Amir Khan is like a puppy chewing on a hand grenade: He’s a threat to anyone who comes near him but he’s just as likely to blow himself to high hell in the process. His ability to create dangerous situations for his opponent is rivaled only by the more precarious ones he creates for himself.
They say tragedy plus time equals comedy. In boxing, heavy hands plus a weak chin equals excitement and Khan has both in spades. His ceiling has always been as high as his floor is low but god damn if it’s not compelling drama that unfolds on the floors in between.
By now we’re all familiar with the peaks and valleys of the Amir Khan story. Olympic star, highly touted prospect, one punch knockout loss to Breidis Prescott, gutsy wins over Marcos Maidana and Devon Alexander, put into orbit by Canelo Alvarez, multiple cartoonish knockdowns and a thousand cringe-worthy tabloid stories in between. He managed to put a little bit of it all on display on Saturday night in Birmingham against Samuel Vargas.
Vargas (29-4-2, 14 KOs) wasn’t ranked in any self-respecting person’s top 20 at welterweight and his most notable fights were knockout losses to Danny Garcia and Errol Spence, Jr. He’s the classic “tough but limited” fighter that can get you rounds and pad your stats but when you have a balsa wood chin and no apparent desire or ability to protect it, anyone across the ring is a threat. Vargas quickly proved that to be true.
Khan opened with a couple deep cuts off his first album to get the crowd warmed up. He played “circle and potshot” followed by “uppercuts on the inside.” A nice opening salvo to be sure, but when the bell for the 2nd round rang Khan whipped out the crowd-pleasing hits everyone came for.
Early in the round Khan landed a bombshell right hand to Vargas’ temple that sent him crumpling to the canvas and onto his, almost assuredly tattooed, ass. For a normal artist this would be the part of the set where they capitalize on the excitement of the crowd and set out to close the show with a bang. But Amir Khan is not your normal performer. Longtime Khan fans know this is the part of the show where everything goes to shit and, my friend, to shit it almost did go.
As the final seconds ticked away in the round, Khan pulled a Khan and backed up with his hands down while absorbing an overhand right from Vargas directly on the tip of the papier-mâché art project he calls a chin. He jumped to his feet and, like a drunk attempting to un-twist his tongue long enough to con one last drink out of the bartender, shook his head and shrugged to the ref as his equilibrium played a game of three card monty with his legs. His lower body eventually steadied but he couldn’t have been any more saved by the bell if freakin’ Mr. Belding had rung it himself.
As the 3rd round started, the sense of impending doom was palpable. Khan came out cautious as Vargas attempted to capitalize on having Amir Khan being born with a self-destruct button growing out of his head. Khan’s footwork kept him on the move and the occasional jab kept Vargas at bay. As the round ended it was clear Vargas had missed his chance but if you’ve seen Khan in concert before you know that another one was certain to come.
Khan continued the hit parade in round 4 with his classic “rabbit-punch-induced knockdown followed by premature celebration.” The ref fudged his solo by giving Vargas a half-ass count and he wouldn’t get another chance at redemption as Khan moved to the acoustic solo portion of the set.
The middle rounds were basically the star of the show tuning his instrument on stage which, under normal circumstances, would be pretty boring but this is Khan we’re talking about here and breaking a string that then whips him in the eye and sends him stumbling into a row of pyrotechnics that malfunction and set fire to the entire arena is never out of the question.
Watching Barry Bonds hit balls off a tee would get boring to even the most ardent baseball fan but watching him do it naked and drunk with a child’s light saber toy for a bat would be endless fun for anyone. Khan is a naked, drunk Barry Bonds hitting balls off a tee with a light saber.
Anything can happen when Khan is in a ring and even if it doesn’t isn’t that feeling of anticipatory dread half the reason we tune in to this sport? Most fights are pretty easy to telegraph after a few rounds and most fighters are either good or bad enough that we know what the outcome is going to be before the fight even starts.
For all the shit he gets on social media and beyond, Khan is preternaturally gifted. He has handspeed that lesser fighters would kill for and the power that you’re either born with or you aren’t. Most aren’t. He has the charm and looks of a matinee idol and that unidentifiable star quality that promoters spend a lifetime searching for. But all these physical gifts are useless if your chin can’t withstand a light breeze. Khan will always be handicapped by these limitations but he seems determined not to be deterred by them.
I’m sure there’s some explanation for why this was a 12 round fight when no titles were on the line – my guess involves a combination sorcery and Britishness – but as the “championship” rounds began the desire to close the show in style for Khan became apparent. For a normal fighter that would mean a knockout victory but again, this is Amir Khan so any outcome between stopping his opponent and himself waking up in 30 years in the future after being knocked into a super-coma is on the table.
Alas, the big finale never came and an encore wasn’t necessary. When the scorecards were announced they were largely academic. Like a punk band playing a country bar on the wrong side of the Mason-Dixon Line, he dodged a few projectiles and survived a brief power outage but ultimately won the crowd over with by giving them what they came for: a show.
After the fight Khan called out Manny Pacquiao, which yeah, sure, whatever. Ten years ago that’s a crime scene but today it’s probably even money. Pacquiao’s skills have eroded to the point where Khan’s have likely surpassed them. Manny’s hands aren’t as fast or heavy as they once were but, for last time god damn time, this Amir Khan we’re talking about. If Pacquiao finds his chin, it’s lights out. If he finds Pacquiao’s? The show likely goes on.
Because here’s the thing about Khan: He’s been knocked down 377 times in his career but he’s never really been beaten up. If you were to watch a video of all the times Amir Khan has been dropped you would A) have to put on a pot of coffee because that’s your whole morning right there but B) notice that they’re almost all one-punch knockdowns. He gets hit but in a weird way his soft, nougat-like chin saves him from prolonged punishment.
It’s the slow, drawn out beatings that get you in the Pudding of the Month club in your later years, not the flash, sudden death ones. That’s a roundabout way of saying that Khan can do this for as long as his pride will allow him. And for all the cartoonish buffoonery in his personal life, we should appreciate the unpredictable adrenaline porn he creates for us while he’s here.
When the Amir Khan story ultimately ends, it will be one marred by physical limitations and unrealized potential. But god damn if it won’t be an exciting one and isn’t that kinda sorta what this godforsaken sport is about.