BOXING is a strange sport. That’s true on several levels, but particularly in the fact that – at the highest level – boxers and their promoters can handpick their opposition. When expressing the depth of their frustration at the long stalling of the fight between Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao, exasperated fight fans could say, “Imagine the state of tennis if Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal had never shared a court.” Or, “What if they settled the Spanish league title each season without Real Madrid and Barcelona playing each other?”
Avoidance has always been a part of life in boxing, but the proliferation of world titles – and the growing lack of attention paid to them by many hardcore fans – makes it easier than ever for popular fighters to avoid challenges if they wish to. When sanctioning bodies and their mandatory obligations can be ignored, what leverage is there over a high-earning boxer besides public pressure?
That’s why the quality we most need from our boxers now in bravery. Not in the ring – the vast majority of them display that in abundance every time they perform. What we need is bravery outside of it. We need them to ignore the honeyed words of a promoter who might be keen to keep a cash cow safe. We need them to actively, paradoxically, push for fights that they could well lose.
We need men like Amir Khan.
It’s fashionable to sneer at Amir Khan in some circles. His occasional delusions of grandeur. His willingness to pre-announce megafights that then never quite materialise. Yet whether his mooted match with Manny Pacquiao happens this year or not, his desire to fight the best in the sport is worthy of respect.
If anything, Khan is that rare example of a big-name fighter who’s bitten off unnecessarily hard challenges throughout his career. He turned professional with a built-in crossover appeal after dazzling as a teenage amateur. Yet in 2008, at age 21 and for his first under a new trainer, he took on unbeaten puncher Breidis Prescott. It was a fight his then promoter Frank Warren made little secret that he didn’t fancy – and the resulting first-round stoppage showed why.
Khan rebuilt quickly, fighting his way to world-title success less than a year later. Yet in 2011, despite being the champion and the bigger draw, he took on Lamont Peterson in his opponent’s backyard of Washington DC. It was another head-scratching piece of matchmaking than resulted in a highly controversial split-decision loss.
Khan has won major fights as well (against Devon Alexander, Marcos Maidana and Zab Judah). He’s lost others (to Danny Garcia and most recently to the much larger Canelo Alvarez) – but throughout his ups and downs, his standard of opposition has rarely slipped for long.
Considering he was a star in his home country who could likely have picked up an alphabet title and fed on soft touches, his quest for glory is admirable. And while his pursuit of fights with the likes of Mayweather and Pacquiao have had a desperate quality about them at times, is that really such a negative? That a fighter is so keen to take on the biggest names that he makes himself look a bit of a fool is hardly the worst charge you can lay at a boxer.
Critics might point to the fact that the fight British boxing fans want to see most is a grudge match between Khan and Kell Brook. The outside perception is that Khan is more the sticking point than Brook – and the whole situation does appear an unfortunate example of that ludicrous boxing situation: ‘I hate you, so I won’t punch you in the face.’
Certainly Khan’s view that Brook isn’t on his level in terms of profile makes increasingly less logic as the Sheffield boxer takes on opponents such as Shawn Porter, Gennady Golovkin and now Errol Spence.
That feeds into another knock on Khan. Namely, that he has an inflated ego and ideas well above his station for a boxer who hasn’t held a version of a world title since 2011.
Yet think of every good-looking, famous, relatively successful boxer – then add up the ones who don’t have a sizeable ego or a sky-high perception of their own abilities. That’s quite a short list. Having a cast-iron belief that you’re better than you actually are is probably a crucial part of a boxer’s mental armoury.
The point here is as direct as a Larry Holmes jab. Whether Amir Khan succeeds in luring Manny Pacquiao into the ring in 2017 or whether it ends in another non-fight and further egg on the Brit’s face, I applaud him for trying.
The future success of boxing hinges on the best being willing to fight the best. So give me a ‘deluded’ but ambitious superstar over a boxer taking the path of least resistance every day of the week.