Amir Khan was bleeding, aching and still throwing punches in a desperate last round of a fight that has changed his life and will be talked about in the same sentences as the epics that illuminate boxing's brutal history.
When the bell finally delivered relief from exhaustion and the savagery of Marcos Maidana's fists at the Mandalay Bay casino, it was clear from Khan's bruised and swollen face that his days as the "kid" are over. Khan, still only 24 but surely a lot older in boxing years, retained his World Boxing Association light-welterweight title with a tight but unanimous decision in a classic encounter that came so close to ending early so many times. It was, it has to be said, a staggering display of bravery from Khan and one that understandably is receiving rave reviews from some of the sport's modern greats.
However, it is no secret that Khan trained to win clearly, not get hit and exploit Maidana's apparent lack of speed; certainly not to go toe-to-toe with the lethal Argentine to the delight of 4,632 bleary-eyed punters. There is every chance that he will have some explaining to do when he sits down with Freddie Roach, the tiny miracle-worker who rescued Khan from the carnage of the 54-second loss to Breidis Prescott just two years go.
The fight was just seconds old when Maidana crashed in a couple of fearsome rights and Khan was staggered, hurt and reeling and throwing punches in an instinctive, desperate reply. Maidana entered the ring having knocked out 27 of his 29 victims and Khan teetered on the edge of becoming 28 until a sickening left hook to the bottom of the rib cage, near the end of the opening round, left Maidana in agony on the canvas. He could barely walk to his corner and hobbled back, bent over and grimacing.
Maidana held his right elbow low to protect the busted rib for a few rounds and Khan did his best to lift the protection and connect with the vulnerable spot, but Maidana was tough and at this level fighters push through pain and damage with no fears about serious injury.
The fight moved between the pair with Khan's longer, more technical combinations landing but it seemed that with each success Maidana would settle, get close and rip in short, damaging and often illegal hooks that hurt and marked Khan. In round five, the referee had seen an elbow too many posing as a fist and he took a point off Maidana; the point proved crucial in the final tally of the judges and the root of the pandemonium at the fight's conclusion.
Maidana's boisterous corner were angry at Joe Cortez, the veteran referee, and kept up a constant din of abuse with howls of outrage that continued long into the long Las Vegas night; they will lobby for a rematch.
It was in round 10, though, that Khan entered boxing folklore when he was caught by a right cross, his legs went on a berserk Riverdance of their own and his eyes tumbled like lemons in a one-armed bandit. Maidana had his man and he had about two minutes and 30 seconds to finish Khan off. The ref edged closer, the fight looked lost but for the remainder of the round, as Maidana landed again and again and again, Khan somehow remained upright. It was quite astounding and as he stumbled, smeared in his own blood, back to the arms of Roach in the corner he looked like a survivor in a zombie movie.
In rounds like that you win fights, you make careers and you secure legacies.
Khan found his legs during the 60 seconds in Roach's care and finished the fight trying to keep the wide-eyed and increasingly angry Maidana at a safer distance, but it remained breathless until the final bell. Khan won with scores of 114-111 twice and 113-112.
"I proved that I have a chin," said Khan, his voice appearing to be slightly distorted by his damaged nose. "I took his best punches, I hurt him – he hurt me. What a fight."
Khan went off for a precautionary scan after the fight, which is something that his American promoter Oscar De La Hoya did after his harder fights. Maidana and his handlers, who only left the ring after a bit of light scuffling, were outraged at Cortez's deduction of the point and will seek justice through a rematch. The fans would no doubt love to see it all again.
There are several lucrative options for Khan in the coming months and when his body has healed he can sit down with De La Hoya and plot a route to becoming boxing's biggest attraction. Now is not the time to make fantasy fights; now is the time to sit back and enjoy one of the finest fights involving a British boxer for many, many years.Reuse content