The old expression is "styles make fights," and that's true, of course. But what makes truly compelling fights is what's at stake. The Dec. 11 Amir Khan-Marcos Maidana super lightweight title bout at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas offered both a high-stakes match-up and a highly intriguing conflux in styles. The result was a dramatic and highly entertaining 12 rounds that ended up elevating both men and earning a real claim as Fight of the Year for 2010.
Khan came into the bout as one of the most-watched figures in the sport. A handsome, dynamic Englishman of Pakistani descent, just 24 years old, with a record of 24-1 (17 KOs), an Olympic silver medal from 2004 and an enormous following in his native Britain, King Khan (a/k/a The Pride of Bolton and Lightning Khan -- that's three nicknames already!) was coming off five impressive wins and seemed poised to be the kind of breakout figure boxing always needs. A Pacquiao for Pakistan (a Manny for Manchester?). But ... that one loss on his record had been a disaster, a devastating first-round KO at the hands of Breidis Prescott in September 2008. The image of Khan in that bout, utterly undone by Prescott's left hook less than 30 seconds into the opening round, hung over each of his succeeding wins; the question being whether all his success was being built on a foundation of crystal that would shatter with the next hard knock on his chin.
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To his great credit, Khan put himself to the test by insisting upon the Maidana bout. The 27-year-old Maidana, from Santa Fe, Argentina, brought in a record of 29-1, with 27 KOs, as well as a reputation for relentless aggression. The possessor of a lethal right hand, he seemingly had, in his own words, "the gift of knocking people out." There would be no hiding for Khan, and he knew it. He would have to use his superior speed and boxing skills (growing in leaps and bounds since coming under the tutelage of Freddie Roach after the Prescott bout) to defuse the power of Maidana in a bout that could set Khan up for a series of superbouts at 140 pounds. Styles and stakes.
The tone was set at the opening bell when Khan extended a glove to Maidana, and Maidana ignored the gesture of sportsmanship while extending his own scythe-like left hook that just missed Khan. What followed lived up to all hopes. Khan was spectacular in the first round, showing great speed of hand and foot as he worked a beautiful jab and landed several extended, four- and five-punch combinations that were reminiscent of Pacquiao (with whom Khan had sparred extensively in preparation for the bout). With 20 seconds left in the round Khan dropped Maidana with a perfect right-left to the body. To his credit, Maidana got up. There was still a long night of action ahead.
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Khan's continued to pile up points with his speed and boxing, but Maidana, through pure orneriness and aggression, never let him pull away. At times the fight played like a mini version of the first Ali-Frazier bout, with Khan moving, circling, landing solid combos, like Ali, and Maidana, a Smokin' Marcos, constantly pursuing, while winging heavy, tireless shots. Maidana rocked Khan in the third, but Khan responded with more combinations, showing a resiliency that must have buoyed the spirits of his fans in Bolton, and his promoters at Golden Boy. In the fifth round, referee Joe ("Firm but Fair") Cortez, firmly and fairly deducted a point from Maidana for jerking an elbow at Khan when the fighters broke a clinch. No matter, Maidana was not looking for a points victory. For pretty much every moment of the fight, he seemed intent on knocking Khan out.
He almost turned the trick in the 10th round, landing a huge right hand that put Khan onto crazy legs. But the Pride of Bolton stayed up. And, even though Maidana landed several more hard shots (enough to make it a 10-8 round on all three judges' scorecards), Khan ended the round firing back. He returned to his corner bloodied and seemingly shaken but also seemingly secure in the knowledge that he had weathered the storm and was still there. Roach greeted him with a quiet, "You OK?" and Khan indicated he was. And that was the crux of the fight.
There was drama in the final two rounds, as Maidana kept pressing, ever-intent on the knockout. And though Khan went on the defensive, he never simply turned tail and ran. In fact, he scored with several combinations and flurried to the finish to cap a superlative performance and a wholly satisfying fight.
"No one," said a weary and proud Khan afterward, "can question my chin now."