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Wednesday, November 9, 2022

Amir Khan v Kell Brook: an intriguing clash of bitter rivals in decline | Boxing

“People know there is genuine dislike between us and that this is a real grudge match which has been waiting to happen for a very long time,” Kell Brook says as he explains why it took just 10 minutes to sell 21,000 tickets and fill every seat in the Manchester Arena for his fight against Amir Khan on Saturday night. Brook and Khan are both 35 years old and so far down the wrong side of the unforgiving boxing hill that even two such proud men don’t dispute the fact that their best days were beaten out of them by superior opponents.

Khan has not fought for two and a half years and the most vivid memories from the latter stages of his career are of him being knocked out frighteningly by Saúl “Canelo” Álvarez in 2016 and being stopped by Terence Crawford three years later. The fact that Álvarez and Crawford are two of the three best pound-for-pound fighters in the world at least shows that Khan was crushed by supreme talents.

The three painful defeats on Brook’s record were between 2016 and 2020 and also against stellar opposition. His last fight, when he was stopped brutally in the fourth round by Crawford in December 2020, was not as damaging as his earlier losses to Gennady Golovkin and Errol Spence – two brilliant fighters who each broke one of Brook’s eye-sockets.

It does not take long to construct a sensible argument that both Brook and Khan should have opted for retirement. Instead they finally meet in Manchester 10 years after this bout was first hyped as an unmissable contest between two bitter local rivals from the north – with Brook being from Sheffield and Khan from Bolton. When they were both on the rise they were exciting and courageous, if always vulnerable, and credit should be given to both men for all that they have achieved.

Terence Crawford puts Amir Khan on the canvas in 2019.
Terence Crawford puts Amir Khan on the canvas in 2019. Photograph: Andrew Couldridge/Action Images/Reuters

Khan proved himself as a multiple world champion who brought blistering hand speed to the ring. His world title win against Marcos Maidana was boxing’s Fight of the Year in 2010, and showed that Khan was as immensely brave as he could be quick and skilful.

Brook’s finest night also came in the US, in 2014, when he went to California and outpointed the excellent American Shawn Porter in a gruelling fight to become the IBF welterweight champion. He also showed great heart in facing the much bigger man in Golovkin and then the dangerous Spence in back-to-back fights which almost ruined him.

There is a terrible term in boxing which describes old fighters as “damaged goods”. That phrase has been applied to Brook and Khan for years, yet here they are, on the eve of a hotly anticipated British fight with no title at stake and their reputations diminished. “People want to see this fight because it’s real intriguing,” Brook counters. “No one knows what Khan has got left and people are wondering the same about me. We’re both coming to win but he doesn’t have much of a chin and we all know it’s going to be explosive in there.”

In recent weeks, when I asked a range of boxing insiders to pick the winner, the split between those backing Khan’s speed to be decisive and those who believe Brook might stop his despised rival was marginal. Eleven out of 20 went for Khan but almost everyone stressed that the win would mean even more to Brook, whose animosity has simmered for years.

Brook suggests that the contest will define their legacies. “It really will. I fought for world titles and against some of the greatest fighters, and Khan had done the same, but this one means so much. I’ve trained even harder for Khan than against Porter, Golovkin and Spence. This fight means everything to me.”

Khan has never shown the same enthusiasm for the contest and, over the years, he has claimed that he had far more significant fights to chase in America than a domestic dust-up which won’t much mean much outside the UK. But does Brook feel that Khan wanted to avoid losing to him because defeat to a local rival would sting so much? “You’ve hit the nail on the head,” Brook says with relish. “There was some fear in him and he never wanted to fight me.”

It’s unlikely that Khan ever feared him but he has spoken disparagingly of Brook and said: “He has lived off my name for years.”

“It’s just him trying to get in my head,” Brook says with a shrug. “I’ve had more than 40 fights and been tested so often – so it doesn’t bother me what he says.”

The enmity has escalated in recent days. Brook mocked Khan’s “poppadum chin” and has been accused of racism. “It’s so sad that he had to come out with a comment like that,” Khan said on Thursday. “It gives me an added push to stick it on him and give him a proper beating. At the end of the day we’re fighting each other but you still have some sort of respect for him – I think that’s gone out the window now. People shouldn’t be racist.”

Brook denied the allegation and said Khan is “trying to get everyone on his side and think I’m some kind of racist character when I’m not. I just meant how delicate he is. Poppadoms just break, which is the same as his chin. There’s no racial angle there at all.” Khan, in turn, has been accused of homophobia by apparently questioning Brook’s sexuality. The Bolton boxer insisted that he had not said anything homophobic.

I am more interested in trying to establish the cause of the feud Brook has stoked for so long. When did he first meet Khan? “I can’t remember the exact day or time, but it must have been where we were 15. He has been on my radar so long.”

Khan has said that when they sparred as amateurs he was so much better than Brook he could outbox him using just one hand. Brook rolls his eyes. “He’s very deluded. He always has been. When we first sparred I noticed how fast his hands were and it took some getting used to. But after a couple of rounds I was OK.”

Did the bad blood between them start when the teenage Khan was selected for the 2004 Olympic Games where, showing extraordinary talent, he won a surprise silver medal while Brook remained in obscurity in Sheffield? “That’s not correct,” Brook says.

“I come from the Brendan Ingle gym in Wincobank and we were never liked by the amateur boxing people. Herol Graham and Prince Naseem Hamed led the way and I followed their style. We did not box in that stiff way like amateur boxers …”

Brook holds up his arms like a robot and grins. “We were much better but our style was more suited to the pro game. So I was never that worried about the amateurs. I’ll tell you where the bad blood started. It was when we were both at [the promoter] Frank Warren and were told that we would build the fight like it were a tree. We would be like two seeds in a pot and we would grow into branches off this tree. And when we were both strong we would meet then. But it never happened. He always avoided fighting me.”

In their promotional face-offs to build the pay-per-view hype around the fight it has become clear that Brook is much more emotional than Khan. In arguing that Khan has never shown him the respect he deserves, Brook has looked wounded. He might want to win desperately on Saturday night but he needs to find a way to control his emotions. “It’s also personal for Dominic [Ingle],” he says of his trainer, “but he has been reminding me that I have to stick to our game plan. I have to be very focused and not allow emotion to get in the way.

“Khan still has great speed. He has really fast hands and feet. I know he’s good. You don’t become a world champion by doing nothing. He has won world titles and he is a good boxer. But he is not at my level.”

Brook must feel some concern about the damage he has suffered in the ring because Golovkin, Spence and Crawford all hurt him. “I know what you’re saying but I am close to my family and my parents will tell me when it is time to stop. I had them two bad eye injuries but I have not been in many long wars. I didn’t suffer the drawn‑out beatings or those devastating KOs Khan had against Canelo and others. He has had much more punishment than me. I also don’t get hit much in sparring and I am eating well, drinking plenty of water and in great shape.”

Kell Brook was beaten by Gennady Golovkin in 2016.
Kell Brook was beaten by Gennady Golovkin in 2016. Photograph: Andrew Couldridge/Reuters

Despite his even longer hiatus from the ring, Khan said recently that he feels lost without boxing and that he has rejuvenated himself by switching to Crawford’s camp in America. He is now trained in Nebraska and Colorado by Brian “Bomac” McIntyre who is most famous for being in Crawford’s corner. Khan claims that his fight against Brook is not merely a money-spinning one-off but that he needs to keep fighting for his own peace of mind for he does not know what else he can do outside the ring. “I agree with him,” Brook says. “I am the same. I need the discipline and structure. I get lost without it. I would be scratching my head if I didn’t have boxing. What could I do? Boxing saved me.”

I have interviewed Brook twice before, when he remembered being stabbed in 2014 and how he felt suicidal in 2018. How has he been the last year? “I remember them times and I have been in dark places. The last two years have also not been easy for any of us but the discipline and structure of boxing is helping me find ways to stay out of that dark pit. I feel really good right now because Dominic has been working me so hard. Whenever a sparring partner has looked tired after a few rounds he has thrown in a new guy. I have handled them all.”

Brook has struggled for years to make weight and one of his stipulations in fighting Khan was that they would weigh in at 149lb – 2lb above the welterweight limit. “The weight is always difficult,” he concedes. “It’s tough and I have a very sweet tooth. But having a few more pounds [at 149] helps so much.”

He is sufficiently confident of beating Khan that he talks happily about fighting one of the best young welterweights in Britain. “I would like Conor Benn next,” Brook says of the hard-hitting 25-year‑old who comes from a famous boxing family. “He is the young kid coming up, the son of Nigel Benn, and people are talking about him. But I don’t think he’s as good as everyone is saying. I’d love that fight.”

He still has to beat Khan and Brook is experienced enough to know that all the bitter words, the pushing and shoving and the years of rivalry won’t help either man once the first bell rings. “It’s a lonely place – just me and him. But we’ll find out who really is the better man after all these years. I don’t think you can take much from the press conferences and the face‑offs but from what I could see he has looked up for it. But it’s going to be very hard for him in the ring. I am going to win this one. It matters so much to me.”

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