Ultra-gifted Amir Khan will try Saturday on HBO against Lamont Peterson to put the finishing touches on a 2011 that could make him a Fighter of the Year finalist. Khan already has wins over Paul McCloskey and Zab Judah, good competition in the junior welterweight division to be sure, but that beating the trio of McCloskey, Judah and Peterson is a Fighter of the Year-worthy campaign says more about how weak the contenders for the honor are in 2011. However he comes by it, the publicity accompanying him winning that mythical crown would do wonders for Khan, already a fighter who has proven to do excellent ratings on television in the United States but yet to draw much of a crowd. It would be the next logical step in the career of a fighter who emerged from the Olympics with high expectations, who dashed those expectations with a stunning upset knockout loss, and who rebuilt himself into a boxer whom some (including myself) would give Floyd Mayweather, Jr. a stiffer test than anyone at 147 lbs. or below.
Peterson? He’s going to be trying to get the win against a top-notch opponent that has been just out of grasp so far. He battled Timothy Bradley about as hard as Bradley had ever been battled, but came up short. He rallied late against Victor Ortiz to win over the judges enough to secure a dubious draw. He put himself in position for another shot at a big name with a drubbing of Victor Cayo, a good fighter but not anyone in the class of Bradley, Ortiz and certainly not Khan.
Even though Khan is a boxing “cutie,” he’s not as shy about attacking as some of them, and Peterson is kind of like a more rudimentary but more aggressive Mayweather. That means this fight stacks up as a boxing-friendly, action-friendly two-in-one. And Khan’s trainer Freddie Roach has been pretty vocal about worrying about what Peterson brings to the table that past Khan opponents haven’t. It’s the kind of fight where the favorite is the favorite for a good reason, and an upset would be highly surprising, but it’s also the kind of fight where you can see the underdog pulling it off.
Khan oozes talent, is the problem for Peterson. Khan owns arguably the fastest hands in the sport, and his size, footwork, defense and amateur pedigree makes him hard to handle. His last opponent, Judah, had basically convinced everyone he was “back” from a long stretch in the boxing wilderness based on a trainer switch, new attitude and a couple decent wins, but ultimately he wasn’t. It was nonetheless impressive to watch how utterly Khan dominated Judah, whose own handspeed was thought to be potentially troubling to Khan. Nope. Khan was faster, smarter and tougher. He works his jab and right hand and combinations and gets his gloves back up quickly and controls range against opponents he usually towers over far too well for most anyone, let alone the Judahs of the world.
By way of flaws, the “Khan can’t take a punch” line of talk hasn’t been heard for a while. It was last December, really, that it last re-emerged, and even then it got was shoved back down a fair amount. Khan got rocked badly by Marcos Maidana, one of the hardest pound-for-pound punchers in the sport. But he stayed on his feet, and Judah — himself possessing of one-punch knockout power — couldn’t dent Khan at all with what little connected. There also has been a bit of inconsistency, though, like his shoddy performance against McCloskey, and at age 25, you get the impression that he hasn’t ironed out all the kinks.
Peterson himself offers much to like. He is relatively fast and hits relatively hard, but what stands out about him is that he’s a clever boxer. It’s rare that you a see a tall, lanky fighter like Peterson (he’s 5’9″ with a 74″ reach, one inch shorter and three inches longer than Khan, respectively; that size worries Roach) who’s so comfortable boxing from the outside and the inside. He’s very good at making adjustments based on what his opponent shows him; he tends to get better as fights go on, and if you throw him a different look, you can only temporarily disrupt his rhythm with it. Bradley beat him by knocking him down early and out-hustling him, but Peterson ended the fight better than he started it. Ortiz knocked Peterson down early, too, but Peterson eventually figured him out and started countering him and timing him at will. Cayo did all right early, but Peterson stopped him in the end.
Peterson will come in with a lower work rate than Khan, less speed and worse defense. (Peterson has a tendency to drop his hands from time to time.) He’ll have to get the work rate thing figured out and sharpen up the defense, especially since the punches are going to be coming at a faster velocity than he’s ever encountered. But he’s got a better combination of size and smarts than Khan has faced thus far, and combined with his physical qualities and own show of toughness in getting up from the Bradley and Ortiz knockdowns, that makes him a formidable foe for anyone in the division, including Khan, it’s #1 man according to Ring Magazine’s ratings. Peterson himself ranks #6.
It’s quite likely that Khan gets hit more in this fight than he did against McCloskey and Judah, because Peterson is capable of figuring out how to do it even if he doesn’t right away. But it’s less likely that Peterson does it early and often enough to make a difference. It’s a bold move on Khan’s part that he’s fighting in Peterson’s backyard of Washington, D.C., because hometown fighters tend to get the benefit of the doubt on the scorecards. But I see this as more of a clear, nine rounds to three style victory that would be hard for a judge to swing Peterson’s way. Khan should win by decision, but Peterson won’t make it easy on him.