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The Soapbox – May 2, 2013

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The latest edition of “The Soapbox” comes from Gregory Link, who wrote to me in the aftermath of Amir Khan’s latest harrowing experience versus Julio Diaz in his homecoming to Sheffield this past weekend. Khan escaped with a close victory and was dumped to the canvas in the fourth and hurt again significantly in the 11th round.

While many rightly see flaws in Khan, our latest individual who steps onto “The Soapbox” sees something much different...

I just finished watching the Showtime broadcast of Amir Khan vs. Julio Diaz and a couple of things stood out:


1) I’m not one of the people who sees Virgil Hunter as an elite trainer. In my eyes, he hitched his wagon to a young amateur fighter in Andre Ward, with phenomenal physical gifts, and has created a fighter who doesn’t use all of his gifts and instead is a fighter who is not especially fun to watch. It’s like a Ferrari that does off-road racing. He makes fights ugly when he could create a masterpiece. And nothing I’ve seen from Hunter’s corner work has changed my opinion that he’s a novice compared to the more legendary figures of his profession...but that’s just my novice opinion, so take it for what it’s worth.
 
Anyway, it seems Khan’s camp brought Hunter on board to make Khan as safety-first, ugly and boring as possible. However, the reality is Khan is a gifted fighter with a questionable chin and his instinct when pressured is to swing, not clinch or move. Under Hunter’s style, Khan’s gifts are being muted and at the end of the day, his chin will always be a liability but by not enforcing his will, he’s sitting back and allowing a fighter like Diaz to press forward and have confidence and opportunity to get to him later in a fight when he will be tired, banged up and less likely to survive trouble. And when you accept that Khan’s instinct is to fight, especially when in trouble, he will create even more opportunity for his opponent. For some fighters, the best defense is a good offense and I think this describes Khan. The Freddie Roach Khan went right after Zab Judah and so enforced his will, showing Judah he was fast, strong and powerful that he took Judah’s heart in a sense. The Virgil Hunter Khan we saw last night would have allowed Judah to stay in the fight, emboldening Judah and increasing the likelihood that Judah would have gotten to Khan’s chin at some point. I think all the thinking behind making Khan a defensive fighter this late in the game will not only make him less compelling to watch but will also leave him far more vulnerable than his style under Roach. Khan is going to be hit and his chin will always be suspect, no matter how cautious, so isn’t it better for him to try and KO his opponent as fast as possible rather than let them hang around with more opportunity to hit him?
 
2) Al Bernstein made a comment that I think reveals the single biggest flaw in the boxing establishment’s idea of what sells boxing as a sport. Al said that if Diaz won, it would have signified the end of Khan’s career as a top-level fighter. It’s this same thinking that has led Floyd Mayweather to avoid any threat at all cost in his matchmaking. He seems to think retiring undefeated is more important than risking defeat in what could be career-defining fights. Now Floyd sells...but for every Floyd there is a Winky Wright, Sergio Martinez, Shane Mosley, etc. that didn’t. Mosley is instructive in that he finally became a draw AFTER his skills eroded and he became vulnerable.
 
Khan is supremely gifted...but he can be beaten. When I look at his recent stretch of fights, I see a fantastic fight with Peterson that could have gone either way and a barnburner with Garcia that he was basically dominating before he got caught, then last night’s back-and-forth battle with Diaz. Despite all his vulnerabilities, I absolutely believe he can beat any 140 pound fighter in the world or he could get knocked out and either way, it will be fun to watch. That’s exciting; that’s what the casual fan loves about boxing. Now as a hardcore fan, I love technical boxing like Guillermo Rigondeaux...but I never tell my casual fan friends that they have to watch him because I know the subtlety of boxing is an acquired taste. But take a guy like Jorge Linares and I’m telling all my buddies they need to watch because he is likely to bring a mix of skill and drama and will be fun to watch.
 
Boxing is in a unique position where it’s not a sport like the NBA or NFL, rather, it’s an athletic competition sold as an event. I think the executives at HBO and Showtime need to wake up to what really sells boxing. The relationship with promoters is a self-fulfilling prophecy. They rely on the promoter as matchmaker but with the understanding that they want undefeated stars, so of course, any smart promoter only wants to create the appearance of a legitimate contest when in reality, their interest is in protecting the “star,” which is what the network thinks sells. The networks should want to go into every fight trying to get the “name” fighter beat. That’s drama. A loss is never good but if done with style, heart and drama, then the losing fighter remains an attraction and boxing is built on attractions. If the networks assure the promoters that it’s OK to risk the big name because they will have just as much interest in him, win or lose, then the promoters understand that they have to start selling fights instead of fighters. I’ll pose this question using Virgil Hunter as the inspiration: On a Saturday in October, HBO and Showtime are going head to head. On HBO, Andre Ward is facing Mikkel Kessler and on Showtime, Amir Khan is facing Brandon Rios. Which fight are you watching and which fight are you recording? Which fight are you telling your buddies to watch?
 
I continue to think the boxing establishment misses what sells boxing to the general public. It’s not being undefeated and having alphabet championship belts; it’s about drama and excitement. It’s why Arturo Gatti was known to the general public and Winky Wright can walk down any street in the world without being asked for a single autograph...and I love Winky but it’s just reality. Marketing is marketing and drama beats skill every time. With a handful of exceptions, the great fight will always draw more fans than the great fighter.

Greg, as always, thanks for writing in. Your insights are always appreciated.

First of all, I agree with your sentiments on Hunter. Personally, while many others are drinking his philosophical Kool-Aid on the “Sweet Science,” like you, I see a guy whose track record as a head trainer beyond his signature fighter, Ward, is spotty at best. Hunter takes pride in making fights and fighters boring and he certainly likes to hear himself talk about that. But in two fights with Khan, you’re basically seeing the same guy and the same flaws, which honestly probably can’t be fixed by any trainer.

A bad chin is a bad chin.

But yeah, while everyone likes to point out the deficiencies of Khan (he still is a skittish amateur), how can you deny there isn’t an element of drama every time he steps into the squared circle? To me, he’s a like a Flying Wallenda, a tightrope artist who, with one wrong step or stiff breeze, will come crashing down with tragic results. He simply works with no safety net in there. Khan can’t make a lot of mistakes. As I said in a recent article (http://www.maxboxing.com/news/sub-lead/azad-championship-report---saturday-night-fever), Khan is that hurler in baseball who could be dealing a perfect game, then give up the proverbial 10-run home run and end up losing.

The beauty of Khan is in his imperfection as you point out, Greg. He can literally beat and lose to anyone he faces on any given night. And with that comes compelling TV. It was once said there was no room in boxing for perfection (and I believe it related to the technically sound but dull Harold Johnson, an accomplished light heavyweight of the past). Khan has an abundance of speed, good legs and quick hands. However, he has problems controlling his speed and can become reckless. He’s as gifted as he is tragically flawed. In that sense, he’s almost like a character in Greek mythology.

But other than perhaps his bout with Paul McCloskey, a difficult and pesky southpaw, how many bad fights has Khan been involved in on HBO or Showtime?

Not many.

And that’s a good thing.

Like yourself and many others, I don’t watch boxing to see who can go 50-0 and earn a place on pound-for-pound lists and then face handpicked foes to keep that status. I watch for the drama and excitement that a prizefight can bring. Last I checked, this is the entertainment business. If I wanted to admire pristine works of art which are untouched and unblemished, I’d go to a museum (yeah, shame on me/ I’m not a “purist”).

Yeah, Khan can be off-putting with his arrogance (which I’m still not clear if it’s intended or not) or with his maddening lack of self-awareness but he should certainly be lauded for the moments he’s given boxing fans. No, he isn’t perfect by any stretch.

But we should all learn to appreciate that.

FINAL FLURRIES

The card last week at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn featuring Danny Garcia vs. Zab Judah had 11,324 paid for a gate of just over $832,000...Speaking of that card, Showtime had an average of 558,800 average viewers for that card and peaked at 831,000 during the main event...This Saturday afternoon, Epix (4:30 p.m., ET) will televise Wladimir Klitschko’s defense of his heavyweight title versus Francesco Pianeta from Germany...Has the Golden State-Denver series been great or what?...The June 15th card featuring Mikey Garcia vs. Juan Manuel Lopez on HBO could be taking place in Dallas at the American Airlines Arena (home of the Mavericks)...Till the Clippers get Chris Paul some more help in the half-court (which means Blake Griffin must develop a true post-game), they are nothing more than a fun team for the regular season...So is Mike Scioscia on the hot seat yet? Another dreadfully slow start for the Angels...Is that grandmother from House Tyrell in “Game of Thrones” hilarious or what?...

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