Virgil Hunter Is the Man to Get Amir Khan Back on Track

Categories: Sports
andre-ward-dawson4.jpg
Albert Samaha
That's Hunter in the red shirt and black hat after star pupil Andre Ward's big win last month.
Because comparisons are an inescapable trait of sports fandom, Amir Khan was supposed to be the next Manny Pacquiao. This was around a year ago. He was fearless, willing to take two blows to give three. He could attack with speed and punch with power. His fights were consistently thrilling. Even his shortcomings seemed reminiscent of a younger, rawer Pac Man: He relied on one hand too much; he could be unnecessarily reckless; his footwork was sloppy; he put little energy into defense.

So the legendary Freddie Roach, Pacquiao's longtime trainer, was clearly the perfect person to school Khan, to sharpen his game the same way he had honed Pacquiao from exciting brawler to pound-for-pound king.

But over the last 11 months, the 25-year-old light welterweight lost two fights, looking especially bad in a July knockout by Danny Garcia. He and Roach split.

On Saturday, Khan (26-3) announced that he was hiring the Bay Area's own Virgil Hunter -- trainer of Andre Ward and Karim Mayfield -- to right the ship.

Hunter, who's based out of King's Gym in Oakland, is fresh off one of the most impressive performances of his career. Last month, his star pupil Andre Ward -- super middleweight champ and 2004 Olympic gold medalist -- KO'd the bigger "Bad" Chad Dawson, a respected light heavyweight titlist who'd lost just once in 32 bouts. Ward, who'd gone nearly three years since his last knock out, silenced the critics who questioned his punching power by dropping Dawson to the canvas three times in 10 rounds, displaying a fierce left hook to complement his furious combinations.

In Khan, Hunter faces a very different challenge. While Hunter pushed Ward to unleash his offensive prowess, he'll have to rein in Khan, tighten his attack. In the ring, other than both being supremely talented fighters, Khan and Ward differ greatly. Ward is a ring general, with precise footwork, high gloves, and elusive defense, cerebral as he reads his opponent and picks his spots for attack. Khan is a whirlwind, bouncing around the mat with his hands low, swinging and retreating and swinging again, eager to go toe-to-toe, growing more fearless and aggressive the harder he gets hit.

This has won him many fights, but also cost him a few. In 2008, after the solid-but-unspectacular Breidis Prescott knocked out the rising undefeated star Khan less than a minute into the first round, Khan gained a reputation for having a glass chin. Two years later, though, Khan put those concerns to pasture when he gutted out a 12-round slugfest against the hammer-fisted Marcos Maidana, in perhaps 2010's best fight. During one memorable stretch, Khan, dazed by a vicious Maidana overhand right, wobbled around the ring for nearly a minute, somehow maintaining his balance and wherewithal as Maidana went in for the finisher. Even on those wormy legs, Khan traded shots, and eventually won the bout by unanimous decision.

That same courage, however, may have opened the door for current-light welterweight champion Lamont Peterson three fights later. Although many people still contend that Khan deserved a decision victory (the referee deducted two points from him for "pushing," tilting the scores to Peterson), Peterson consistently exploited Khan's lackadaisical defense, winning a good deal of the toe-to-toe exchanges with more accurate power shots and limiting Khan's power by closing the space between them.

Some boxing observers noted that, especially in the latter rounds, Khan's addiction to brawling overpowered Roach's game plan, which stressed a more mixed approach. Khan's flaws as a fighter congealed eight months later, when Garcia, a four-to-one underdog, knocked Khan down three times before the ref stepped in late in the fourth round.

As Andre Ward fans know, Virgil Hunter knows how to coach defense, to teach boxing. Khan's choice shows that he's also not afraid of the medicine he needs.

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