama. Khan mixed it with the best in the business from an early age, never backing down from the biggest challenges and winning more big fights than he has lost.
But a ledger dotted with signature victories over Marcos Maidana, Devon Alexander, Zab Judah and Paulie Malignaggi has been tempered by flat notes at the most inopportune times: whether the 54-second destruction at the hands of Breidis Prescott, the tactically inept knockout loss to Danny Garcia or even the momentum-killing touch-and-go points win over Chris Algieri in a fight designed to make him look good.
Now Khan (33-4, 20 KOs), older and more reflective at 32, is taking aim at a title in a second weight division where he faces the welterweight world title-holder Crawford in midtown Manhattan – perhaps the tallest task yet in a career with no shortage of them.
Crawford (34-0, 25 KOs), the maddeningly adaptable Nebraskan who unified all four major title belts at light-welterweight before moving up to capture the WBO’s version of the title at 147lbs with a stoppage of Jeff Horn in June, is widely regarded as one of the best fighters in the world regardless of weight, which surely accounts for the lofty 8-1 price against the Bolton fighter.
But Khan hardly looked like a man heading to the gallows at Wednesday’s final press conference, basking in the atmosphere of his 10th world title fight with the single-minded confidence and sense of purpose that saw him through his first against Andreas Kotelnik nearly a decade ago.
“It’s amazing for me to be in this position once again,” Khan said. “That in itself is a great motivation for me to know that I’m fighting the best out there once again. It makes me train harder, work harder. I’m focused for this fight and I know that I can’t make any mistakes because I could be in trouble. I’ve been watching all the videos of his [Crawford’s] fights.
“I see how he breaks down fighters, how he sees openings and stuff and I can’t be giving those openings easily.”
Khan’s last gamble of this magnitude ended badly. An audacious challenge for Canelo Álvarez’s middleweight title in May 2016, which took place eight pounds above the highest contracted weight of his career against an opponent who rehydrated to well over 175lbs on fight night, ended with the Briton supine on the canvas after a frightening sixth-round knockout.
He has fought just twice since then, a pair of light touches at 147lb following a two-year layoff, all of which feels like poor preparation for an operator of the calibre of Crawford, who has stopped his past five opponents inside the distance.
But a reunion with the trainer Virgil Hunter, the phlegmatic 65-year-old retired probation officer who rose to prominence as the trainer of Andre Ward and under whose tutelage Khan has traded in at least some of his recklessness for technical maturity, is thought to be just what the underdog requires to spring the upset.
“It’s been a pleasure having Amir back,” Hunter said.
“He came at the right time for a fight of this magnitude, to go up against a great fighter like Terence Crawford. As coaches we live for these opportunities, whether we win or we come up short. We thrive in these settings.”
He added: “Amir most definitely can’t have a mental lapse. He has to be focused every second of every round to be able to read the adjustments that a great fighter like Crawford will make. We have to be able to read those adjustments and adjust accordingly to stay competitive and try to win this fight.”
Happy endings are all too rare in boxing, where the decline is almost never gradual. The night when it becomes evident that a boxer no longer has what it takes to compete at the highest level is often wildly brutal and dramatic.
When it’s gone for a fighter, they find themselves positioned across from a very dangerous individual who is trying to hurt them. It is a life-threatening situation.
Therein lies the inconvenient underbelly to Saturday’s affair: that the end of Khan’s colourful journey, for all his optimism, could be even closer than anyone realises.
Yet the Matchroom chief executive, Frank Smith, who promotes Khan, is confident his man is up for the challenge.
“Amir when he’s in with the best fighters, that’s when he looks the best,” Smith said. “I think the test of Terence Crawford, one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world, one of the most respected fighters in the world, will bring him on.”