- Brian Doogan
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MANCHESTER, England -- It's arguable that Amir Khan's first-round knockout defeat by robust Colombian Breidis Prescott was a blip, a case of Britain's silver medallist in the '04 Olympic Games being caught cold on a bad night at the MEN Arena.
As his mother was being led away from her ringside seat in tears, the 21-year-old Khan was trying to put a positive spin on his brutal denouement.
"Sometimes I let my heart rule my head, and it showed," said Khan. "I've been hit harder in my career but it was just at the wrong time, too early in the fight, before I could get into it.
"I've got no excuses. The better man won and this is a kick up the arse for me. He caught me cold in the first round and I didn't recover from it."
Which can happen, of course, but that argument disregards overwhelming evidence to the contrary suggesting that, in Khan's case, this was an accident waiting to happen.
Through 18 bouts since turning pro three years ago, Khan stayed unbeaten. His performance in Athens -- where he advanced to the final in the lightweight class as a raw 17-year-old, beaten only by the brilliant Cuban, Mario Kindelan -- ensured he came to the pro ranks equipped with star status.
As the most prominent young Muslim in Britain, Khan wasn't afraid to speak out against acts of terror, such as the London bombings on July 7, 2005. For promoter Frank Warren, Khan was a dream -- a boxer who transcended the boundaries of a sport that is constantly fighting its way out of the margins.
But for every example of his ambition and success -- a new home on the outskirts of Bolton, his hometown in the north of England; a customized BMW M6 convertible; an endorsement deal with Reebok; a spanking new gym equipped with computers and study rooms as well as boxing rings, gloves and bags -- there lay an underlying flaw.
By far the most concerning was his porous defense which, coupled with the susceptibility he betrayed even against light punchers and with a recklessness that emphasized his inability to find a rhythm that worked best for him, was a recipe for disaster.
Even in a dominating performance against the non-threatening Martin Kristjansen in April, he showed a worrying readiness for being hit by right hands over the top of his low left guard. This was the same punch with which Scotland's Willie Limond induced a serious crisis by flooring Khan in the sixth round of their July 2007 bout. Limond has accumulated only eight wins by stoppage in 31 contests and is regarded as a light puncher.
Rachid Drilzane, a French journeyman who had lost three times, also floored Khan in the seventh round at London's ExCel Arena in December 2006, though Khan insisted that his feet got entangled in the ropes. Drilzane had stopped no one in his 13 bouts before encountering Khan.
Most recently, Michael Gomez floored Khan in June. The Manchester-based Irishman was five years removed from his last meaningful victory, a fifth-round knockout of Scotland's Alex Arthur. That Gomez's most productive fighting was done in the super featherweight division discouraged any notion that Khan was ready to challenge for a world lightweight title, even though he stated regularly that he was eager to do so by the end of this year.
"Limond couldn't punch and he almost knocked him out, so what's going to happen when he fights a guy who can box, throws in volume, can slug, has great defense, a great inside game and a great outside game?" asked lightweight titleholder Nate Campbell following Khan's elevation in the rankings on the basis of his seventh-round stoppage of Kristjansen.
"He's fighting guys like Kristjansen, who couldn't score a knockout with a hammer. I haven't been hurt or knocked down in my career, so am I worried about Khan? Hell, I'm only worried about how much they're going to pay me."
Prescott was not worried, either. Preparing in the steamy port city of Barranquilla on Colombia's Caribbean coast, the 25-year-old insisted he had the toughness to overcome Khan.
"In Colombia, you've got to go through gangs shooting at each other just to get into the gym and train -- and then you have to get home," he said. "I've had to learn boxing the hard way. Has Khan ever seen anything like this?
"Khan gets paid a fortune and he lives a life of luxury in England. I will prove that he is nothing but a pampered baby."
It took him all of 54 seconds to drill home the point. The first jab he delivered to Khan's jaw drew an immediate reaction from Khan's legs, a left hook caused a serious wobble and an overhand right-left hook combination sent him crashing to the canvas.
Although he rose at the count of three, his legs sagged and he was completely gone. Referee Terry O'Connor could have waved it over but he allowed Khan to fight on before another right hand-left hook combination from Prescott sent him down for the full count.
"This only proved what many of us had thought: Khan has a dodgy defense and no punch resistance," wrote Colin Hart, the veteran boxing columnist for The Sun newspaper in Britain. "He was wobbled by the first stiff jab which Breidis threw."
"He doesn't even have to be hit by a hammer blow and we feared this ever since he fought Limond, who is not a puncher -- yet Khan was all over the place when he got nailed in their fight. After the Gomez fight, I wrote that it was no longer a question of when Khan will win a world title but if. Now the question has to be, 'Will he ever be the same again?' This could be the end of a career. That's the fear."
Despite the initial noises from the Khan camp, it will almost certainly be the end of Jorge Rubio as his trainer. The Cuban, working with Khan for the first time, recommended Breidis to be the opponent.
"But whoever Amir fights, the buck stops with me," said Warren. "When he's winning, I'm a great promoter and matchmaker, and when he loses, I have to take the responsibility. Derrick Gainer was the original choice and then he decided he didn't want to fight [Khan]. We scouted around for an opponent and Jorge came up with Prescott. We discussed it and that's who we decided to go with. At the end of the day, the choice of opponent is down to me."
So what is to happen now to a young man lauded on both sides of the Atlantic as perhaps the foremost prospect in boxing? How can he come back from the devastation wreaked by Prescott, whose long limbs and fierce punching power are reminiscent of the young Thomas Hearns?
"We'll have to go back to the drawing board and think about the future," said Warren.
Khan should be thinking strongly about calling Freddie Roach. If Khan's flaws can be corrected by a trainer and if it is not too late, Roach might be the only man for the job.
Brian Doogan is a sportswriter for the London Sunday Times and is the longtime European correspondent for The Ring magazine.
Boxing fans were left with their collective mouths agape as Amir Khan flopped around the MEN Arena canvas Saturday. But shouldn't we have seen this coming? Hadn't Khan shown signs of vulnerability in the past? Brian Doogan thinks so.