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May 7, 2016


Canelo-Khan: A “Super” Fight, Not a “Superfight”

by Matt O'Brien

An edited version of this article was published on website on April 6th, 2016. Thanks to Michael Carbert, Editor-in-Chief, for his help in producing and publishing the final version:

When Amir Khan’s May 7th bout with Mexican boxing icon Saul “Canelo” Alvarez was announced, the reaction among the world’s fight media was, almost universally, one of “welcome surprise”. Outside of the fighters’ camps, few had anticipated a match-up between the newly crowned WBC middleweight belt-holder and Britain’s former 140lb world champion being made. The shock of the announcement was coupled with a healthy dose of enthusiasm though, for what promises to be an entertaining meeting between two of the sport’s most recognizable names.

While I share the sense of excitement for what is undoubtedly a fantastic piece of matchmaking on the part of Oscar De La Hoya’s Golden Boy Promotions, amidst the fanfare I would also caution against exaggerating what the fight means in the wider context of the sport. Canelo-Khan may well be a fascinating meeting between two world-class, world-renowned boxers, but it nevertheless falls short of the vaunted “Superfight” status that many media outlets labelled the contest with.

Defining a precise set of criteria that comprise a true superfight is not easy, though roughly we can say that, going into the contest, both fighters must be considered elite operators and they should be competing at or very close to their peak years. In the context of the sport’s history, there should also be a meaningful prize at stake, and the outcome of the fight should carry significance to the story of the fighters’ respective era. Canelo-Khan certainly meets some of these points, but nevertheless lacks some crucial ingredients.

Considering that the WBC and lineal middleweight championship is on the line, the victor in this fight will emerge, at least on paper, with a substantial piece of silverware. Looking at their respective ages (Canelo is 25 years old, while Khan turned 29 in December) as well as their recent form in the ring (Canelo has won his last four, while Khan’s win streak stretches to six) there also seems little doubt that both fighters are currently at or very close to their fighting primes. With Canelo entering as a two-weight world champion and with names like Shane Mosley, Austin Trout, Floyd Mayweather, Erislandy Lara and recent victim Miguel Cotto among those on his fight ledger, the Mexican certainly cannot be accused of lacking elite pedigree.

Khan’s CV is also impressive: entering as a former WBA/IBF light-welterweight champion and Olympic silver medalist, the Bolton boxer has mixed at 140lbs with world-class names such as Marco Antonio Barrera, Paul Malignaggi, Marcos Maidana, Zab Judah, Lamont Peterson and Danny Garcia, with recent victories at 147lbs over welterweight contenders Luis Collazo, Devon Alexander and Chris Algieri. Together Canelo and Khan enter the match with an impressive combined total of 14 successful world title fights between them. On the face of it then, there are a number of positives to be found when analyzing the bout’s “superfight” credentials.

Scratching a bit further below the surface though, it becomes apparent that all is not quite as impressive as the above stats suggest.

Firstly, the agreed catchweight limit of 155lbs – barely over the light-middleweight limit of 154 and a full 5lbs below the traditional middleweight limit of 160 – removes much of the lustre from what is ostensibly a fight for the lineal “middleweight” championship of the world. The reality, of course, is that this is a fight between a welterweight and a light-middleweight masquerading as a middleweight championship contest. The fact that legitimate middleweight No.1 Gennady Golovkin has been waiting in the wings for a shot at the lineal championship for years only compounds the impression that Canelo and Khan contesting that title is something of an insult to its heritage.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly in the current context, while Khan’s record is certainly nothing to be scoffed at, the harsh reality is that his name-value far outstrips his actual accomplishments in the ring, and he simply doesn’t qualify as a truly elite boxer. That is not meant as a personal criticism of the British fighter: he ought to be given immense credit for his ambition in taking the fight, as well as for his past achievements in the ring. It is, nevertheless, an honest assessment of the heights he has reached so far in the sport.

The disproportionate relationship between Khan’s name-value and accomplishments in boxing stem largely from his success as a 17-year-old Olympian, which made him a national hero in the UK and provided world-wide publicity the like of which most professional boxers can only dream of. The Olympic silver medal spring-boarded him towards a terrestrial TV deal with British broadcaster ITV, granting him the kind of exposure, careful early-career management and promotional backing afforded to very few fighters. With millions of viewers watching his progress, Khan was able to gain a wide following before his dues had been properly paid in the sport, and the accompanying leverage this provided when negotiating his way through the rankings has been a part of the fighter’s make-up ever since.

It was no coincidence, for example, that Khan’s handlers steered him away from a British title fight with Jon Thaxton, a dangerous and deserving opponent, as he climbed the domestic ladder. A fight with the Norwich man would have been a natural contest when Khan was Commonwealth champion and Thaxton held the British title back in 2007; Thaxton called out the Olympic star relentlessly in the media, to no avail. Khan never fought for the British title, although you can be sure that his promoters would have jumped at the chance to snatch the belt had Khan not looked quite so vulnerable in his Commonwealth title defence against Willie Limond, or had a less formidable obstacle than Thaxton stood in the way.

Then came the disastrous first-round defeat to unheralded opponent Breidis Prescott. It was the first of Khan’s three career defeats to date, two of which ended with the Briton being badly hurt or knocked out. Although there is certainly no shame in losing, it has been the nature of those losses that are here a cause for concern. The fact that his team never attempted to avenge a single one of his defeats, despite carrying the promotional and financial clout to make those matches at almost any time they chose, also suggests a fundamental lack of confidence that he could reverse the results, given the chance.

Aside from the knockout defeats, a lack of punch resistance has been evident throughout the Englishman’s career, with Khan visiting the canvas a total of 9 times in his 34 fights – a very worrying number for a fighter who is stepping up to a significantly higher weight than he has ever competed at. To be fair to Khan, he has also proven that the “glass jaw” label some critics have dubbed him with is exaggerated, with Marcos Maidana landing some hellacious shots yet failing to put the Englishman away in their 2010 light-welterweight title bout. That being said, if former lightweight Julio Diaz carried enough power to put Khan on the floor in his welterweight debut, there is no question that a puncher with the caliber of Saul Alvarez can do the same.

To his credit, the Bolton man has re-grouped and bounced back like a true champion from his KO losses, but he has been unable to replicate his earlier world title successes, all of which came at 140lbs – a full 15lbs below the agreed weight limit for May 7th. And while he has scored commendable victories over genuine world-class welterweights Collazo and Alexander, they were not world champions. Meanwhile “King Khan” has repeatedly turned down the chance to face 147lb IBF titlist and British rival Kell Brook, insisting that the champion has been facing “bums” and needed to “fight some proper opponents” before he would consider a match-up between the pair viable.

Perhaps there was a good reason for this, as Amir held out for mooted mega-money bouts against the sport’s two biggest stars, Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao. In fact, many would view his fight with Canelo as vindication for refusing the Brook fight. It could equally be argued though that had he taken on Brook for the IBF title in a huge domestic match-up and prevailed, instead of waiting on the sidelines for a Mayweather or Pacquiao fight, ironically he probably would have succeeded in getting one of them in the ring by now. In any case, there is a lingering feeling that there is unfinished business for Khan with his domestic rival, and at the very least, a missed opportunity to prove his worth against a legitimate belt-holder in the 147lb division.

All in all then, if we strip away the fame and the popularity of brand Khan, what we are left with is a very talented fighter who has established himself as a world-class welterweight contender, but who has not yet proven his title credentials in the higher weight division, has not won a world championship fight in almost five years, and has been knocked down or out numerous times throughout his career. He therefore falls well short of being regarded as one of the truly elite fighters currently in the sport, and will rightly go into the Canelo fight as a significant underdog.

No doubt Khan would argue that is precisely the reason he is taking such a risky fight, and that a victory would finally prove beyond doubt that he belongs in the pantheon of modern greats. There is a respectable school of thought making the case for why he can do just that: the argument being that Khan can out-speed the bigger champion and out-point him using a carefully implemented and disciplined boxing strategy, utilizing his quicker footwork and avoiding the Mexican’s heavier hands. While I can see the logic behind this thinking, it depends too heavily on an exaggerated description of Khan’s speed advantage and does not pay adequate respect to the young champion’s ring IQ, and I cannot envisage it becoming reality. Miguel Cotto and Erislandy Lara did not succeed against Canelo by employing a similar “boxing” strategy, and they were bigger, stronger, more defensively adept fighters than Khan. They also had greater punch resistance, and though I do not buy the idea that Khan has a jaw “made of glass”, it’s nevertheless vulnerable enough to suggest that, sooner or later, the more powerful fiery-haired Mexican will cause the necessary damage to turn the bout irrevocably in his favour.

Ultimately, what we have in Canelo-Khan is a meeting between two popular fighters with crossover appeal that promises to deliver a boost to the sport’s exposure among casual followers, and an interesting tactical battle that will intrigue hardcore boxing fans. What we do not have is a genuine 50/50 contest between two fighters who can both be considered members of the sport’s current elite. It is, in other words, a very good fight. It’s just not a “superfight”.

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