By Oli Goldstein
Amir Khan finally gets the Vegas headliner he’s spent the past half-decade pursuing when he fights Canelo Alvarez on HBO PPV this Saturday. Having eschewed the typical stay-at-home career path favored by young British fighters when he headed over to Freddie Roach’s Wild Card Gym in 2008, Khan yet finds himself in the all-too British position of plucky underdog against Alvarez: last weekend’s Sunday Times described the fight as “a suicide mission.”
Khan, of course, would loathe being described as an underdog (even if he’d agree with plucky), and historically he’s rarely been regarded as one: as Matt Christie pointed out in this week’s Boxing News, “each of Khan’s losses were a surprise”. This might explain in part why he’s such a polarizing figure in Britain. As Danny Flexen, also of Boxing News, told Inside HBO Boxing, “Khan’s supporters will point to a history of exciting performances and a raft of charity work, but just as many naysayers will criticize a perceived level of arrogance and feelings of superiority. Moving to the US so early in his career has made it difficult to build a reliable localized fan-base, though I’m certain he attracts significant viewing figures on TV.”
So this new role as underdog, quintessentially British and understated, might suit Khan in building support in his native country. Indeed in the same Sunday Times piece quoted earlier, Khan was also praised for his “bravery in agreeing to such a daunting, apparently reckless, assignment,” and hailed for his “sometimes excessive courage.” Like his sometime nemesis, sometime friend Carl Froch, Khan is frequently willing to put his money where his mouth is.
Moreover, like Ricky Hatton before him, Khan has also been content to cross the Atlantic to pursue the biggest fights available. Of course while Hatton lost to Mayweather and Pacquiao on his two previous jaunts to Vegas, he’d already earned a win that would define his career against Kostya Tzsyu in 2005. Khan has beaten plenty of good fighters— Andriy Kotelnik, Marcos Maidana, Paulie Malignaggi, Zab Judah, and Devon Alexander standing out most on his record—but still lacks that defining name on his ledger.
As such Canelo Alvarez, already so significantly bigger and stronger than Khan before the first bell, provides that opportunity for him. “Khan has been around boxing a long time,” Kevin Mitchell wrote in The Guardian this week. “He knows the whims and changing winds of the business but he deserves better than a walk-on part. Finally, he’s got it. His name is properly up in lights at last, in the town where it matters.”
His chances of winning, though, are still perceived as slim. Boxing News, while rating the bout outstanding, predicted a Canelo knockout in the seventh. Still, Flexen suggested to Inside HBO Boxing that people will warm to Khan the closer to the bout it gets: never mind “suicide mission,” Flexen insisted that “more pundits and fighters are affording Khan a chance”, and that by the opening bell, “even the majority of US boxing fans, notoriously demanding, will be on the edge of their seats.”
Ultimately the final word goes to Khan, who wrote this week in Boxing News about his preparations for the fight of his life. “It’s hard to say where a win for me would rank in history,” Khan noted; “there have obviously been a lot of great British wins, but for me to put this fight up there would be amazing.
“People are saying it would be the best ever win and that’s just amazing. It’s not me saying it; it’s other fighters, and that’s such a big confidence boost, giving me great motivation to win this fight. I always said I’m going to do something special in boxing and this is my time now. I’m going to do it.”