Amir Khan’s victory over Marcos Maidana in December was impressive on more than one level.
The profoundly gifted Briton thoroughly outboxed the vicious Argentine, which was expected. He also survived a mammoth punch that hurt him badly in the 10th of 12 rounds, which was less predictable.
The performance definitely was a step forward for one of the sport’s brightest young stars.
At the same time, I came away from the fight with one reservation about Khan’s future for a specific reason: That chin.
Khan, who faces Paul McCloskey on Saturday in the UK on HBO, demonstrated a world-class heart against Maidana. The big right instantly turned his long legs into spaghetti, which provided the ultimate test of his resilience.
I didn’t think he’d make it. He failed to survive against Breidis Prescott, who stopped him in one round. And this punch was enormous, the type that could hurt anyone.
Khan surprised me, though. He held, he ran, he punched back a little, anything to survive. And he was standing at the final a bell, the survivor of a killer punch and the winner of a one-sided decision.
I had an unsettling feeling afterward, though. I thought at that moment and I believe now that Khan will be in the same position in the future, the victim of a big punch trying desperately to hang on. And at some point he won't survive.
In other words, it’s a matter of when, not if.
It probably won’t happen against McCloskey, an unbeaten Irishman who is stepping up in class. And it might not happen if and when he fights Timothy Bradley for junior welterweight supremacy because Bradley isn’t a big puncher.
It will happen, though.
“It’s up to Freddie (Roach) and Golden Boy (Promotions) to have him fight guys who aren’t a threat to him,” said trainer Abel Sanchez, referring to particularly powerful opponents. “I don’t think Bradley has that much power. I think he’d have to land three, four punches to knock out Khan. And I think Khan is too smart to let Bradley get on that kind of roll.
“A guy like (Lucas) Matthysse could be a problem because he punches hard and is a little more of a thinker than Maidana. Maidana just goes with the flow.”
Sanchez knows a little about super-talented fighters with questionable chins. He trained Hall of Famer Terry Norris, a beautiful boxer with crushing power who was laid out more than once.
He thinks Khan has a bright future but also believes he's more vulnerable than most elite fighters.
One thing Khan must avoid is unnecessary risks, Sanchez said. He will go to sleep again if he gets too brave. And he mustn't lose focus, which Sanchez believes probably played a role in his trouble against Maidana.
“I think he wants to be real brave,” Sanchez said. “I don’t think he has the chin for that. I’m not saying he has a crystal chin; I’m just saying he doesn’t have a durable chin. He definitely has the skills, he definitely can be a player. If he controls his manhood, he’ll beat a lot of guys.
“… And he can’t be conned into getting into a shootout. I think late in the fight he wasn’t really concerned about Maidana. I think he lost focus. He has to stay focused 100 percent of the time.”
One reason Khan was able to survive against Maidana was his conditioning under fitness coach Alex Ariza, with whom he has split.
Khan now works with experienced personal trainer Michael Vale. We can presume that Khan will be in prime condition against McCloskey but we’ll see how he performs on Saturday and in the future.
Sanchez said conditioning is crucial if you have difficulty taking a punch.
“The one thing about Terry was that his conditioning was so good that he was able to survive when he got hit with a good shot,” he said. “When I left (after Norris fought Meldrick Taylor in 1992), his conditioning wasn’t the best. That’s not a knock on his trainer. It’s up to the fighter to do what it takes to be in shape.
“I’m not saying Ariza was the reason he was in good condition or not. I just know that Khan will have to stay in good condition to live up to his skills."
And it wouldn’t hurt to avoid those big shots in the first place … if he can.