Amir Khan successfully made his fourth defence of his WBA light welterweight title on Saturday night against Paul McCloskey in Manchester, albeit in controversial circumstances.
Whilst Khan was, understandably, the odds-on favourite to win the bout, the former cruiserweight champion Johnny Nelson, in his preview to the fight, called McCloskey unpredictable and difficult, and said that the longer the fight goes on the greater chance there would of an upset. This viewpoint was shared by Barry McGuigan, who also said that if Khan didn’t put McCloskey away early it could become a very difficult evening for him.
Without wishing to dwell too much on the conclusion of the bout, this is the second time Amir Khan has won in this way. The first, against Marco Antonio Barrera in January 2009 was beyond dispute, the cut being severe enough to warrant a stoppage. McCloskey’s cut, however, would not have provided him with the sort of hindrance that Barrera’s would have had his fight with Khan been allowed to continue. To me the cut looked somewhat similar to, but not as serious as, the one Ricky Hatton suffered against Carlos Maussa in 2005. Mick Williamson, Hatton’s cut man, once described it as the most challenging cut he had had to deal with in his career, but it was ultimately manageable. McCloskey, entering the bout undefeated and confident, has every right to be disgruntled with the stoppage given that it was a world title fight and an opportunity that McCloskey may never be presented with again.
But even the most talented and confident boxer can’t afford to lose the first six rounds and expect to go on to win. A knockout victory would have been the only option and whilst this is not beyond the realms of possibility, what with McCloskey having knocked out twelve of his opponents in his twenty two victories, he did not demonstrate anything in those first six rounds to suggest that an onslaught was imminent. Khan looked confident and in control and although we didn’t see him at his best, there was a feeling that he could at any point turn his dominance into victory.
Where now for Amir Khan?
Khan was correct to point out that McCloskey is not box office material. Whilst it is of course commendable that Amir Khan is raising the profile of British boxers by accepting challengers from the UK and Ireland, if he is to truly dominate the light welterweight division then he needs to fight more Americans, in America. To date he has only boxed twice in the United States, against Paulie Malignaggi and Marcos Maidana respectively. There is no point now fighting British boxers, we all know Amir Khan is the number one British light-welterweight and defeating any of the other British light-welterweights would not raise his stock in the slightest. The highest rated British boxer after McCloskey is Lenny Daws, who is the number rated three British light welterweight, but ranked 33 in the world. This is not a bout that would advance Khan’s career at all. If anything it could have the adverse effect as the boxing community will inevitably claim that Khan is taking safe options when he should be propelling his career with every bout.
And with this in mind, there is only one route available to Khan if his career is going to continue to gather momentum: it has to be victory over Devon Alexander or Zab Judah, with a view to stepping in the ring with the undefeated Timothy Bradley. Whether it be Judah or Alexander, Khan will need to win and then go on to inflict Timothy Bradley’s first professional defeat upon him. All of three of these boxers would present Khan with the sort of challenge he has not yet faced, and if he comes through them all victorious he will be able to call the light welterweight division his own. From there, Khan will be presented with a difficult decision as to whether he wants to stay a light welterweight and accept that everyone in the division will be gunning for him as he becomes the one to beat, or move up to welterweight where all the hard work to reach the top will, in some ways, start all over again.
Khan does not have the height disadvantage that Ricky Hatton had to deal with when he briefly moved up to welterweight. At 5’10” Amir Khan would be a tall welterweight and he would take this advantage into virtually every bout. Currently in the welterweight top ten only the untested American Mike Jones is taller than Amir Khan.
Amir Khan has the height and the build to move up to welterweight, even light middleweight, and the sooner he dispatches of Judah or Alexander and Bradley the better. With Freddie Roach in his corner, a decent victory to knockout ratio in his career so far and, importantly, keeping himself in good physical condition between bouts, having a Briton who has held world titles at two weights can become a reality.
Whilst a height advantage offers absolutely no guarantees of success it does offer an added advantage in a situation where the smallest of variables can be the difference between winning and losing. People still talk about the height of Thomas 'Hitman' Hearns who, at 6’1” was an exceptionally tall welterweight and who made a seamless transition into super middleweight and ended his career with victories at cruiserweight.
Now, it is pre-emptive, and a very tall order, to suggest that Khan can surpass the achievements of Hearns, but Khan, once he has put his quality at light-welterweight beyond doubt with victories over Judah or Alexander and then Bradley, has all of the tools necessary to move up to the welterweight division by mid-2012.
And topping the welterweight division is not beyond Khan either, with Floyd Mayweather Jr. looking increasingly uninterested, Manny Pacquiao nearing his 33rd birthday (and about to have his 58th professional fight in May), and Shane Mosley just shy of forty, by the time Khan moves into the welterweight division it could be completely open for him to take.