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The mystery of Amir Khan vs Kell Brook

Amir Khan vs Kell Brook who wins
Warren Little/Getty Images
The fight and the fighters are years past their sell-by-date but, regardless, Khan versus Brook remains a fascinating spectacle… even if we have to watch through our fingers, writes Elliot Worsell

THE overriding emotion we all expected to feel when receiving confirmation that Amir Khan and Kell Brook were finally going to share a ring was relief. This would have been the case, too, had the year been 2014 and not 2022 and had the fight taken place when it made more than just financial sense. Now, though, the only ones relieved are Khan and Brook; relieved, that is, to know they have managed to land one more payday en route to retirement. For everyone else, relief will come only once it’s over.

Ten years after they shared a bench on Sky Sports’ Ringside, what makes the prospect of Khan and Brook fighting in 2022 even sadder than the fact that they have seen better days is the fact that the fight in its current state is diminished in every conceivable way. It is diminished in terms of the skills on show, obviously, but also in terms of the money on offer, which, we were led to believe, was the very reason they couldn’t come to an agreement all those years ago.

It is in many ways, then, not so much a fight for supremacy as an admission on the part of Khan and Brook that they got it wrong. Do it now and they are settling for the idea that something is better than nothing, even if ‘something’ isn’t a patch on what it would have been during the time both were encouraged to put their egos aside and do business.

Which is all it ever is, of course: business. We can all appreciate that. But whereas before the business element married with the competition element to offer some kind of illusion of there being more at stake, now the business behind Khan vs Brook shouts louder than anything either man can say to sell the fight. They speak of bragging rights and legacy and there has been talk, too, of how neither could fathom finishing their career without scratching this particular itch. Yet, in the end, the fight still amounts to little more than a consolation prize. Worse, it feels like a once-married couple trying to reconcile decades after the termination of their toxic relationship, their damage now shared. They have wasted their best years on other people and other experiences and now, although they have always suspected they belonged together, it is too late. Too much has been said. Too much damage has been done.

Or, then again, maybe not. Maybe there’s a reason this fight, despite its questionable motives, remains a compelling one to think about. This could be because Khan and Brook remain compelling personalities in their own right or it could be because, at this juncture, we feel even more invested in their stories, their words, and their wellbeing. For while undoubtedly past their best, they feel like a pair of fully-formed characters now, two men with no secrets. With them, we have seen it all: the good, the bad, and the ugly. Moreover, it is easy to tell ourselves the same lies they tell themselves. We can convince ourselves, for example, that faded fighters awash with flaws have produced some of history’s greatest fights, ignoring in the process the many that either flattered to deceive or were simply downright depressing.

Khan vs Brook podcast
Lawrence Lustig/Boxxer

At this stage, nobody knows what we will get with Khan and Brook on Saturday night. Frankly, this unknown element is part of its rugged, unconventional beauty. For who can say with any certainty that Brook’s previously broken face will hold up under duress? And who can say with any certainty that Khan’s waning punch resistance won’t betray him completely when he needs it most?

If anything, it’s not knowing the extent of their combined damage that makes the fight still so wonderfully poised. The talk, when predicting an outcome in 2022, is now all to do with how much they have left rather than how much they have to offer, as would have been the case years ago. Somehow, their damage and inactivity have made them mysteries to us all over again, the fight all the better for it.

Ordinarily, with one of the boxers recording a fourth-round stoppage in their previous outing, there would be no cause for alarm. However, given Amir Khan’s last fight took place in July 2019, and was against a former featherweight belt-holder in Billy Dib, we tend to look at his recent form – the word ‘recent’ used lightly – in more of a negative light than a positive one. His last fight was, in truth, not only a mismatch but a sign of where Khan was headed. In taking place in Saudi Arabia, it was an unashamed cash-grab and seemed to herald the winding down of a thrilling and, at times, brilliant professional career. It was a victory lap. An exhibition. Nobody took issue with it because it was easy to forgive and understand. Khan, having given the sport so much, was now taking from it and would soon disappear, riding off into the sunset a rich man.

He did, too. He disappeared from the ring and appeared only on television as a celebrity, his wife by his side and gloves nowhere in sight. At 35, he appeared content, both with what he had accomplished and what the future had in store. Two months ago, he was overweight and had no desire to train. Only Kell Brook, he said, could change that.

Brook, meanwhile, also 35, may not have boxed at all last year, but did fight twice in 2020. That February he stopped Mark DeLuca in seven rounds, then in November he was broken down inside four by the great Terence Crawford, the last man to have beaten Khan. Defeat to Crawford, of course, is no great shame. Nor, it should be said, is it all that revealing in the context of Brook’s demise. (Crawford would have likely defeated Brook at any point in the Sheffield man’s 42-fight pro career and is, it could be argued, the best pound-for-pound boxer on the planet right now.)

What was revealing about that defeat, however, was the inevitability of it and the speed with which Brook unravelled. Swift and conclusive, Brook came apart that night like a man who both expected it and, thanks to previous wars, feared it. He gave his all, as he always does, but seemed acutely aware of how much he had to offer, how much he had left, and how much prior defeats had stolen from him.

Interestingly, there was a similar feeling when Khan boxed Crawford in 2019. In that instance, Khan was floored in round one and played second fiddle to his American opponent throughout. He was not so much beaten up physically as tortured mentally, prevented from doing anything he wanted to do or had planned on doing. He then got out of the fight in the sixth round when a Crawford low blow left him unable to continue.

As brave a boxer as the UK has produced in years, there was never a question of Khan not fancying a fight that night. Yet it nevertheless made sense for him to take a clearly signposted exit as opposed to facing up to what by then appeared inevitable. Like Brook, he was conscious of his own limitations and tolerance to damage. He knew a career-ending fight when he saw one. He also knew the power of his brand and knew there was still money to be made in future fights. Easier fights. Fights he could pick. Fights he could win. Three months later, Khan, 34-4 (21), was bullying Billy Dib in Jeddah and counting his money.

“He’s mugged the boxing game for as long as he can,” Brook, 39-3 (27), said. “It’s come to the stage now where he’s got nowhere else to go.

“He’s never been super-confident that he could beat me. If he had been, he would’ve got rid of me a long time ago.”

Whether a mugging or not, Khan’s Saudi Arabia adventure was short-lived. Come 2022, in fact, he would find himself preparing to fight Kell Brook while training alongside Terence Crawford, their common opponent, in Colorado Springs. Brook, forever sceptical, will call his foe’s about-turn one final bank raid. Khan, on the other hand, will call it one final roll of the dice.

“A couple of months ago I put on some weight and mentally I wasn’t prepared,” Bolton’s Khan said to the Daily Telegraph. “What prepared me to get back in the gym and train hard was Kell Brook. Everywhere I went I would hear that name. I thought, I’m going to do this fight and give him a good beating. That was my motivation. If it was another fight against somebody else it might have been a little bit different. But because it’s me and him and there’s bragging rights, it’s everything.”

One tell-tale sign with fighters who have seen better days is that inactivity tends to be viewed as a positive rather than a negative and is regarded as a freshening up period as opposed to something that will lead to ring rust. Khan sees his time off in much the same way, saying, “Normally you’d think with me getting older I wouldn’t be at my best, but I think those breaks I had between fights did me the world of good. Mentally I’m nice and chilled and sharp and I’ve never felt so good.”

Amir Khan vs Kell Brook
Mark Robinson

Without doubt, the last thing Kell Brook needed after being stopped by Terence Crawford was to be fighting again not long after. Similarly, Khan, someone also prone to punishing defeats, has often been at his best following a layoff and some regrouping.

The concern, though, is that the type of damage accrued by Khan and Brook throughout their respective careers is not the kind that can be remedied by time off work. Some of Khan’s knockout defeats have been hard to watch, while Khan himself has recently referenced the eye socket injuries Brook suffered in losses to Gennady Golovkin and Errol Spence Jnr and expressed his own concerns. When not selling, he has said he is worried about Brook’s face holding up and has stressed he hopes both come away from the fight unscathed.

In that sense, he talks like a mature man now; a husband; a parent; a semi-retired fighter. They both do. It’s a shame, too, that the damage both carry into this fight was accumulated in fights they were warned against taking and took only due to the financial upside. A fight, for instance, against Saúl “Canelo” Álvarez in the case of Amir Khan, and a fight against Gennady Golovkin in the case of Kell Brook. Both those stoppage defeats aged the two Brits more than they probably even know. They did, it’s true, also set them up for life.

If that was the pair’s goal from day one, and of course it should have been, it makes it all the more frustrating to think this fight didn’t happen before 2022, when it would have made them considerably more money. Not only that, if we accept both are money-driven and business-minded first and foremost, it should put our own minds at ease when watching them punch each other on Saturday night. It should be a reminder that this is their decision, the decision of already rich men, and that these are their bodies and these are their brains. The risk therefore, given all they know, and given the payout, is evidently one worth pursuing, one they have volunteered to take. Furthermore, it was one they have had ample time to weigh up and contemplate. And don’t we know it.

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