NEW YORK // Amir Khan has never been able to turn down a challenge. His one aim since winning an Olympic silver medal at the age of 17 has been to try and prove he is the best in the world. That meant years of vainly chasing Floyd Mayweather Jr and Manny Pacquiao. It meant a ridiculously brave attempt to win the world middleweight title from Saul “Canelo” Alvarez. And it is the reason why this weekend he is sharing a ring with Terence Crawford at Madison Square Garden in New York.
Khan was being lined up for an all-British showdown with Kell Brook, one, he was told, which would have paid him significantly more than he will earn against Crawford. But Khan, who has never lost at welterweight, has plenty of money, what he craves is glory.
"When Crawford's name came up, that shone over everything, especially the Kell Brook fight," Khan told The National. "I put two and two together and thought, I want to fight the best guy I can, the better fighter, the stronger fighter. It's a fight I can win, but there is so much on the line.
“I know I have got to be on my A-game all of the time. I can’t make any mistakes. But this is only bringing out the best in me. Going into the ring, people rate him as the No 1 pound-for-pound. I know what he has done, I know who he has beaten and I know what I have to do to get to this level.”
Crawford is yet to become one of the sport’s biggest stars, but he is unbeaten in 34 bouts and has won world titles at three weights, including becoming only the third boxer to hold WBC, WBA, IBF and WBO titles at the same time when he unified the super-lightweight division.
The 31-year-old from Omaha, Nebraska, is not one to brag. Fortunately for him, he has a promoter in the 87-year-old Bob Arum who is happy to beat the drum, likening Crawford to Sugar Ray Leonard, whom he promoted three decades ago. “Fighters like Terence come along very few times in a generation,” Arum said.
It is a bold comparison, but the only boxer Arum thinks challenges Crawford to the mythical pound-for-pound crown is Vasiliy Lomachenko, the brilliant Ukrainian WBO and WBA lightweight champion, who coincidentally Arum also promotes.
Crawford is a smart boxer, as comfortable orthodox as he is as a southpaw. Nothing is rushed, every bout is seen as a puzzle to solve.
“We come in with a couple of strategies, but the first strategy is for me to go in there and see what I see,” Crawford told this newspaper. “That’s when we see what gameplan we go to. You can have a gameplan to fight an opponent one way, but when you get in there, he is fighting totally different. We don’t go into a fight looking at how he fought an previous opponent or how well he did because that opponent is not me.”
While Crawford has plenty of belts, he lacks many big names on his record. Khan, the former WBA and IBF super-lightweight champion, will be his best known opponent to date. He has chased fights against Pacquiao, Errol Spence and Mikey Garcia, but none have stepped up.
“I could put a gun to people’s head but I cannot make them fight,” Crawford said. “I put pressure on Pacquiao for years and that fight never happened. There’s nothing I can do.”
At 32, Khan cannot just rely on his speed, he has to be smart. He was knocked down in his last fight against the unheralded Samuel Vargas and last won a world-title bout in 2011 and believes that Crawford only wants to face him because they believe he is past it.
“My last performance wasn’t the best, but that’s what got me this fight,” Khan said. “If I had beaten him quickly, like I did Phil Lo Greco, I don’t think they would have been interested.
“I feel amazing. I feel sharp and I feel ready. I’ve been eating well, my weight is good. There is not much pressure on me for this fight. No one really thinks I can win. I’m not just taking this fight because I’m a tough guy, a ballsy guy, I’m taking this fight because I know I can win.”
If you are looking for reasons to give Khan hope, perhaps the biggest is the return of Virgil Hunter as his trainer. Khan first went to Hunter in 2012, after back-to-back losses to Lamont Peterson and Danny Garcia. He spent six years trying to curtail Khan’s all-out attacking instincts that often put him in harm’s way. Hunter’s ill health meant that Khan was trained by Joe Goossen for two fights last year, but taking Hunter’s cautious approach is Khan’s best chance.
“Focus is his main Achilles heel,” Hunter said. “I used to tell him all the time, ‘I shouldn’t have to reprogramme you every time you came back to camp’. I had to reprogramme him when it should all have sunk in.
“Amir has a wandering mind in the gym if I don’t constantly give him the focus. He can be shadow boxing and his mind can be a million miles away. I had to bring all that back, but at this point, I have to say I’m pleased with his progress.”