Amir Khan seems poised for a difficult evening on Saturday in Manchester, yet the man looking to topple him from his relatively lofty perch, Irishman Paul McCloskey, is just part of a multitude of problems stacked high atop his in-tray. Whilst the unheralded Dungiven man will be looking to put the Bolton youngster through a frustrating physical examination, it may well be the off-canvas pressures currently conspiring against him that offer the more searching test of his resolve.
After overcoming trial by fire in December against fellow top ten contender, Marcos Maidana, Khan had been looking forward to a slightly more relaxed outing, a type of celebratory return, back in his homeland. A range of opponents deemed less perilous than the Argentinean roughneck were pencilled in alongside the pay-per-view slot that Sky Sports had rather generously reserved for him and, after a protracted period of flirting and stop-start negotiations, McCloskey belatedly signed on across the dotted line.
Marked instantly as a colossal outsider with bookmakers, the enigmatic Ulsterman has been given similar short shrift from pundits and media types alike. However, not everyone sees this as the ticker tape smothered exhibition bout for Khan that many are predicting.
“It’s not a mismatch because McCloskey’s unbeaten and I’ve watched him fighting former world champions and he’s made them look very ordinary – although they (were) well past their sell by date,” growled former flyweight world titlist Dave McAuley when the notion of a one-sided rout was put to him in conversation recently. And, whilst his “former world champions” tag is a bit of a stretch — even in an age where the majority of prize fighters plying their trade can lay claim to having been a champion of one denomination or another — McAuley knows of what he speaks.
“I commentated on him for RTE. Paul’s a very good fighter. I’d have liked to have seen him fight for a world title 18 months ago — he was more than ready. If you would have asked me (then) would McCloskey beat Khan, I would have said yes, without a doubt. I think Khan’s improved over the past 18 months but in saying that, McCloskey has also improved and I would say, in my opinion, it’s 50/50. If McCloskey comes out and he does exactly what he’s told to do and doesn’t get involved in a brawl with Khan – he has every chance of winning the WBA title.”
Bristling with certainty, McAuley, nevertheless, insured himself with a warning shot: “McCloskey is not a fighter, he’s a counter puncher and a boxer and if he starts to mix it up, that’s where he’ll run into trouble.”
McAuley’s compatriot and fellow former world titlist, Wayne “The Pocket Rocket” McCullough, is another backing McCloskey to make a row of things at the M.E.N Arena against a man whose star power, he feels, has been ever so slightly overstated.
“Khan said he’d conquered America in his last fight against Maidana but I don’t think you’ve conquered America if you have 4000 fans in the arena. McCloskey’s got an awkward style, he’s unorthodox and he can bang a little bit too,” McCullough said. “With his style, he jumps all around the place. If he moves around, throws them looping shots and changes nothing (but) just stays in his same routine of boxing, there’s no pressure on him, all of the pressure is on Amir Khan.”
Indeed. As if he wasn’t under enough strain to begin with.
Focus this week settled on the much-publicised television wrangle which resulted in Sky withdrawing the bout from their pay-per-view channel, Sky Box Office. A seemingly jinxed and, as a result, pretty limp-looking undercard offered little value for fans who’d been asked to cough up £14.95 to watch it play out. Sky, perhaps mindful of the recent David Haye vs Audley Harrison debacle, decided to switch the bout to one of its standard subscription channels, Sky Sports 3, and reduce Khan’s purse significantly as a result (with reports indicating by as much as £1.5 million).
Team Khan, unhappy with this turn of events, ditched Sky to cut a deal with Primetime, a lowly PPV channel which has aired Carl Froch’s Super Six escapades to an embarrassingly small viewership. It looks a horrible decision, with only a few thousand supporters likely to tune in for a fight which would have reached hundreds of thousands more from the free plinth suggested by Sky. Quite what the ramifications are in terms of Khan’s long term relationship with the UK’s main boxing provider now are unclear also. However, future Box Office dates gifted as a matter of course against the dreaded TBA would now seem unlikely.
Team Khan also came under heavy fire from McCloskey’s promoter Eddie Hearn, who has accused them of poor judgement. Hearn has also made claims that Golden Boy, worried about Khan being booed and barracked in his own back yard (as has been the case prior to previous bouts) sought to minimise the ticket allocation made available to McCloskey’s travelling support, “The Dudey Army.” Thousands are expected to make the trip across the Irish Sea in support of the outsider regardless and they’ll be looking to make their presence felt on arrival behind a cacophony of noise.
McCloskey, 22-0 (12), made his move into the paid ranks at the advanced age of 25 after narrowly missing the cut for the Athens Olympics in 2004. A former amateur national champion, he shelved his disappointment by making professional plans whilst the then 17-year-old Khan made a name for himself in a tournament which would propel him to national hero status overnight. A crafty southpaw in possession of the hands down swagger and derring-do of a Brendan Ingle fighter, McCloskey has created a steady buzz among his compatriots whilst methodically working his way up through the junior welterweight rankings to European title level.
McCloskey certainly doesn’t look the fashionable sort. His physique can often look undertrained and his technique a tad amateurish, yet there’s clearly more to his game than might initially meet the eye. He’ll look to shuffle into range behind an inquisitive right jab before drawing a lead. He’ll then shift his head away instinctively – pulling it back or off to one side — before counter punching with reflex left hooks and right uppercuts and slamming wind-takers into his opponent’s ribcage. It can be artful when he hits his stride.
At 31, he seems perfectly placed to embark upon the biggest night of his sporting life. Unflinchingly confident, he knows nothing of defeat and he’ll be entering the ring on Saturday with nothing to lose and a whole lot more to gain. With the canny John Breen plotting in his corner, there are sufficient ingredients here to enable the cooking up of a monumental surprising.
Khan, 24-1 (17), will be looking to fly out of the traps as he did against Maidana (flooring Marcos hard with a body shot at the end of the first session) and the unfortunate Dmitriy Salita. Perhaps the quickest fighter in the sport today, his blurring pace can yank the rug out from under opponents before they’ve had chance to get set, and a Salita style blow-out here can’t totally be discounted. He’ll show plenty of movement as McCloskey looks to set up camp in centre ring and, with his guard up high, he’ll look to advance with bursts of straight rat-a-tat shots in an attempt to capitalise on the Irishman’s habit of pulling his head up and back and away from harm’s reach.
One feels, though, that if McCloskey can ride out the first couple of rounds, he can find success himself as Khan rushes into him to fire off scattershot combinations. Whilst a spell under Freddie Roach has improved Amir’s conditioning and his confidence, his defence remains creaky, which is never a good thing for a fighter with such (well-documented) iffy punch resistance. If McCloskey can swivel away from Khan’s leads and then stop him dead in his tracks with clever counters (the right uppercut especially) then he can hurt and possibly even drop him. Khan is nothing if not game, though, and whether McCloskey, a natural counter puncher, can capitalise should he find such success remains to be seen.
Khan is the obvious pick, yet it will be interesting to note whether he has retained the other-worldly condition he had under previous coach, Alex Ariza (since sacked), which undoubtedly helped rescue him from his second knockout reverse last time out in Vegas. And, as rival John Murray found to his cost recently, the pressure to impress against underrated opposition can burden a fighter unduly. If McCloskey slips into his frustrating, bothersome routine, Khan, with the crowd well and truly on his back, could unravel, make mistakes and ultimately, disappoint.
Defeat, on the other hand, would rubber stamp the worst return home since Paul Hackett bumbled his way across New York in the 1985 black comedy After Hours.