Two days before he steps into the ring to face Lamont Peterson, Amir Khan will celebrate his 25th birthday. If it feels to you as if the junior welterweight beltholder from Britain has been around a while and should be older than that by now, you're not alone. An Olympic silver medalist at 17, an HBO-featured fighter at 20, and a first-round knockout victim at 21, everything-success and failure-has come to Khan at a prodigious pace.
Now, at a much younger age than is usually the case these days, Khan is positioned to enter the pound-for-pound discussion and the pay-per-view mega-event picture. Provided, that is, that he doesn't get blown out like so many birthday candles on December 10.
Peterson (29-1-1, 15 KOs) is a pronounced underdog in this fight, but that's more a statement about the current perception of Khan than a knock on Peterson. The Washington, D.C.-based Peterson will be highly motivated in front of a home crowd at the Convention Center, is in his prime at 27, and is one of the fastest and most technically sound competitors in the 140-pound division. He fought to a draw with Victor Ortiz one year ago and followed that up by becoming a kayo victor over Victor Cayo. Against just about anyone in the junior welter rankings, Peterson would be given an outstanding chance of winning.
But Khan (26-1, 18 KOs) is so talented and is improving so rapidly under the tutelage of trainer Freddie Roach that Peterson isn't quite being given that chance. Roundly dismissed as fragile and overhyped following his 2008 knockout loss to Breidis Prescott, Khan has been winning over the doubters fight by fight ever since. Marco Antonio Barrera provided a Hall of Fame name for his resume. Andreas Kotelnik provided Khan's first major title. Paulie Malignaggi provided a foil for the Brit's American debut. Marcos Maidana provided the scary test-almost too scary-that convinced the world of Khan's heart. And Zab Judah provided a picture of overwhelmed hopelessness in the fight that thrust Khan onto the fringes of the pound-for-pound discussion.
Khan is now entering that rarefied air where his name appears in the same sentences as those of Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather. The former happens because they both train with Roach and have sparred together. The latter happens because a 2012 Mayweather-Khan fight has been floated a bit recently.
HBO blow-by-blow man Jim Lampley has an uncommon take on this triangle of gifted fighters.
"A year ago, you'd have laughed me out for suggesting this, but even then I had a hunch, and now I'm going to go ahead and say it: I think ultimately Khan has a better chance of beating Mayweather than Pacquiao does," Lampley opined. "I think with his height and his long arms and the ability to operate behind a really offensive jab, those things would give him a better chance, stylistically, than Pacquiao has. It's going to be a matter of timing, but just from the standpoint of his weaponry, to me, Amir has a better shot. That could be a tremendous overestimation of his talent and I could look foolish for saying it, but I just feel like he's getting better every single day and the other two guys can feel it."
Even if Lampley's opinion represents an extreme end of the spectrum, clearly there's a lot riding on the Peterson fight for "King" Khan. He says this might be his last fight at 140 pounds. So if he wins, he moves up to welterweight and becomes an instant attraction in the division that boasts the two leading draws in the entire sport. If he loses? It's the Prescott fiasco all over again, even if the result is something less harsh than a first-round knockout. Any form of defeat for Khan erases the momentum he's built over the past three years.
Peterson intends to do just that.
"I'm here to win," Peterson declared at a prefight press conference. "I'm the toughest fighter Khan has faced so far. In a lot of his fights, he's fought older or much shorter fighters and he had a lot of physical advantages over them. He's not going to have any of those advantages over me. I believe he's going lose."
Peterson, of course, is in the minority on that one. But he clearly doesn't lack for motivation. And neither should Khan. Not only is the Mayweather carrot potentially dangling, but Peterson's one loss came against Timothy Bradley, an undefeated 140-pound rival whom Khan had wanted to fight this past summer. If Khan can't go one on one with Bradley, at least he can try to one-up his performance against Peterson. This is a measuring-stick fight for Khan, and don't let his friendly demeanor mask his violent determination.
"We've got two nice guys fighting here," Khan said of the matchup with Peterson. "But I'm sure once we put the gloves on for the fight, it will be a different story."
Indeed, niceties will be set aside on December 10. Peterson won't be singing "Happy Birthday" to Khan, and nobody will come bearing gifts. For two young fighters with one loss apiece on their records, there's too much on the line for any of that.