NEW YORK — It was just before 7 p.m. when I reached Bob Arum, his raspy voice subdued, undoubtedly from the handful of phone calls he had fielded from reporters asking the very same question I was about to ask him myself. Earlier in the day, a report out of the U.K. declared that a fight between Manny Pacquiao and Amir Khan was a done deal. Arum was left to let everyone know that it was not.
“There is no deal,” Arum told me. “I’ve been talking to [Khan’s] lawyer and his uncle. They have been good conversations. But there are no contracts, no nothing. Manny still has to decide who he wants to fight. And we still have to see what happens Nov. 7 between [Tim] Bradley and [Brandon] Rios.”
I believe Arum. The Daily Mail is often wrong, at least when it comes to boxing, and its entire report is based largely on a quote from Khan’s father, Shah Khan, who stated that Khan had agreed to all terms. Left unsaid—and still unknown, frankly—is if Pacquiao is agreeable to the fight. And Pacquaio, Arum said, is still considering all of his options.
Choosing Pacquiao’s next opponent puts Arum in an interesting position. He claims that Pacquiao’s next fight will be his last, that he will fight in the early spring, probably in April, and then beeline back to the Philippines to run for the senate, a prelude to a likely eventual run for president. Arum says this with conviction, but it’s hard to think he really believes it. There has been an expiration date on Pacquiao’s career for years, a date that keeps getting pushed back with each passing one. Sure, Pacquiao will have more responsibilities as a Filipino senator than he did as a Congressman. But his money problems are well documented and elected officials in the island country treat Pacquiao fights like bachelor parties; think they won’t encourage him to keep his highly lucrative career going?
Besides, if Arum did believe this was Pacquiao’s farewell, there would only be one logical opponent. Terence Crawford, the reigning junior welterweight champion, an HBO darling who has rocketed up the pound-for-pound rankings. Top Rank is heavily invested in Crawford; the company has zero investment in Khan, whose career is guided by Arum’s archrival, Al Haymon. In theory, Pacquiao could do for Crawford what Oscar De La Hoya did for him. He could be a king maker, sharing his audience with Crawford, elevating Crawford’s career to the next level.
With Pacquiao gone, Top Rank would have a new tentpole fighter ready to headline a pay-per-view. If Pacquiao is gone. And we have come to Arum’s problem. Crawford can beat Pacquiao. Heck, Crawford might even be favored against Pacquiao. Pacquiao turns 37 next month and will be nearly a year removed from shoulder surgery when he gets back in the ring. He hasn’t knocked anyone out in five years and was handled pretty easily by Floyd Mayweather last May, albeit in a fight he went into with an injured shoulder. Crawford’s resume isn’t as thick with big names as Pacquiao’s, but he has steamrolled a steady stream of B-level opponents and, at 28, is in his prime.
Arum gets this. He has to. It’s probably why he is negotiating with Khan in the first place. Khan is the more popular fighter, though he has picked at the bone of popularity earned mostly during a two-year run that began in 2010. Since getting flattened by Danny Garcia in 2012, Khan has fought a parade of journeymen; his most impressive win was a 2014 decision over Devon Alexander, a victory that looks less impressive by the day. Khan’s name has stayed in the news thanks to a public courtship of Mayweather, but he has done little recently to earn a shot at the biggest star left in the sport.
Arum has to be counting on that. He’s counting on Khan to deliver PPV buys, to generate worldwide interest, to spark something in the average fan that might still remember him … and lose. No doubt, Khan is solid, but if Pacquiao has any pop left on his punches, Khan’s suspect chin is more likely to shatter than Crawford’s sturdy one.
It’s a dilemma. Fight Khan, and be better positioned to preserve Pacquiao’s declining marketability for another fight or two in the future. Fight Crawford, and potentially anoint a future star while running the big risk of ending Pacquiao’s career, whether he wants it to be over or not.