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Virgil Hunter: "If Khan wants a stay of execution, he will have to maintain his composure"
2011 Trainer of the Year Virgil Hunter has proven what many always question in a trainer of merit: he can mold from a fighter from scratch. The trainer of Andre Ward, Olympic gold medalist and current super middleweight kingpin, Hunter is now enjoying the kind of credit and name recognition that years of hard won lessons inside Hunter’s King’s Gym in Oakland, CA. have yielded. Hunter’s last name is apt. He speaks of the ring as “terrain” and of his fighters’ opponents as prey, spouting casually “The Art of War”, military strategy and fighting philosophy learned and developed over a lifetime spent observing, learning from and teaching fighters.
On Saturday at the Los Angeles Sports Arena, Hunter will get to display another facet of a trainer’s many challenges: the reclamation of a fighter coming off a loss. Like Emanuel Steward who brought Lennox Lewis and Wladimir Klitschko back from devastating knockout losses (both men had two such losses apiece) Hunter will attempt to bring Amir Khan back and then forward from his second knockout loss and third overall.
Amir Khan has all the tools to win any fight. At 5’10” with a 71” reach, Khan is taller and longer than most 140 pounders. Against his opponent on Saturday, the game but 135 pounder Carlos Molina, (17-0, 7 KOs), Khan will enjoy a 4” height advantage. Khan also possesses the fastest hands I’d seen at the Wild card when he trained there under Freddie Roach. His power, while not devastating, could be set up by his technically sound combinations and speed. Khan’s footwork, while amateurish in that he sometimes moves too much and without purpose, burning much needed later rounds energy, is sound and quick. Long to medium range are his best games and he’s uncomfortable in physical fights that move to the inside.
Khan’s first loss came against unheralded Breidis Prescott back in 2008. Khan was caught cold in the first minute of the fight and knocked out soon after. While he didn’t lose complete consciousness, he was badly hurt and the fight ended in shocking fashion. However, he was caught cold and it could have happened to anyone. One fight later, Khan fired his head trainer and moved to Hollywood’s Wild Card Boxing Club where Freddie Roach and Manny Pacqauio were enjoying their greatest successes.
For a time, Roach and Khan seemed to work. Together they picked up belts at 135 and 140 and beat the likes of Marcos Maidana (despite a late scare when Khan was hurt badly by a surging Maidana. He survived to win by decision), an aging Marco Antonio Barrera, Paulie Malignaggi, and Zab Judah among others.
Khan was picking up momentum and discussing fights with the likes of Floyd Mayweather Jr.
Las December, Khan lost to his mandatory defense Lamont Peterson via split decision in a rough and tumble twelve round fight. The outcome was protested by Khan’s people, claiming hometown bias as the fight was held in Peterson’s hometown of Washington, D.C. Months later in the lead-in to the rematch with Peterson it was discovered through anti-doping tests conducted by the Voluntary Anti-Doping Association discovered synthetic testosterone in Peterson’s system. He later revealed he had received a synthetic testosterone pellet injection before the first fight. No penalty has ever been levied on him for that admission or the positive test.
Khan moved forward, fighting Danny Garcia. He was winning handily through much of four rounds, pasting Garcia with right and lefts. Khan has a jackhammer jab when he wants to employ it. He did against at times against Garcia and cut him in the second round.
But in the third stanza, Garcia began adjusting to Khan’s all-out speed attack and started punching with him. Once Garcia figured out he could land his left hook if he just kept punching with Khan instead of waiting to counter, it was over. A brutal left hook landed on Amir’s neck and ear area and down he went in a discombobulated heap.
Credit to the man, Khan rose bravely and fought hard through two more knockdowns in the fourth before referee Kenny Bayless halted the bout after Khan appeared concussed following his rise from the third knockdown.
Suddenly, talk of Mayweather went out the window. So did Khan’s whole approach. But rather than return to the U.K. to look for his roots and a new path to the top, Khan went to Oakland to work with arguably the hottest trainer in boxing, Virgil Hunter.
Hunter always has a slant on a traditional idea that translates into his fighters viewing the ring world just a little bit differently than the rest of us. Like when I related meeting Khan for the first time on his first day at Wild Card following the Prescott loss.
He was hitting the speed bag. We’d interviewed already while he had his hands wrapped and he was now finishing up. I came back for one more question, asking if he wanted revenge with Prescott.
He stopped and said into my eyes, “Absolutely. I have the heart of a lion.”
I immediately believed him. I related this to Hunter who explained it is better to have the brain of a lion than an overly brave heart. Lions don’t rush into danger without checking out the terrain first. They certainly don’t stick around in the pocket after a combo and let a guy land the left hook he has been trying to all night.
So Khan went from the sunny climes of SoCal to the familiar rainy weather of Northern Cali’s Oakland. From the glitz of Hollywood and the hubbub of the Wild Card to the no-frills all business King’s Gym.
When we first spoke of Khan, Hunter described him as a leopard that had yet to understand how his speed truly worked. It doesn’t always have to be top speed. Changing gears can be essential in confusing an opponent and making him do what you want him to.
“Getting the speed under the control was really a matter of getting into his mind that if he wasn’t in a hurry, he’d see the terrain better,” Hunter told Wednesday in L.A. at the final press conference for the Showtime televised bout. “So as he began to spar and do certain things in sparring he had never done before and saw them work, he embraced it. He’s not lost in his speed. He knows when to use it and when not to use it. He is more relaxed in the ring, which makes him to me, more lethal.”
In a training camp featuring the likes of Andre Ward, Alfredo Angulo, Fernando Guerrero, Mike Dallas, Jr, Karim Mayfield and Brandon Gonzalez among others, Khan is learning all kinds of new things. Hunter has always taken the approach that the fighter themselves will teach him how to teach them. He spends time getting to know them, imparting philosophies and techniques to think about. But he first observes their habits in the gym and the ring.
“Why take five steps when you can take one?” asked Hunter when I asked him about Khan’s habit of expending too much energy through movement. “Again that comes from being an excellent fighter but not having the understanding of a boxer. You don’t waste steps. There’s a reason why you take a half step back or a full step back. There’s a reason why you walk away. These are philosophies I’ve conveyed to him that are astounding me he’s never heard or embraced before. They are benefiting him. I told, whatever I tell you, whatever I suggest to you is going to work. You will see it work because I am not going to tell you anything that is going to go against the grain of your abilities.”
In the losses to Peterson and Garcia and the scary late moments with Maidana, Khan was roughed up in fights that became more street than squared circle. In Oakland, home of Andre “Inside Fighting Master” Ward and his teacher, Khan is learning a thing or two about how what to do when things go inside.
“I think over a period, though it’s not really necessary for this fight, there are a couple things that we worked on in the inside,” Hunter explained. “He definitely has to protect on the infighting. Most of it is understanding right where he needs to be. [Khan] needs to understand when to fight inside, why he is fighting inside. Any fighter with natural ability can adapt. I think he will surprise people because he is someone who can come inside. He just didn’t know what to do.”
That much is evident in the last stages of the Garcia fight and in parts of the Peterson fight. When things get rough, Khan pushes away or moves inside partially while squared up and in a kind of no man’s land that allows him to get hit with big shots he can’t defend properly. It’s what got him dropped that first time against Garcia in a fight he was winning.
In some ways it sounds like Hunter is simply sharpening or tightening what Khan already had all along.
“It’s actually safer inside,” said Hunter. “You have to convince the fighter because early on it don’t make sense to him. Once he gets on the inside he understands he has more control. He is safer there. Then he gets relaxed and then they can exhibit the type of ability that they have. He’s not all the way there yet but he can throw a couple shots to the body that can definitely hurt you if he hits you with them. He can hurt you to the body even though he is not what you would call an infighter.”
In looking at the opponent, Carlos Molina, a solid all-around fighter with not much pop but a commitment to his technically sound punches but who is also a mere lightweight, Hunter said “What I am looking for in Molina is a fighter who is going to fight a little over his head. If he stays within himself, where he is in 18 fights, this in his backyard. He’s got a lot of pressure to win. He’s got more pressure on him than Amir does.”
At Wednesday’s press conference, Molina, who hails from Los Angeles, essentially said he was going to make the bout a street fight wherein he would defend his neighborhood. It is very clear this is Super Bowl. Molina believes he can win and his conditioning and overall demeanor display that.
Hunter feels he saw a key into Molina’s mental pressure.
“He said it himself. He gave it away himself,” said Hunter. “[Molina] said he is representing the ‘hood. Well the ‘hood make some real punk demands on you. ‘Either you’re a punk or you ain’t. Don’t let this Arab whoop you.’ You know, the ‘hood makes some real serious demands on you. So if [Molina] wants to continue to walk in that ‘hood as a hero, then he is going to have to come out of him so that’s what is going to make it dangerous for him. [Molina] has pressure to perform.”
Make no mistake, Amir Khan is not exactly on easy street in this fight. Molina is tough, game, and he has a crisp inside left hook to the body and head. If there is still weakness in Khan’s defense, Molina is likely to find it. He’s a smart, well-schooled fighter in the best shape of his life fighting in his hometown. He’s capable of doing some things.
A lot rides on this win for Khan and Hunter understands this. The challenge was always clear for Hunter. He welcomes it. Saturday night, we’ll see at the very least, the beginnings of those results.
“[Amir’s] got an execution date, too,” Hunter said. “If he wants a stay of execution, he will have to maintain his composure. Look, anybody who fights Amir Khan or intends to knock Amir Khan out, has got to be willing to take a beating to do it. You’re going to get hit when you fight Amir Khan. You’re going to get hit hard. You’re going to get hit often. So if you are willing to take a beating and try and knock him then that’s more power to you. The thing is that now that [Amir] understands that he can put a beating on you without putting himself in harm’s way, it’s going to make him a little bit more difficult to deal with.”
You can email Gabriel at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/gabriel_montoya and catch him every Monday on “The Next Round” with Steve Kim. You can also tune in to hear him and co-host David Duenez live on the BlogTalk radio show Leave-It-In-The-Ring.com, Thursdays at 5-8 p.m., PST.
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