Is Khan ready for Barrera?
Amir Khan, shown here on the canvas after being dropped by Breidis Prescott in his shocking first-round KO loss last September, will attempt to prove that he's matured since that setback when he fights Marco Antonio Barrera March 14. Photo by Mike Cleary/ hoganphotos.com
The players of the Bolton Wanderers soccer team wondered if they were on the receiving end of an elaborate joke.
As they waited in the departure lounge of Bourgas Airport, on the Black Sea coast of Bulgaria, a young man carrying a team jersey floated amongst them. With impeccable manners, the teenager introduced himself to each squad member, and politely asked them to sign the shirt he carried with a black felt pen.
The Bolton players, returning from a European match against Bulgarian team Lokomotiv Plovdiv, exchanged a few puzzled glances before dutifully scrawling their names and shaking hands with the young fan.
But this was no ordinary wide-eyed autograph hunter. It was Amir Khan, Olympic silver medalist, future world title hopeful and a British sports figure more famous and recognizable than virtually every member of the Bolton club.
“We wondered if it was for real,” said Ian Walker, the team’s goalkeeper. “It is not every day you get a well-known figure like him coming up and asking for your autograph. But it was completely genuine; he is a big fan of the club and wanted the shirt for his wall.”
That was three-and-a-half years ago, when life was still simple and rosy for Khan, the lightweight prospect Britain then expected to forge an inexorable path to greatness.
A year removed from his efforts at the Olympics in Athens, when he lost in the final to Cuban Mario Kindelan, Khan was on the fast track to success.
That he was somewhat in awe of his Bolton idols was pleasing to witness, proof that the post-Olympic attention had not stripped away his humility.
It had been similar situation in Athens, where British team members told how he walked around the Games Village in a utopian daze as global stars surrounded him, before shedding all his nerves the second he stepped into the ring.
As he prepares for the biggest night of his young career on March 14, Khan’s followers will be praying he has lost his tendency to get star-struck.
Marco Antonio Barrera is not the sensational warrior of his prime, yet the Mexican still poses a huge test for a chinny 22 year old still unproven at elite level.
Victory over Barrera at the MEN Arena would likely propel Khan to a world title shot later this year, though defeat would deal a crushing blow to his fledgling career.
Khan had wanted to win a world title while still 21. Instead, he suffered his first loss, a crushing 54-second demolition at the hands of undefeated Colombian Breidis Prescott.
His jaw had been regarded as suspect for some time, yet it took a blistering flurry from Prescott to expose its weakness fully.
“Khan is a good fighter but I think he under-estimated me,” said Prescott. “I don’t think he saw me as someone who could reach the top in this division. Maybe we will meet again in the future.”
The danger of being overawed by celebrity may have been conquered by recently by the new environment in which Khan has immersed himself.
Working out of Freddie Roach’s Wild Card Boxing Club in Hollywood, Calif., afforded Khan not only the opportunity to be guided by one of the best trainers in the business, but also to operate among top-level company.
He sparred with Manny Pacquiao in the lead-up to the pound-for-pound king’s victory over Oscar De La Hoya and impressed the Filipino.
“He has fast hands and good feet,” said Pacquaio in a recent interview on Filipino television. “But most of all he has a good mentality, that is why he is a good person for me to have around.”
Khan certainly looks a better-rounded fighter than when he lost to Prescott and cast his future into doubt.
“Amir has the tools,” said Roach. “He is learning all the time, about himself and about what he can do in the ring. If he does things the right way and listens to me he will beat Barrera and take his career a level forward.”
However, the Brit will need to be at his best next month, even if his promoter Frank Warren is banking on Barrera being a shot fighter. Barrera is still a name in England, having shattered Naseem Hamed’s career eight years ago and the match-up will generate big interest.
The bout was temporarily thrown into doubt when Barrera suffered a nasty cut in a warm-up fight against Freudis Rojas in Mexico.
However, Barrera's promoter Don King was adamant the damage would not be an issue. “I would not put Barrera in this fight if he was not ready,” said King. “Once he got cleared by the doctor, he said, 'I am in it to win it.' The more handicapped they think he is, the more ferocious he will be.”
This will be the biggest test of Khan’s career and while he needs to respect Barrera he must not be cowed by his reputation.
“I'm ready for this fight,” said Khan. “If I wasn't ready I wouldn't take it. I have tasted defeat and I am not frightened of anything. I have seen the mistakes in the Prescott fight and I will never make them again.”