More than two years have passed since the heavy hands of Breidis Prescott shattered Amir Khan’s world. But that 54-second result is the one thing that gives Marcos Maidana far more than just a sliver of hope.
Peruse the form guide and you’d have to conclude that Khan is a safe bet on Saturday at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas. Last year, for example, in his maiden voyage at junior welterweight, Khan barely lost a round against Andreas Kotelnik (one judge had him winning all 12). Five months earlier, Maidana dropped a split decision against Kotelnik.
Since then, Khan has looked impressive in blowing away the previously unbeaten Dmitry Salita in one round and outclassing Paulie Malignaggi for an 11th-round TKO. Maidana’s recent performances have been wobblier, including his life-and-death victory over Victor Ortiz, when he was dropped three times, and, last time out, a lethargic points win over a 36-year-old DeMarcus “Chop Chop” Corley, who had lost nine of his previous 15 bouts.
Maidana’s record of 29 wins, 27 knockouts and just one disputed loss looks pretty hot, but it does not include victories over anyone in THE RING’s Top 10, and his struggles against Kotelnik and Corley suggest a fighter several rungs below Khan when it comes to boxing ability.
“El Chino” turned professional in 2004, and, for his first three years, did all his boxing at home. His crippling power with both hands saw him racking up 24 knockouts in 25 straight wins, but the level of the opposition was none too demanding. His best opponents were one-time fringe contenders Manuel Garnica and Arturo Morua, so his challenge for Kotelnik’s WBA title represented a significant step up.
Maidana came out fast and won the opening rounds with his jarring hooks. But Kotelnik found his range by the fourth and started raking his challenger with jabs and combinations, and shaded the middle rounds. Then in the ninth, Maidana wobbled the Ukrainian with a huge right and battered him around the ring. He dominated from then on and probably deserved the nod, but the fight was in Germany, so the German-based titleholder squeaked home via split decision.
The battle that made Maidana’s name in America was his atavistic brawl against high-flying Golden Boy protégé Ortiz. They swapped knockdowns in the opening round, and Maidana was down twice more in the second. But the Argentine proved his mettle by forcing the fight. He cut Ortiz, wobbled him late in the fifth, and dropped him with a left hook to the body early in the sixth, after which the American made it clear he didn’t want to continue, and the fight was stopped.
Next came the tall, unbeaten Dominican, Victor Cayo, who outboxed Maidana at the start but found himself down, courtesy of a sizzling left hook, late in the second. Cayo edged the next three rounds with sharp boxing, quick moves and aggressive combinations, but in the sixth, a huge right to the stomach put him down for the count.
Against Corley, however, Maidana showed none of this urgency. He knocked the veteran American down in the seventh, but seemed unduly worried by a cut above his own right eye and was exhausted by the final bell.
It was a performance that probably helped persuade Khan’s backers that this was a risk worth taking. But the Khan camp should not read too much into his Corley struggle. Maidana had been out of action for six months, distracted by managerial problems, and clearly wasn’t in peak shape. It’s likely he has learned from the experience.
Khan and his backers are currently in the fortunate position of being able to handpick opponents. Although he’s rated below Timothy Bradley by THE RING, he has the ticket-selling power that is the envy of all his rivals.
Ever since winning the silver medal, at the age of 17, in the 2004 Olympics, Khan has enjoyed celebrity status at home in the UK, a patriotic British Muslim with crossover appeal. His looks, his awe-shucks manner and exciting fighting style have pulled in huge television audiences, and the occasional tabloid tittle-tattle about his private life and penchant for driving too fast have done little to dent his standing.
This, however, came at a cost: His entire fighting career has been played out under a microscope and every spill has therefore been magnified. After gaining revenge over his Cuban Olympic conqueror, Mario Kindelan, Khan turned professional in 2005 and racked up 18 straight wins and won the British Commonwealth lightweight title, before the rangy Prescott so dramatically separated him from his senses. Khan was shaken with a jab, dropped with a left hook and, after rising on spaghetti legs, was flattened with another hook, all within one minute.
It seemed like there was no way back, but Khan’s then-promoter, Frank Warren, did an impressive rebuilding job. Two fights later, a clash of heads opened an ugly gash on Marco Antonio Barrera’s forehead. The Mexican was gushing blood, but British referee John Coyle let the fight continue until the start of the fifth, which meant it went to the cards. Khan won every round for a technical decision.
In his first fight at junior welterweight, Khan challenged Kotelnik for the WBA title. Under Freddie Roach’s tutelage, he fought a highly disciplined long-range fight, taking no chances. His speed and all-round boxing skill made the Ukrainian look pedestrian, and Khan waltzed home a one-sided winner.
His maiden defense, a typical WBA mandatory, was against the undefeated Salita, who arrived with a 30-0-1 (16 knockouts) record, but was out of his league. Khan dropped him within 10 seconds, and twice more after that, before it was stopped at the 76-second mark of the first round.
Soon after, Khan dumped Frank Warren and signed with Golden Boy Promotions, with the idea of breaking into the American market, and his new backers made an inspired choice.
Khan’s second challenger was ideal for his U.S. debut at Madison Square Garden. Paulie Malignaggi had the required name recognition and was fresh from a decisive win over Juan Diaz, but he lacked the power to trouble the taller Englishman. Khan out-sped the speedster and dominated as he pleased until the fight was stopped by merciful referee Steve Smoger midway through the 11th round.
The Englishman, who turns 24 three days before the Maidana fight, is a superbly conditioned athlete who has developed into an outstanding technician. His gifts include arguably the quickest hands and feet in the division, but he’s far more than a speed merchant. These days, after two years under Roach, he’s beautifully balanced and extremely accurate, particularly with his long left jab. He also carries serious power in his right cross and uppercut. He’s equally adept at leading and countering, and when he breaks loose, he’s a dazzling combination puncher.
The 27-year-old Argentine looks crude and sometimes even clumsy in comparison, relying on aggression, strength, and that well-proven one-punch knockout power. He fights out of a crouch and unleashes big hooks to the head and body up-close, but is not effective at longer range (where Khan is so much at home). Also, he’s relatively easy to hit, and, as Ortiz showed, he can be hurt.
So, the most obvious conclusion is that Khan will box rings around Maidana and perhaps stop him, but boxing predictions are not always that clear-cut. Maidana’s crunching hooks and short crosses, combined with Khan’s suspect punch resistance, make this an intriguing contest.
Maidana says he has great respect for Khan’s talent and acknowledges he might have to do a lot of chasing, but he says he has never trained this hard and that in the end he will land the big one.
“It might take me a while to catch him because I expect him to run a lot, but I’ll catch him,” promised Maidana.
The Argentine will enter the ring with the idea that just one clean punch will be all he needs, and he might be right. The truth is that there have been doubts about the Englishman’s ability to take a hard shot to the head ever since his amateur days.
So it doesn’t take much effort to imagine what would happen if perhaps the world’s hardest hitting 140-pounder landed flush on Khan’s jaw or temple.
Veteran British boxing writer George Zeleny has followed every top British lightweight and junior welter since the heyday of Dave Charnley, 40 years ago, believes Khan’s weaknesses might outweigh his strengths against a pure puncher such as Maidana.
“I’m not a big Khan fan and wouldn’t yet rate him at the level of Charnley,” Zeleny said. “He has great speed, boxing ability, and a very sharp jab, but his inability to take a solid punch really counts against him.”
Asked to make a prediction, Zeleny comes out in favor of the Argentine. “He’s certainly crude, and it’s possible that Khan will keep out of his way and win on points, but all it could take is one punch over 12 rounds, and I think Maidana will catch him and knock him out before round six.”
Not surprisingly, Argentine boxing writer Carlos Irusta agrees, albeit with several qualifications.
“Maidana can knock out any junior welterweight in the world with just one punch, but look at what happened last time out,” said Irusta. “He knocked Corley down but looked exhausted by round eight, so he lost his power, his stamina, and his attitude.”
“When they move around the ring like Corley and Cayo,” he said, “Maidana is in trouble, although Cayo made the mistake of deciding to exchange blows and got knocked out.” Irusta adds that the notion of Maidana as an immovable object is off the mark. “He’s been floored several times as an amateur and a professional,” he said, “so he will have to show a lot of head movement and a lot of bending, with his guard very high, while throwing sharp combinations up close, because Khan is a good counterpuncher who particularly likes to throw those sharp uppercuts.”
Still, Irusta predicts the 10-week Las Vegas training camp under the watchful eye of veteran trainer Miguel Diaz will make the difference.
“Maidana is a boxer who needs to be in control,” Irusta said. “He likes to be the aggressor, and I think he can defeat Khan by early knockout if he’s very focused, takes command of the ring, and arrives in the best condition of his life.”
So, two experts, one prediction: a quick and decisive defeat for Amir Khan. And that’s certainly a strong possibility. In boxing, lightning often strikes twice. All it could take is a single error, and a right cross or left hook could instantly relieve the Englishman of the WBA belt.
But the more likely result is that Roach’s expert tactical know-how and Khan’s immense innate ability will be enough to get them through.
Speed, lateral movement, rapid fire jabs and dazzling combinations will discourage Maidana, and perhaps even carve him up. A late-round Khan stoppage victory or a wide points win seems the most likely result. But with a puncher like Maidana in the other corner, there are no guarantees.
Gavin Evans is a London-based freelance writer and a regular contributor to THE RING