Boxing: Old master Roach takes Khan back to school
Two years ago the Briton looked down and out, but the veteran trainer and a spell in a Manila rainforest have helped to revive a faltering career.
Thursday 09 December 2010
There is a story that a week or so after losing his first professional fight in just 54 seconds, Amir Khan was gloved, had his face smeared in Vaseline and was thrown in with Manny Pacquiao at the Wild Card gym in West Hollywood.
At the time Pacquiao was in brilliant form, getting close to a major fight and Khan looked like a damaged kid with a career in crisis when he had climbed the steps and found the guts to enter Freddie Roach's gym the day before the sparring session.
Khan was in America to try and salvage his career after an unknown Colombian called Breidis Prescott had dropped him twice and left him on the canvas in front of about 18,000 sickened and stunned fans at the MEN Arena, Manchester, on 6 September 2008. A few days later he sacked his trainer, packed his bags and sat in silence on the plane knowing that his career could be all over.
"He looked a bit apprehensive but I could see some desire in his eyes and I knew that the defeat was his fault and had nothing to do with his opponent," claimed Roach, who is both successful and savage in his blunt appraisal of a fighter's ambitions and desires. On day two of Khan's life in the LA gym, Roach was perched on his familiar spot on the ring watching Pacquiao slowly ruin fighter after fighter when he suddenly called for Khan to get ready. There was, so the story goes, an unusual silence in the filthy fighting shrine.
"Some people came up and asked me if I knew what I was doing," added Roach. "It's my gym, it's my way. I wanted to see how much damage had been done. I wanted to see what Amir had left and I knew Manny would show me."
That was just over two years ago and on Saturday night at the Mandalay Bay, Las Vegas, Khan will defend his World Boxing Association light-welterweight title for the third time when he meets Argentina's Marcos Maidana; Roach will happily take up his now permanent position in Khan's corner.
"I guess I had something left!" jokes Khan, when reminded about his early and desperate days at Roach's gym. "I was shocked to be in the ring with Manny but at the same time I knew that it was not going to be an easy road back after the loss."
The Prescott defeat was so sudden and final that many in the boxing business truly believed that Khan's ability to take a punch would forever stop him getting anywhere near a world title. In the fights before Prescott there had been a few flash knockdowns and a lot of talk about weight struggles drastically reducing his punch resistance. However, Khan, and the increasing number of men advising him, constantly denied that weight was an issue. At the Wild Card, Roach took one look at the broken fighter in front of him, shook his head and after two more fights at lightweight, moved him up a weight category for future title fights.
"The first months with Freddie were hard for me," continued Khan. "I was a long way from home and I was not staying in a five star hotel. The days were long and all I did was train and eat and sleep." It needs to be pointed out that all a young boxer should do is train, eat and sleep; the fun comes with the titles and long breaks between fights.
There was nothing sinister about Khan's lifestyle before the loss, which followed 19 easy wins, but bright promises and even brighter lights inevitably turn the heads of famous teenagers and boys of 20 or so. Khan has always found it hard to say "no" and was in constant demand, but in West Hollywood anonymity was guaranteed and essential for his redemption.
In Roach's fistic emporium Khan was not so anonymous, holding his own in the early rounds with Pacquiao in furious sessions that the complicated trainer assessed silently from his raised and imperious perch. Khan returned to Britain 12 weeks later for a win in two rounds against durable Dubliner Oisin Fagan. Promoter Frank Warren wanted and needed a bit more profile for Khan before stepping him up, so he found a magnificent and vulnerable veteran in Mexican legend Marco Antonio Barrera. Khan won in five rounds in March 2009 to complete an unlikely six-month journey back from the canvas.
Roach had worked on the inside and the outside, making Khan far more elusive and changing the shape of his chest, shoulders and back to increase speed and mobility. It was inside Khan's head that the most lethal lessons were being absorbed as he sat and talked with Roach for endless week after endless week. In July last year Warren secured the services of stylish but ignored WBA light-welterweight champion Andriy Kotelnik. Khan won a masterful decision with precision boxing from the outside that drove Kotelnik wild with frustration.
"If Amir had boxed like that against Prescott he would not have even been hit," insisted Roach after the Kotelnik drubbing. "I believe that I'm working on the fighter that will take over as the world's best when Manny finally leaves the sport."
There was one last fight with Warren, who understandably still gets a bit annoyed that his role in Khan's remarkable comeback is too easily forgotten, when the Ukrainian-born American Dmitriy Salita managed to survive 76 seconds last December in what the WBA comically insisted was a mandatory defence. Khan, with Roach's blessing, went out to finish the fight early.
After the inevitable Warren split Khan joined Oscar De La Hoya's Golden Boy company to continue his career in the US. He fought in New York in May when he stopped light-punching but trash-talking Paulie Malignaggi in 11 rounds and again was safety conscious. The plan was to take America by storm, inherit the chariot left empty by Ricky Hatton's retirement and get in the mix with a super-fight or two on HBO's pay-per-view arm. There was a long and acrimonious summer of negotiations with a lot of ducking and diving involving Golden Boy officials, Roach, various managers of various fighters, Khan's people and HBO. Three months ago it was finally announced that Khan would defend against his real No 1 contender Maidana, who has stopped or knocked out 27 of the 29 men he has beaten. His only loss was on a disputed split decision to Kotelnik before Khan beat the Ukrainian.
Several ultimatums were delivered and HBO, who remain in charge of the cash, have the fight they wanted this Saturday. Roach went on record in the summer insisting that Maidana is not the fighter he wanted. He has, however, since changed his mind and now insists that Maidana is made for Khan.
Khan and Roach went to the Philippines to prepare at Pacquiao's training camp in the lush forests near Manila. Khan and Pacquiao sparred again and it was the first time since those crucial rounds in LA in the dark, dark days after the Prescott loss. "I'm better now, I can tell. I've been back in with Manny – he knows I'm better," Khan told me a week or so ago from his little flat near Roach's lifesaving Wild Card gym, a brutal outpost at the end of any determined fighter's rainbow.
Tale of the tape
Amir Khan - Marcos Maidana
Champion Status Challenger (WBA light welterweight)
24 Age 27
Bolton, England Birthplace Santa Fe, Argentina
King Khan Nickname El Chino
5ft 10in (178cm) Height 5ft 9in (175cm)
9st 13½lb Weight 9st 12¾lb
71in Reach 70 in
24 Fights 30
23 (17) Wins (KO) 29 (27)
1 (1) Losses (KO) 1
106 Rounds boxed 102
Stopped P Malignaggi, Last fight Bt D Corley on points
New York, May 2010 Buenos Aires, August 2010
2005 Turned pro 2004
Orthodox Stance Orthodox
Freddie Roach Trainer Miguel Diaz
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