It was promoted as the victorious homecoming for a returning hero and so it proved, but not without serious incident. Amir Khan was brave against Julio Diaz at the Motorpoint Arena in Sheffield and deserved the unanimous decision he was accorded, but serious questions were asked, once again, about his ability to absorb a punch.
The bout was contested at a catchweight of 143 pounds and both men weighed a pound less officially.
Khan, rated No. 2 by RING at junior welterweight, got off to a brisk start and peppered his Mexican opponent with clean sharp shots from the outside. The Bolton star was operating at lightning speed and Diaz could only stand and watch as there were no opportunities for him to counter.
All of that changed in round four when Khan went down on the end of a left hook, right hand, left hook combination. The crowd, who had created a tribal atmosphere with constant drum beats, fell silent as Khan hit the deck in a serious case of déjà vu. The shots the Mexican struck were high quality and the former champion was badly shaken.
Diaz was anxious to follow up but Khan fought out the remainder of the session in a disciplined fashion and managed to return to his corner with a clear head. The former Olympian went back to boxing in round five but although he dominated the session it was clear that Diaz was the one who carried the punching power and he did not fear what was coming back.
Diaz was loading up on every shot and there were collective gasps from the home support as Khan avoided deadly blows by millimeters. The Brit continued to box smartly in round six and temporarily drained the fight of its drama before producing some sparkling work and a cut alongside Diaz’s right eye in round seven.
In round eight, Khan reverted to type after being nailed by a big combination. He planted his feet to fire back, a tactic which led to disaster against Danny Garcia last July, and was hurt again by more hooks from Diaz. At this stage there was a question as to whether Khan could last the distance as the Mexican was infinitely fresher.
It was more of the same in the tenth when Diaz wobbled the former champion with a big left hook and followed up with more meaty head-shots throughout the session. Diaz’s cut had reopened but he was in hot pursuit and eager to land a finishing blow to secure the biggest victory of his career.
The former lightweight champion continued to hurt Khan in the eleventh and one or two of the former champion’s acquaintances stood up to leave the ringside area, such was the brutality of the punishment their man was being forced to absorb.
Showing immense bravery Khan battled through the final stanza and even traded with Diaz in a heroic bid to seal the victory. The Mexican slugger was beginning to tire which cost him the stoppage he tried so desperately to find in a spirited effort.
Official scores were 114-113, 115-113 and 115-112.
Khan, now 26 years old, had been heading towards superstardom before shocking back to back losses to Lamont Peterson and Danny Garcia derailed him. As a result, celebrated trainer Freddie Roach was out and Oakland based Virgil Hunter was in, with the expressed caveat that Khan focus on notorious defensive flaws.
Those issues still remain.
The 33-year-old Diaz was considered by many to be a stepping stone but Khan was tested to the maximum tonight. A loss would have been devastating whereas the victory, as close as it was, almost certainly propels him to a title shot later in the year. Still, how will Khan respond if he is nailed again by Danny Garcia or Lucas Matthysse?
“I see Amir fighting for a world title in December,” said Golden Boy Promotions CEO Richard Schaefer. “Devon Alexander could be a possibility at 147 pounds but knowing Amir, he will want to clear up unfinished business at 140 pounds. My goal has always been to make Mayweather vs. Khan and that remains my goal.”
Khan improves to 28-3 (19 KOs) and Diaz drops to 40-8 (29 KOs).
Photos: Scott Heavey-Getty
Tom Gray is a member of the British Boxing Writers’ Association and contributes to various publications. Follow him on Twitter: @Tom_Gray_Boxing