The history of boxing is full of losers.
Though modern boxers fear losses like the plague--even to the extent of avoiding meaningful, potentially career-defining challenges--the annals of boxiana are filled with inimitable losers. Roberto Duran's two defeats to Sugar Ray Leonard only serve to underscore the glorious madness of his initial win. His sixty-five defeats render Fritzie Zivic's two victories over Henry Armstrong truly incredible. And an initial defeat at the veteran hands of Erik Morales helped turn Manny Pacquiao into one of the greatest boxers of the modern era, cemented by the fact that he went on to beat Morales twice.
And as much as meaningful losses can shape a boxer's legacy, it's the capability of a loss to teach and refine that makes defeats worthy of study. Victory can breed complacency--in the words of Bill Gates, an unlikely source of advice in a boxing article, "Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can't lose." It is often said that the loser of a fight has an advantage in the rematch, because he knows exactly what he did wrong, whereas the victor is often content to repeat what worked the last time around.
Where is all of this going?
Well, this weekend Amir Khan is fighting Devon Alexander. There's a lot of success behind Khan going into this matchup. Not only is he riding a three-fight win streak, but he is an old hand at fighting, and beating, southpaws, of which Alexander is one. There are, however, some memorable failures at his back as well, and in many ways those failures continue to define Khan's career.
Today we will be dissecting the three losses of Amir Khan, taking them apart, identifying the reasons for his struggles and the lessons that Khan could have--should have learned from them. Has he? Only time will tell--a bout with the dangerous and seasoned Alexander should prove to be a good test of Khan's improvements, or lack thereof.
But first, let's look at those three fateful failures.
To some, this was the first indication that Khan might have a problem, but the signs were there well before Prescott cracked Khan's jaw in round one. Michael Gomez had dropped Khan in the second round of their bout before the Boltoner managed to claw success back from the brink of defeat. Rewatching the Prescott fight, one can hear the British commentators pointing out that Khan has promised to "keep his hands up better" this time around.
Of course, that would prove to be insufficient.
Khan's defensive liabilities weren't, as so many had suggested after his struggles with Gomez, so easily solved. Khan's problem was one of persistent over-commitment. Nearly every time that Khan has been hurt, the pivotal punch lands in the space between his right hand and his left hook. Such is the case with the Prescott KO above, but the clues were there earlier, even in this fight that lasted only 54 seconds.
Here, Khan attacks Prescott with a lead right hand. The root of Khan's vulnerability lies in the root of his attack: his stance. If we look at the position of Khan's body prior to his punch, we see two things: first, Khan's head is oriented forward, already almost directly over his left foot. To compound this, his right foot is stuck out to his rear, well away from the rest of his body. Together, these two details indicate the Khan is carrying his weight predominantly on the lead foot, meaning that his ability to generate power without compromising himself is limited.
Khan likes to punch, though, and doesn't know any other way, so he happily commits himself to a right hand. As he does, his legs straighten out, his right foot drags forward, and his head moves completely past his left foot. He is falling toward Prescott, essentially, off-balance and vulnerable. And as he does, Prescott is balanced enough to throw a three-piece counter combination. Because Khan does shell up with his gloves, only two of Prescott's shots land cleanly, but the opening is there, and seconds later he would produce the knockdown you saw above.
Worryingly, Khan's most recent loss came as a result of similar circumstances.
Danny Garcia wins fights. That's really the best thing that can be said about him, and I don't mean to disparage his abilities. In the words of Emanuel Steward, Garcia is "never impressive, always winning." Nothing about the Philly fighter stands out as a great technical advantage, but his will to win is unparalleled in his division, and so far no fighter has been able to overcome it. Not Lucas Matthysse, not the eternally game Erik Morales, and not, as it turned out, Amir Khan.
Once again, Khan's troubles with Garcia would be foreshadowed earlier in the bout. Despite the shocking nature of Khan's two stoppage losses, neither of them has been wholly surprising. A sharp eye can catch the cracks long before the levee breaks.
Here, early in round two, Khan surges forward twice, each time catching a Garcia counter for his troubles. There are notable improvements since the Prescott bout. Khan's combination punching, now considered a hallmark of his style, is much better than before, his handspeed on full display. This offensive prowess, however, serves as nothing more than a cover-up, a threatening band-aid that nonetheless leaves Khan's defensive deficiencies to fester, vulnerable to a calm and patient opponent.
In both attacks above, you can see Khan's weight drifting forward, his legs straightening out with each successive punch. The second combination sees Khan's right foot actually leave the ground while he drives upward and forward with a three-punch sequence. The first combination looks better until one notices that Khan's ability to stay over his own feet is aided by Garcia's accurate counter right, which rocks him back onto his right foot.
What's worse, is that Garcia was able to reveal another flaw in Khan's game. Not only does the Englishman stand up tall on offense, but on the retreat as well. Here's a simple example.
Khan jabs, his knees coming unbent as he does and his head moving forward. As Garcia responds with a jab of his own, Khan leans back, staying tall the entire time. To a watchful fighter like Garcia, this says one thing: if I go after this guy, I can hurt him. This would prove to be true later in the bout, but first, knockdown number one:
Just as before, Khan is caught during the interval between his right, this time an uppercut, and the follow-up left hook. Garcia, like Breidis Prescott before him, gets the job done with his own left hook, this one landing low to the base of the jaw and completely destroying Khan's equilibrium.
Once again, the root of Khan's vulnerability is his starting position. He doesn't fall forward quite as dramatically as he did against Prescott, so there is improvement to speak of, but his legs are still extended as he punches, and his head far too close to his opponent. The legs are important in power generation, but they also serve to absorb shock, and therefore must remain bent at all times. Khan's inability to do this--and it does seem to be a physical deficiency in need of correction--renders him fragile.
And as I mentioned before, the same is true when Khan is forced to go on the defensive.
After knocking Khan down at the end of round three, Garcia came storming at his foe from the start of round four. Khan, as he is wont to do, thought about exchanging, but was ultimately forced to go on the defensive. The slow motion angle above perfectly illustrates why he was incapable of doing so effectively. As Khan retreats, his legs once again extend, his knees unbending and his head presenting itself as an open and vulnerable target. Tall and unbalanced, Garcia's punches are able to hurt him even as he moves with them, simply because there is nothing in the structure of Khan's body to help him absorb the impact.
They say that speed kills, but in Khan's case he might be the victim of his own quickness. Against a certain level of opposition, he is consistently able to cover up his flaws with the blinding speed of his punches, but every capable opponent so far has been able to touch Khan's chin and trouble him with well-timed counters. Khan's flaws not only make him an easy target, they make him fragile, and anyone skilled enough to nullify his offensive flurries, or tough enough to withstand them, has a very real opportunity to hurt him.
The final loss on the table today is Khan's fateful December, 2011 encounter with Lamont Peterson in Peterson's hometown of Washington, D.C., a fight which was ultimately decided by two point deductions from referee Joe Cooper.
No one will ever be able to convince me that pushing and shoving don't belong in the arsenal of a prizefighter. As much as boxing is the natural descendent of the gentlemanly art of fencing, it is very much a combat sport. Indeed, fencers used to kill one another, and boxers knock each other out. Roughhouse tactics like pushing and wrestling are integral to the practice, and without them some of history's greatest boxers--men like George Foreman, Jack Johnson, and Henry Armstrong--would've lacked a considerable leg to stand on.
Regardless, it is well within a referee's rights to warn a fighter for what he might consider excessive violation of what are, ultimately, very fluid rules. And it is also within his rights to deduct points when a fighter ignores those warnings. Khan can be forgiven for the first point deduction, but the second indicates a very real flaw that has plagued Khan's entire career: his inability to adapt.
Amir Khan has undeniably improved over the course of his career, but the problems that plagued him against Breidis Prescott over six years ago are still very much exploitable. Feel free to accuse me of reading into things, but the circumstances behind his loss to Lamont Peterson may tell us why. Khan struggles to adapt, and at this point it seems almost a point of pride that he continues to struggle the way he does.
Time after time, Khan invites trouble--fighting Peterson in his own hometown, brawling instead of boxing and holding when hurt, underestimating his competition--almost as if he believes that toughness and will are enough to overcome any trial. This is why we love watching Khan fight, and it has turned him into a very good boxer. However, his inability--or perhaps refusal to adapt, has left Khan forever vulnerable, and without some meaningful change, it will always keep him from becoming great.
For more fight analysis, check out Heavy Hands, the only podcast dedicated to the finer points of face punching. This week's episode examines regional influence in fighting styles around the globe, be it the difference between Russian, Cuban, and American boxing, or Brazilian, Dutch, and Thai kickboxing. It's an in-depth breakdown of the cultural flavor expressed in combat sports.