Every few weeks in boxing, it feels like we’re saying about the weekend’s upcoming match-up, “Not bad, for a replacement fight.” Or maybe it just seems that way because it has only been a few weeks between one replacement fight for a hotly anticipated rematch of a 2011 Fight of the Year candidate and another. Back then, it was Josesito Lopez-Ortiz replacing Ortiz-Andre Berto II; coming up this weekend, it’s Amir Khan-Danny Garcia on HBO replacing Lamont Peterson-Khan II.
Would that we be so lucky with this one as the last. Lopez-Ortiz had action potential, but it exceeded all hopes. Khan-Garcia is a fight that has less action potential, although it does have some. On paper it’s a more competitive match-up — between two top-five junior welterweights — than we expected with Lopez-Ortiz, although Lopez-Ortiz also exceeded all hopes competitively, too.
Khan has made himself quite unlovable after coming out of the Olympic gates with some goodwill to start his pro career, and estimations of his talent level are on the decline, also. Peterson exposed the limits of his punching power, and opened up new avenues of doubt about whether he was even very skilled in the art of boxing. Then, after he controversially lost and Peterson tested positive in the lead-up to the rematch for a banned substance, Khan whined and whined and whined in a six month whine-fest that made you wonder where he was finding all the time to whine about it all; perhaps he was talking in his sleep, and reporters just left their tape recorders near his bed?
Garcia has gotten his own bit of bad publicity in the build-up to this fight, courtesy his father/trainer’s jingoistic remarks about how Pakistanis can’t scrap, perhaps in an attempt to give the pre-fight build-up the air of unsanitary business that’s coated the David Haye-Dereck Chisora heavyweight clash. If anything could make people root for Khan all a sudden, it’s racist-y remarks like that. But the son has stayed out of it, at least. As for his boxing ability, he’s definitely been one of the “prospects to watch” for the last few years prior to graduating to contender status with wins over Kendall Holt and Erik Morales, but he’s taking a huge leap up in competition with this one. We’ll get a better sense of what he’s made of afterward.
Garcia is a fighter who lacks a clear identity, at least when it comes to the the usual boxing archetypes. He’s neither a boxer nor a brawler. He’s fast and powerful, but not overly either. He is competent at worst in all areas, but there’s not one thing he does that he hangs his hat on. Offensively, he loves jabbing to the body, setting up a long right hand with a little stutter step and countering with his left hook. He’ll do weird things, too, like throw three consecutive left hooks to the body while backing up. He had, for a while, been inconsistent, atrocious in one fight and looking like the goods in the next, but he’s found a little groove overall. He’ll still sometimes throw punches wider than he needs to, even within that groove, so he gets hit a decent amount, but defensively he has good reflexes so that saves him from some damage.
He’s been moved pretty well, too, I think. He had a scare against Ashley Theophane where some people think he deserved to lose, so they dialed back the competition some for a while until he regained his footing and they put him in against Holt when they thought he was ready. By that fight, Garcia was the steady, consistent one — although against Holt, that’s easy enough to do. His last fight was also excellently chosen, although I’m not sure to this day why Morales accepted it. Anyway, Garcia was the better physical specimen and that trumped Morales’ craftiness, but Garcia came out of that fight with a chance of being a 20 percent better fighter than before, such was the boxing lesson the grizzled, savvy vet Morales gave him.
Khan will be the better physical specimen this weekend, though. They don’t make very many fighters as quick as Khan. In early rounds, his speed is so overwhelming that it must feel like the X-Men’s Nightcrawler is BAMFing all over the place and delivering the punches, rather than a non-mutant not using teleportation. He’s a big boy for the division, too, although his usual height advantage isn’t so intense against Garcia, with just an inch of height and two inches reach separating them. His chin, once a liability, has solidified into, if not iron, at least cement — he suffered a ton of flush punches against Peterson (not a huge puncher, but not a bad one), and the fact that Khan never get hurt still surprises me. His power tends to thrive in the early rounds, when he connects flush on quick punches that his opponents can’t anticipate.
When opponents adjust to that speed — which they can do with intelligence, a la Peterson, or grit, a la Marcos Maidana, and an opponent’s own quickness helps, too — is when Khan gets in trouble. His defense had been much improved for a while, because he got his gloves up so quickly after punching and could dart out of harm’s way thereafter. But Peterson and Maidana have provided a blueprint for the kind of pressure that can catch up to Khan. If his opponents don’t wilt and are willing to take a few punches to get at him, he can be backed into corners. He has some tricks, even then, to avoid being trapped, like his good jab, holding, and shoving off his opponent. But once the referee in the Peterson fight cracked down on his pushing, Khan was far easier prey. Khan didn’t know how to fight on the inside, and Peterson did.
We know Khan is the more experienced fighter, and the better athlete. We don’t know whether he’s honed his craft to correct the problems that emerged in the Peterson fight, although we know that he and trainer Freddie Roach fixed the problems from his first loss, a shocking knockout at the hands of Breidis Prescott. We don’t know if Garcia can do the kind of things to Khan that Peterson did, but we do know he has some grit and intelligence and a touch of in-fighting ability. We do not know yet whether he has enough of all of it to counteract Khan’s physical advantages and any adjustments he’s made to his skillset.
I think this fight will end up being a solid bout, not a Fight of the Year candidate or even an honorable mention but a bout where there’s plenty of contact on both sides and possibly a close-ish decision on the cards. Khan should build an early lead, but Garcia should adjust and get competitive. As much as Khan has given us cause to doubt him, I’m still going to go with experience and ability over the plethora of unknowns on Garcia’s side. The prediction is Khan, by unanimous decision, with Garcia winning at least three rounds.