By Mark Whalley

  • Amir Khan KO’d in brutal fashion by Canelo Alvarez
  • Anthony Crolla stops Ismael Barroso in the seventh with wicked body shot
  • Both fighters now enter fascinating new phases of their careers

Las Vegas, USA – For anyone who wants an insight into why boxing can be so compelling, the drama of this weekend’s action has given us more than a strong glimpse.

Two of British fighting’s most intriguing protagonists – Amir “King” Khan and Anthony “Million Dollar” Crolla – embarked on the biggest challenges of their respective careers, with starkly different outcomes. The gripping nature not just of the bouts they fought, but also how these bouts might come to define their professional careers, fuels the kind of conversations that sports fans love to have.

On the face of things, there is not much to link Khan and Crolla. The former, an Olympic silver medallist at the precocious age of 17, has had greatness pre-ordained. The latter has ground his way through the rankings with relatively little fanfare until recently. Khan, with flashy watches and a love of supercars, enjoys fame and respect in the vaunted US market. Crolla remains a celebrity only in his Manchester heartland.

And yet both are linked on levels far deeper than whether diamonds are encrusted on their Rolexs. Beyond the superficial commonalities of being proud northerners fighting through the lighter weight divisions, both their careers were shaped by defining knockout losses back in 2012. And beyond that, on Saturday they both displayed a level of bravery sadly not a feature of every world level fighter, in taking on opponents they could easily have avoided.

Starting with the knockouts that changed them: four years ago Crolla was expected to beat a game-but-limited Derry Mathews, but surprisingly came up short. Since then his card has been marked: a talented fighter, but not strong enough or hard-hitting enough to challenge the very best.

Meanwhile, given the expectations that were placed on Khan from the very beginning, his knockouts prompted very decisive actions that have neatly segmented his career.

The seismic nature of his defeat to then unheard-of Breidis Prescott brought about the end of naïve “baby Khan”.

In subsequently employing legendary trainer Freddy Roach, he banked on progression through throwing money at an education available to only an elite few – his “Eton years”, if you will. That is, until Danny Garcia knocked him cold, ending that particular chapter.

At that point, in ditching Roach for the more cerebral Virgil Hunter, Khan moved to what he hoped was a fitting “finishing school”. Hunter, he reasoned, would add the final, defensive part of the jigsaw, tooling him with the all-round game needed to beat the likes of Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao.

Much has been written about Khan’s inactivity since partnering with Hunter. And now is not the time to open that particular can of worms. What is important to this story is that he chose to face Saul “Canelo” Alvarez, who is well on his way to being regarded as an elite fighter (if not there already), at a weight alien to Amir.

Meanwhile, Crolla’s journey has become one long metaphor for proving people wrong, bordering on the cliché. He recovered from a fractured skull to win a world championship nobody thought he was ever capable of, and then, instead of consolidating with a cherry-picked opponent for his first defence, went after a mandatory challenger in Ismael Barroso who has been avoided by his peers due to the fearsome nature of his punching.

We now know how Khan’s “calculated gamble” panned out. The start could not have been more encouraging: he speared Canelo with a scintillatingly-quick right hand almost immediately, and clearly won the first two rounds.

From that point on, though, the gaps began to close. Inch by inch. Punch by punch. Significantly, Canelo was landing several right hands to the body, each serving to dampen the spring in Khan’s step a little notch further. This brought the Mexican into range.

Despite being the champion, Anthony Crolla entered the ring against his Venezuelan opponent as the underdog. Some things never change. And for three rounds this perception was understandable. Barroso loaded up with almost all of his punches, which were delivered with menace and spite. Crolla kept him working, but nothing he threw seemed to faze the challenger. It looked for all the world like he was having the hardest examination of his career.

In the words of iconic trainer and commentator Teddy Atlas, Amir Khan always gives you a chance because he will make a mistake. The Bolton pugilist’s concentration famously wavers over the course of a fight. And, true to form, in the sixth he dropped his hands and walked straight into a right hand that could have blown a hole in the moon. His dazzling early work came to nought in the blink of an eye. He was unconscious before he hit the ground.

The sixth round was also the pivotal one back in Manchester. It was the round where it became clear that Barroso was not just fading – he was totally spent. Gone was the venom in his punches. His legs were leaden, his head movement non-existent, and all of a sudden his response to Crolla’s punches was as though he were being hit by a lightweight Gennady Golovkin.

In the seventh, Crolla landed a body shot that had Barroso down not just for a 10 count, but for several minutes. In truth though, by that point it was just confirmation of what was already clear: Crolla had forced a pace that Barroso could not deal with, soaking up his best shots, and his strategy had worked to perfection. The fight was won several minutes before the bell sounded.

It feels, therefore, that the difference between Khan and Crolla is not strength, bravery, or quickness of punches, but sharpness of thought. Crolla took on the biggest challenge of his life, but his gameplan worked to perfection. Khan knew perfection was the minimum required to overcome Canelo, but misjudged his ability to stay switched on for the full 36 minutes.

One man woke up on Sunday looking ahead to a golden phase of his career. The other must now dedicate a lot of thought to his exit strategy, if he wants his legacy to be a positive one.

For Crolla, Saturday night was a true arrival at the pinnacle: a landmark victory, a spot at the top table of lightweight competitors, and the overdue adoration of a public that now cements him as one of the most popular figures in UK boxing. The sky must now feel like the limit.

For Khan, Saturday night was seemingly confirmation that he will never be considered truly elite. It seems destined he will be remembered for his lightning handspeed and his bravery, but also for the fragility of both his focus and his chin. It is to be hoped that his promotional team do not wheel him out as a prestige gatekeeper, throwing him into increasingly high-risk fights against big punchers knowing his tendency to get spectacularly knocked out makes for great TV.

Fair or otherwise, this weekend felt like witnessing two men passing each other at a crossroads. Both have legitimate reasons to be proud of their achievements so far, and Amir may well mix it with class fighters again, but it is the eternal underdog Crolla, and not child prodigy Khan, who can truly point to his ability to hold his nerve when faced with extreme adversity.

 

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