Along comes a fight this weekend that on the surface, couldn’t be a weirder fight for either man. They’re all wrong for each other. And I’m totally looking forward to it. It’s like alchemy or something — it should be lead, but instead it’s gold.
In the affordably-priced, $24.95 pay-per-view headliner out of Great Britain, promising lightweight apprentice-turned-illusion Amir Khan — one fight removed from a 1st round knockout loss that transformed his nickname to “A Mere Con” in the British press — will battle ancient ring wizard Marco Antonio Barrera — two fights into a largely unwelcome reappearance in a weight class that is almost certainly a touch too high.
Khan can’t handle unknown Colombian sluggers with questionable power for one round, and he’s going in against one of the most experienced fighters he can find? And an aged legend whom you’d think would be looking only for mega-fights at this point in his life decides he wants to fight a prospect, of all things, and one who may have been overhyped? It makes no sense. And that’s part of the magic of it. You’ll find people expecting, with great conviction, that it’s a severe mismatch one way or the other. How odd.
I’ve spent some time today watching Barrera’s two comeback fights at lightweight, and I haven’t come away impressed. His defense was tight, I suppose, but gone appeared to be any speed he had, and his punches, with the exception of body blows, seemingly lacked conviction. Maybe it’s the weight. Maybe it’s the ring wars. In his second-to-last fight of his pre-comeback days, against Juan Manuel Marquez, though, Barrera looked a good deal like his old self, and while his performance in his last fight, against Manny Pacquiao, failed to thrill, it wasn’t because of any physical decline I could detect; it was a question of his intent to remain upright against an opponent who had his number. Or maybe there’s just some ring rust on the old man.
Suffice it to say, the Barrera of 2008 and 2009, against pretty terrible lightweights, didn’t resemble at all the Barrera of 2007, who was at least a reasonable facsimile of the fighter who can make a claim to being one of the five finest Mexican boxers of all time. That version of Barrera possessed neither incredible speed or power, but strong enough doses of each that, when combined with his warrior spirit and ring smarts, it all was enough to make him one of the best boxers in any weight class. He aggressively counter-punched Naseem Hamed into career oblivion. He brawled fearlessly against rival Erik Morales to emerge victorious in two of their three conflicts. He even played some stick and move with young Rocky Juarez in their second bout. That fight, and the final Pacquiao fight, may have been the only times in his career he ever failed to thrill on the big stage, win or lose. Observe:
Khan is no legend. He got off to a great start, winning a silver medal in the 2004 Olympics, then going on to become the 2007 Prospect of the Year in most books. En route, he picked up quite a fan following in the U.K. He has the kind of offensive gifts that intoxicate — some of the fastest hands in the sport, and hands that hit hard, too. It was what happened when he got hit that began to arouse suspicion, and pretty quickly. Boxers with no power succeeded in knocking him down, and despite this condition, he became fond of standing and trading. It led to more knockdowns, and, eventually, in 2008, a 1st round knockout by Breidis Prescott. Prescott was the prototypical Colombian fighter before that — not much competition, but a garish knockout record. His jab even rattled Khan. And there were signs before and after that Prescott wasn’t as massive a puncher as his record suggest.
Trigger the Khan rehab project. In comes Freddie Roach, the bestestest trainer in the whole wide world these days. Khan spends some time sparring with the bestestest boxer in the whole wide world, Manny Pacquiao, and wouldn’t you know it — Khan holds his own. Khan returns against Oisin Fagan, and well, I don’t see much of a difference. Fagan was no Prescott in the punching department, and not all that good, really, so Khan made very short work of him. Khan clearly made a conscious effort to keep his gloves high, but he came out, to me, like he always did, which is fast, eager and devoted to throwing combos. It’s the kind of thing a better fighter might exploit via counterpunching. Roach, who will be in Khan’s corner Saturday rather than leaving duties to a deputy, says Khan will be patient against Barrera. I’ll believe it when I see it.
There are two ways to look at the decision to throw Khan in against Barrera. One is that Roach, who’s as smart as they come, and Khan promoter Frank Warren, who usually is a cautious matchmaker, are supremely confident in their man and know that he’s improved enough and is he’s too fast and big for Barrera. Another, more cynical take is that they’re cashing in as much as they can cash in, knowing Khan is not what he once promised. As for Barrera, maybe the idea is that this is the best payday they could get given the lack of interest from bigger names, and might as well go all-in, reasoning that if Barrera can’t beat Khan he can’t beat anyone, and if he does beat Khan, maybe the big names take an interest. Funny thing is, I don’t see either man getting much credit for this win. If Khan beats Barrera, he will have defeated another undersized faded type. If Barrera beats Khan, it’s sloppy seconds on a fighter who’s already been “exposed.”
Barrera-Khan is a pleasantly head-scratching puzzle, if not one worth 25 smackers by itself. But with at least one other quality bout on the card — a junior lightweight bout between top-10 junior lightweights Nicky Cook and Roman Martinez — it’s enough for me to fork mine over.
(And you know what? I think I’m going to scrap the traditional format for my prediction entries as of now. From now on, I’ll just say how I see it going.)
More than Barrera, Khan shouldn’t have taken this fight, I don’t think. His chin is bad. You can hide a bad chin with the right style and defense, and maybe even ride to the alphabet belt winner-level, but as good a trainer as Roach is, he’s only had a hold of Khan for a few months, really. On the plus side for Khan, Roach just doesn’t make that many miscalculations when it comes to his fighters.
But Barrera, even at his age and size, is still a puzzlemaster. And he may not hit that hard as a lightweight, but I don’t think you have to hit that hard to knock out Khan. Eventually, I think Barrera’s going to hit Khan hard enough that no amount of minor improvement on defense can keep him from going down again. I see the betting underdog Barrera winning by knockout at round 5 or thereabouts.