Olympic hero. Drugs cheat. World champion. Chinless wonder. Icon. Punchline. Amir Khan represents many things to many people, sometimes simultaneously. He is one of Britain’s best-known sportsmen yet he is also one of the nation’s most mocked. Khan fought with honour and blazed a trail for Team GB fighters following in his wake. He also brought his reputation and his sport into disrepute when testing positive for a banned substance in the wake of his 2022 loss to Kell Brook. Khan’s legacy is an indelible but complicated one.
Perhaps no fight better summarised the enigma of Amir Khan than his battle with Saul Alvarez on this day in 2016. No fight encapsulates the bravery, absent-mindedness, star quality and fragility of ‘King’ Khan quite like the six rounds he shared with ‘Canelo’. It was a fight he never looked like winning, until they got in the ring. Then, just as the Boltonian was doing enough to make you believe, it was all ripped away. Everything Amir Khan was, is and ever will be was contained in that Las Vegas ring on that night.
Four years before, it had been hard to imagine Khan getting an opportunity like this again. A 2011 points loss to Lamont Peterson was controversial, but a knockout defeat to Danny Garcia the following year looked fatal to his hopes of elite level fights. It was Khan’s first stoppage defeat since the chastening first-round KO he suffered at the hands of Breidis Prescott in 2008. It would also signal the last time Khan would enter the ring as a world champion.
But we didn’t know that four years later when the Olympic silver medalist squared off with Saul Alvarez. An impressive five-fight winning streak had seen Khan take out a series of world-ranked names. Amir rarely gets the credit he deserves for his level of opposition during this period.
Of the five fighters he beat between the Garcia defeat and facing ‘Canelo’, only Carlos Molina would never hold a world title. The other four, Julio Diaz, Devon Alexander, Luis Collazo and Chris Algieri all held major championships. It was an eye-watering spell of activity for Khan as he fought back to relevance.
Given the enviable ranking this series of welterweight wins gave him, it seemed counterintuitive of Khan to move up two weight divisions. While the 155lb catchweight at which he’d meet WBC and The Ring middleweight king ‘Canelo’ was five pounds below the standard weight limit, it was still eight pounds heavier than Khan had ever scaled. Given the fact Alvarez had spent his last four fights at that weight, it seemed like an unnecessary risk for the Brit.
Of course the lucrative nature of a bout with the iconic Mexican necessitates some room to manoeuvre. It was clear that Khan was backing his superlative speed and slick boxing skills to be too much for ‘Canelo’. But to discount his opponent’s strength would prove foolish. Smaller fighters than Alvarez had rendered Khan unconscious after all…
The almighty risk looked like paying off in the early going. Khan picked off his bigger foe, tying him in knots with savvy combinations and superior skill. His speed was winning the physical battle, initially negating the strength of the champion. But crucially, given the weight differential and the impressive chops on Alvarez, Khan’s work wasn’t hurting him. ‘King Khan’ could inconvenience ‘Canelo’ and outbox him, but without getting him out there he remained at risk.
That risk came home to roost when Alvarez unleashed the punch of his career in the sixth round. An overhand right completely short-circuited Khan. He slumped to the mat, lifeless. Six rounds of superb work undone. Never again to reign as a world champion. This was the beginning of the end for Amir Khan.
Khan would fight five more times, going 3-2. Wins over lightly-regarded Phil Lo Greco and fringe contender Samuel Vargas put him in place for one last title tilt. Terence Crawford beat the remaining resistance out of Khan in a WBO welterweight championship showdown in 2019. Khan would end that year with a knockout of an undersized Billy Dib.
After three years out of the ring he came back to face Kell Brook in a heavily-hyped domestic grudge match. The idea Khan’s wallet was more enticed by the fight than his body was confirmed when he tested positive for the banned substance Ostarine in the aftermath. The UKAD found that the amount in Khan’s system was small enough to have been ingest accidentally. The fact Khan had tested positive for the drug after a stoppage defeat also meant his career was perhaps less tarnished than if it had marred a victory. This semi-retirement bout with Brooks felt like a footnote already, this just confirmed it as such.
So who is Amir Khan? Olympic silver medalist and Team GB trailblazer? A PED user with a weak chin? A world champion who was too brave for his own good? ‘King Khan’ was a lot of things during his two decades in the boxing spotlight. You saw a lot of them against ‘Canelo’. He was quick, skilled, vulnerable and just a little kamikaze. But he was exciting. Perhaps in a roundabout way that’s all that really matters.
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