It was touching recently to see an interview with Manny Steward and Tommy Hearns, not long before the great trainer died; the empathy between them clearly had survived the particular pressures of their sport.
They had laughed and cried in unison since Hearns walked into the Kronk gym as the skinniest kid in Detroit, and they did not pretend it had all been a walk in the park. Even at the end of the Hitman's wonderful career, when he should have walked away but couldn't, Steward stood by him, just as Angelo Dundee had done for Muhammad Ali until his embarrassment against Trevor Berbick, and Jackie Blackburn did for Joe Louis, all the way to his knockout defeat by Rocky Marciano.
Those were partnerships that laughed at the abiding principles of self-interest in the fight game, even if the longevity was enhanced by money and a peculiar sort of guilt. Generally, however, loyalty in boxing is as permanent as toilet paper. Which brings us to Amir Khan. When his chin let him down against Breidis Prescott in those terrible 54 seconds in Manchester four years ago, he made the difficult, but inevitable, decision to look elsewhere for guidance.
Having left his first trainer, Oliver Harrison, Khan split with one-off advisor Jorge Rubio (who had ludicrously recommended Prescott as the opponent) and made what proved to be a career-saving choice of new mentor in Freddie Roach. Khan beat a faded legend in Marco Antonio Barrera. He took the world title off the excellent Andriy Kotelnik, dismissed the unbeaten, if limited, Dmitriy Salita in one round (his last fight for Frank Warren), stopped the tricky Paulie Malignaggi in 11, saw off the tough Marcos Maidana, got by Paul McCloskey, stopped the once-brilliant Zab Judah with a borderline body shot ... and lost his belt to juiced-up Lamont Peterson. He then dropped his guard long enough for the unsubtle, but powerful, Danny Garcia to scramble his brains in the summer.
"I gotta tell ya," Roach said this week, "I thought I was losing my touch. In five, six years, we'd hardly lost a fight, then I lost three in a row [Manny Pacquiao to Timothy Bradley, Julio Cesar Chavez Jnr to Sergio Martínez and Khan to Garcia] ... It was tough."
But why, after this second crisis in his career, has Khan abandoned the man who rescued him from the scrap heap in the first place? The fighter says, on the eve of a crucial non-title bout in Los Angeles on Sunday 16 December, against the unbeaten, but light-fisted, Californian Carlos Molina, that he needed a change, a new trainer – Andre Ward's Virgil Hunter – who could tighten up his loose defence and breath energy into his boxing, which, he says, had been going stale in the shadow of Pacquiao in Roach's Wild Card gym in Hollywood.
"I know I was making a lot of mistakes," said Khan of recent performances. "I promise you, you won't see them this time. You will see a different Amir Khan. It was tough leaving Freddie, but we've done it now. I think Virgil understands me better. He is one of the best defensive trainers in the world.
"I'm thinking more and being smarter about things. Before, I followed my heart and just kept throwing punches. You don't need to have wars. I'm a good, classy, quick fighter, so I should stick to my style. I've gone back to how I was when I was 17, fighting at range, not throwing shots when I don't need to. Now it's all about Amir Khan."
That was as rude as he got about Roach and his focus on other star fighters, notably Pacquiao and Chavez Jnr. In his new Los Angeles gym, however, there are just as many fighters craving attention from Hunter. It is hard to see how things have changed that much, although Khan insists: "Virgil gives all his fighters enough time and it's been perfect. He's always said he treats all his fighters as No1. At the Wild Card, it was crazy. Even though I was the No2 fighter behind Manny Pacquiao, it was very difficult to get [training] times. I used to just go to the gym and ignore all the bad things." Bad things such as working with a Hall of Fame trainer, regarded as the best in the world, and occasionally sparring with, and learning from, a fighter acknowledged as one of the sport's legends.
Hunter, by all accounts, is a well-respected and honourable man, not common currency in the business. But there was optimism bordering on self-aggrandisement in his pronouncements after just eight weeks working with his new charge: "I can say unabashedly that I believe Amir Khan will one day become one of the greatest fighters that ever participated in this sport." Hunter also had a slight dig at Roach, observing: "It became apparent to me that [Amir] possessed these [defensive] qualities already, but they never were challenged or brought into focus."
I beg to differ. Khan boxed naively against Peterson and, after schooling Garcia for three rounds, got careless and paid with his title. I watched him train that week and Roach drilled him diligently for hours on how to avoid Garcia's trademark shot, the left hook. When Garcia saw Khan's right shoulder twitch in the third round in preparation for a right cross, he did no more than load up the left and swing it, catching the champion in the neck and spinning him goggle-eyed to the floor. As always, Khan was courageous in trying to punch his way back to parity in the fourth, but could not avoid the power of a hungry, clear-eyed assassin.
What will gall him at the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena will be the presence in Molina's corner of Garcia's aggravating father, Angel, whose uncouth ranting goes unchecked in the boxing jungle, most recently in New York this week, when he engaged in a brawl with Judah ahead of his son's fight with him in February.
Angel is no angel, but he knows the angles. He is a shrewd provocateur and will seek to work on Khan's good nature again, a prick in his side all the way to the first bell.
Khan should win against a smaller, less-experienced opponent. Hunter will want him to do so convincingly – with a dramatic knockout, preferably – and Khan, who still has the quickest and most dangerous hands in the light-welterweight division, can deliver that. It is a worry, however, that, should it all go wrong, he will have nobody else to blame this time.
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