Khan’s KO loss: red flag or just bad luck?
One question about Amir Khan might hover over the junior welterweight contender for some time: Can he take a punch?
The gifted Englishman is known to have been wobbled more than once against anonymous sparring partners. And a red flag shot up the moment Breidis Prescott’s big left hand hit Khan’s chin the first time in September, leading to a brutal first-round knockout.
Recently, Freddie Roach, Khan’s new trainer, said he doesn’t believe the young fighter has a weak chin. And even if he did, Roach said, it can be protected.
Can a weak chin be protected?
I asked that question of three trainers with no connection to Khan and also sought their thoughts on whether sticking Khan with a glass-jaw label is fair.
They all responded “yes” to the first question, saying good defense and other techniques can protect a fighter who might be particularly vulnerable to a good punch. And while they’ve heard the rumblings about his sparring sessions, they want to give him the benefit of the doubt at the moment.
Khan, who has won two straight since the KO, faces WBA titleholder Andreas Kotelnik on Saturday in Manchester, England.
“I don’t really think you can say he has a bad chin,” said Robert Garcia, the former titleholder who now trains Brian Viloria, among others. “It’s not like he’s been dropped every time he fights. He got caught. It happens to a lot of fighters.
“It was a bad day, a bad moment. I definitely believe he’s going to be a great fighter and a great champion. I think he’ll be careful now. And I’m sure Freddie is working with him on his defense.”
Fighters have used various techniques to protect their chins.
For example, they are wise to warm up sufficiently before they step into the ring; so many who don’t are caught cold. Some fighters tuck their chins tightly into their chests to protect them. Oscar De La Hoya always did that.
Some believe that keeping your mouth closed helps. And many fighters build up their necks to give their heads a more-solid base, although there might be drawbacks to that.
“I’ve seen guys strengthen their neck to take a shot better but then their necks get too big and they take more shots because they can’t move their head out of the way. It’s a catch 22,” said Naazim Richardson, trainer of Bernard Hopkins, Shane Mosley and others.
Obviously, the best way to protect a chin is not to get hit.
Khan is a quick, skillful boxer. And he’s in good hands with one of the most-respected trainers in the world, Roach, who undoubtedly will teach him ways to tighten his defense and suggest game plans to minimize risk.
The memory of his momentum-killing knockout loss also will serve as a motivating factor. It has with other fighters.
Henry Ramirez, Chris Arreola’s trainer, mentioned another talented fighter who was said to have a weak chin, Terry Norris, although he was stopped only twice — by big punchers Julian Jackson and Simon Brown — in his prime.
Brown put Norris flat on his back and out in the fourth round of a 1993 match, the upset of the year. In the rematch five months later, Norris, more defensive minded, fought carefully but efficiently to win a one-sided decision and regain the belt he lost in the first fight.
“Simon couldn’t touch him,” Ramirez said.
Richardson brought up the quick and athletic Roy Jones Jr. Jones was so elusive for most his career that he rarely if ever took solid punches. Then, when he began to slow down, his defensive skills faded and he became vulnerable.
We know what happened against Antonio Tarver and Glen Johnson. The lights went out.
“He might’ve had that chin his whole career and we didn’t know it because he never got hit like that,” Richardson said.
Richardson also believes another fighter whose chin has been deemed shaky — Wladimir Klitschko — is a prime example of how good defense can make that perceived liability moot.
“I tell people that Klitschko is one of the greatest heavyweights of all time,” he said, fully aware that such a statement takes many by surprise. “They laugh at me and say, ‘What?’ I say, ‘Yeah, I rank him up there with the Alis and the Foremans.’ Why? He’s had 57 fights and is the reigning heavyweight champion even though he doesn’t have a great chin. How in the world do you dominate the heavyweight division with no chin? Do you know how good you have to be to do that? ÔÇª
“The last fight with (Ruslan) Chagaev is as close to perfect as you can get. He kept the No. 3-ranked heavyweight from landing a clean shot the entire fight.”
So what are we to expect from Khan?
As Garcia said, there is no question about his talent. And each of the trainers said it is important not to read too much into his one major setback.
One, Prescott — with 18 knockouts in 21 fights — is a very big puncher. He has and will continue to hurt the majority of those he faces. Some wonder whether Khan was the victim of both some big punches and bad matchmaking.
Two, Ramirez pointed out that Khan was better off suffering a first-round knockout than taking a beating for 10 rounds. As it is, Khan can say to himself, “Hey, I got caught. It could happen to anybody. I won’t let that happen again.”
And, three, Khan is still a young fighter whose strengths and weaknesses will become clearer as he advances. It’s too early to draw conclusions.
“Manny Pacquiao is the perfect example,” Garcia said. “He was knocked out a few times. Now he’s fighting welterweights and he’s unstoppable. Just because you get knocked out doesn’t mean you have a weak chin.
“Train hard. Work on your defense. You won’t get hurt.”
Michael Rosenthal’s column appears Wednesdays. He can be reached at [email protected]