Amir Khan is almost back where he started, the little fella seriously up against it at the big show with only his talent and his wits to keep him safe.
The decision to fight Mexican pitbull Saul “Canelo” Alvarez in Las Vegas on the weekend of Cinco de Mayo, one of the key ceremonial dates in Mexico's civic calendar, stunned the boxing world. Khan, a welterweight of only three fights' standing, has chosen to leap two weight categories to middleweight to challenge a national hero and fearsome puncher who has lost only once, and then to the Great Unbeaten One, Floyd Mayweather Jnr.
Stunned is right, but perhaps we shouldn't have been. Khan has had his back to a wall throughout his career as a British Pakistani making his way in a sport that is not flush with boxers sharing his gene pool. His was the only British Asian face at Mick Jelley's amateur gym in Bury, where Khan's old man, Shah, took him as a nipper to give vent to a restless nature.
When he hit the road to contest amateur bouts, first for his club then his country, not once did he come up against an opponent who looked like he did. Though Khan did not experience overt racism or prejudice in that low-octane environment, a sense of difference was unavoidable. That singular idea of himself as an outsider ultimately shaped him and continues to drive him 12 years after he rose to prominence as a 17-year-old at the 2004 Athens Olympics.
It is worth recalling the scale of that achievement, not necessarily the silver he took as a losing finalist against the great Cuban, Mario Kindelan, but the arduous journey undertaken just to qualify. Khan faced down grown men, some twice his age with far greater experience, from eastern European and former Soviet federations to earn his place in the British Olympic team.
At the qualifying tournament in Bulgaria, Khan fought a Georgian, an Armenian and finally a 32-year-old Romanian. When you review his testimony you begin to understand why Alvarez holds no fear. This about the Armenian: “I was young. I could tell he was looking at me as this scrawny English kid. He thought I was easy meat.
“He came charging out of his corner like a bull out of a gate. As he came into range I whacked him with a left hook. Bang. I could see he was hurt. His eyes had gone. He was dead strong, massive legs. He didn't fall, but he was gone.”
Khan survived through a combination of craft, instinct and a fighter's heart. And, yes, he will need all of those elements against Alvarez. He could have taken a different route. He is the mandatory challenger to WBC welterweight champion Danny Garcia, one of three to have bettered him as a pro, and he has an open invitation to face his English rival, IBF welterweight champion Kell Brook. Both are hard fights but neither is Canelo-hard.
We should applaud him for putting his hands in the fire in this way. There is a political dimension, too. Having placed his faith in the game's big power broker in the United States, Al Haymon, and failed to land either Mayweather or Manny Pacquiao, Khan has taken control of affairs in the boldest fashion imaginable.
Cinco de Mayo commemorates a Mexican victory over the French, the Battle of Puebla in 1862. It has huge symbolic value to the people, for whom Canelo is the ultimate symbol of the nation's warrior class.
Khan has still to convince the international audience of his pedigree, having been mulched by Garcia, a match that once again exposed a chin first splintered by Breidis Prescott eight years ago. Khan has never really erased the stain of that particular sledgehammer and perhaps there is a sense in which by taking on Alvarez he is seeking to make a point about the old whiskers.
It is arguably one of the most audacious moves by any British boxer in the modern period. Though Alvarez has accepted a match made at 155lb, such are the genetic cards he holds, the Mexican as the naturally bigger man can expect to enter the ring at least a stone heavier than Khan on the night. Maybe more. Khan is banking on his greater speed being decisive, as it was for Mayweather. But, as Barry McGuigan argued in his Daily Mirror column, Khan's feet don't work like Pretty Boy Floyd's and his use of the ring is not as commanding.
If he pulls it off Khan will stand alongside great British champions of the calibre of John H Stracey, Ken Buchanan and Lloyd Honeyghan, each of whom walked through the storm far from home to notch improbable world title victories.
Even if he fails Khan deserves the utmost respect and admiration for agreeing to a challenge not dissimilar in scope to shinning up Everest in stockinged feet. – The Independent