When Amir Khan-Andreas Kotelnik was made, plenty of people, myself included, thought it another case of clever matchmaking for the rebounding, superstar-in-the-making Khan. Kotelnik was, by universal consensus, the weakest of the junior welterweight titleholders, nor was he much of a puncher, the latter being a vital aspect of the choice given Khan’s disastrous one-round KO loss in 2008 against Breidis Prescott, an unknown Colombian who had a garish knockout record coming in to that fight.
My view has evolved in light of a six degrees of Kevin Bacon-like series of events since then. It goes like this: Marcos Maidana had his own superstar-in-the-making-ruining performance when he knocked out Victor Ortiz last month. Although the media and others, myself included, focused heavily on what Ortiz did and said wrong, Maidana looked like the real deal, like he’d be a tough night for just about junior welterweight. As it happened, Maidana had given Kotelnik all kinds of hell in the fight just before the Ortiz bout. Kotelnik may have been lucky to escape with the narrow win over Maidana, but in retrospect, going on relatively even terms with Maidana in light of his Ortiz knockout makes Kotelnik look all the more like the real deal himself. There’s more to him besides, too.
It’s too bad this fight, on Saturday in England, isn’t available anywhere on television in the United States, because, despite his skeptics — and there are still reasons to be skeptical of Khan — he’s an exceptional talent, and he’s in against a significantly tougher foe than his last opponent, a badly faded Marco Antonio Barrera. I guess I’ll try to find a stream somewhere. But even if I don’t manage one, it’s still a significant enough fight to warrant previewing.
I did think Barrera had enough left to beat Khan, whose chin is legitimately shaky, so I’m not dissing the clever matchmaking. Just because it ended up being a masterstroke of a choice doesn’t mean it wasn’t one that had some risk. Khan, who’d had just one fight since the Prescott disaster, looked completely rebuilt courtesy the importing of top trainer Freddie Roach. Nothing’s going to change Khan’s speed and power — it is those inherent traits that make Khan a promising young fighter, along with his excellent Olympic background. Combined with his good looks, charisma and an atypical background for a professional boxer — he’s a Muslim of Pakistani heritage — it’s enough to push him into the level of potential star. In the United Kingdom, he was a big star before the Prescott loss, a big star after it and he’s a big star now; the question is whether he becomes a star beyond the U.K.
Against Barrera, he took a nice step forward on the kind of rebound he needs to make if he’s going to be beloved by anyone other than his home country fans. The Khan who fought Barrera was not too intoxicated with his own strengths to ignore his weaknesses. Khan, like a lot of fighters with shaky chins, can make a living in this sport if he is good defensively, good offensively and makes the right choices about when to be good at one or the other. Against Prescott, Khan was terrible defensively and made all the wrong choices, clearly thinking he would outgun his man. Against Barrera, he chose well and immediately put his guard back up after firing. Yes, the horrendous cut Barrera suffered contributed to the quality of Khan’s showing, but I repeat as I have plenty since that Khan looked very good even before the cut.
Barrera, though, was an over-the-hill, blown-up lightweight. Kotelnik is a real junior welterweight. And he’s a good one, too, as mentioned before. At 31, he’s at or near his prime. Nor does it end with the Maidana performance. Kotelnik, by my count, has fought four top-10 junior welteweights. Every single fight was close. He beat Maidana by close split decision, knocked out Gavin Rees in the final round of a fight that some thought Rees was winning, lost by split decision against Souleymane M’baye and drew with him in a rematch and lost a close unanimous decision to Junior Witter. That he’s had so many close bouts with top figthers says two things about him. First, he’s very good. You don’t hang with guys like that unless you are. I’m not saying he’s great or anything, just that he’s very good. Second, his style is always going to put him in harm’s way of losing a close decision.
In the ring, Kotelnik is cautious. The quirky former Olympian from the Ukraine who sometimes goes by “Andriy” — he’s dedicated the fight to Jack Palance, and says eating spinach a la Popeye will be key to his victory — fights with his guard up at all times when he’s not punching. It’s a good guard. It makes him very hard to hit cleanly. He’s tough as nails, as his ability to survive Maidana’s many big shots and come back with his own volleys proved. He will sometimes lead, and when he does, his jab is sharp and accurate. Overall, I’d say “sharp” is the best way to describe how he punches. The punches he lands are good, flush ones, especially his straight right, but he also has compact left and right hooks, although he hardly ever punches to the body. His power looks to be more of the stinging variety, with 13 KOs in 31 wins. He’s described as a counterpuncher, which is kind of true. Rarely will he punch in the middle of his opponents’ combinations, the big right he landed in the 12th against Rees being a notable exception. Instead, he usually waits for his opponent to stop punching and catches them standing after. That approach means his opponents can win rounds just outworking him.
I don’t think Khan’s fought anyone with Kotelnik’s skill level, and the weight leap means Khan’s shaky chin is probably all the more vulnerable. We’ve seen since the Prescott loss that Prescott probably isn’t the puncher his record suggests, as he couldn’t knockout Humberto Toledo, who’d been stopped four times in six losses. Kotelnik may not be a big puncher, but he’s enough of one under these circumstances to pose a danger to Khan’s chin. Khan has a tremendous advantage in speed, and that’s not a joke about his frequent motor vehicle violations.
When I was watching clips of Kotelnik vs. Rees and Maidana, as impressed as I was, I was thinking, “Someone who is faster than Kotelnik could freeze him periodically with flurries then move away, especially with blows to the body where he’s easier to hit.” Apparently Roach and I are on the same page with this, because I’ve read since that’s Khan’s exact Plan A. I think he’ll pull it off. It’s anything but guaranteed he will. I’ll take Khan by decision, but I don’t have any clue how it’ll play out from round to round — I see Kotelnik having moments, but ultimately being outspeeded by Khan more often than not. That is, if Khan doesn’t get too reckless. (All right, THAT was a motor vehicle violation joke.) If he wins, Roach wants to put him in a megafight against the likes of Ricky Hatton or Juan Manuel Marquez. That makes it both a step up fight and a fight his bank account needs him to win.