When the lights went out in Manchester’s AO Arena – before the fighters made their walks – there was an eerie sense of uncertainty. In that darkness, spectators wondered which of their favourite fighters would prevail; they questioned whether either man had enough left in the tank to command their hard-earned cash anymore; they hoped for the safety and well-being of two men who have proudly flown the British flag, feared no challenge, and ultimately reduced their own remaining faculties as a result.
Before the lights started turning themselves back on again, whether from phones of rowdy, excited fans desperate to capture a moment over 10 years in the making, or from the show’s planned production, there were murmurs in the seats surrounding me. Fans changing their minds again, devout followers casting doubt on their original predictions, ‘what if?’
This fight, despite landing years too late, arguably held more interest now without the political hand-tying of world titles, rankings, and other variables that frequently prevent us from truly immersing ourselves in the build-up. It was two men who’d looked down on the world from the top of the mountain, now squaring off, desperate to retain their footing during boxing’s unavoidable decline. We wanted Amir Khan to fight Kell Brook and we didn’t really care about much else. It was a far purer experience; take it from someone who was in attendance with no horse in the race, eyes peeled, questions aplenty.
The fight itself was bizarre, if not entirely unpredictable. The Amir Khan of 10 years ago tried to break through the skin of the man in the ring, while Kell Brook – quickly understanding his superior sharpness – seemed to grow younger from the first bell. Brook was comfortable. He was calm and confident in his own attacks, picking his moments, pouncing on a vulnerable opponent when the time was right. Khan, as always, threw shots from the heart as much from the hip. Under pressure, not just in the fight but from those outside of the ring who have constantly given him stick, he came roaring back, throwing combinations, attempting to bamboozle the Sheffield-man with his speed. But speed is just a word. It changes over time.
Amir Khan was fighting to outpoint those who have continuously doubted him, as well as Kell Brook. Whether he admits it or not, Khan feels he deserves far more respect than the British public have offered, and last night he was vindicated – again. The part he played in revolutionising the British amateur system is referenced by journalists and those ‘in the know,’ winning an Olympic silver medal at just 17. Has his life in the public eye been a rollercoaster? Yes – a massive, twisting, flipping, turning one, probably situated in Florida somewhere. But this past weekend, Khan did what he always has. He delivered. His legs started bending in the first round, playing tricks on him again after a brief period of loyalty, but he would not relent. And in losing – in that fashion – you worry about what comes next.
There have been clamours for both men to retire, but, as you know, boxing doesn’t work like that…
The winner of a fight of this magnitude (which is, of course, all relative) feels rejuvenated and worthy of “one last run” at a world title. Sometimes winning is the worst medicine when attempting to clear clouded reality. Who would Brook beat at the pinnacle of the sport, really? Domestic clashes were immediately proposed, with Eubank Jnr and Benn Jnr on hand to play their parts in the pantomime. Regardless of how we feel about any of those contests, Brook will feel confident. That’s what winning does. Fighters take heart from a solid session in the gym, or from a few good rounds of sparring, never mind a stoppage win of that personal importance and commercial magnitude. Beating Khan doesn’t mean Brook is full of beans and ready to dominate; it means, at most, that he was the better of two men, who are operating as considerably diminished versions of themselves. And that’s okay.
Khan, however, will probably think about “retiring on a win.” Another dangerous narrative for fighters that have already gone on too long. He looked broken, confused, and hurt in Manchester last night. He looked like a man that had all of the same ideas he’d had when beating Andreas Kotelnik for his first world title, without any of the sharpness required to execute the chosen game plan. And that is also okay. Though it may not seem it, waking up with a battered and bruised ego to match his reddened, swollen face. This fight meant everything to Brook; but losing it will have dented Khan’s legacy, from his perspective, at least.
When all is said and done, and once the dust has settled, the fight is over, and it has played out irreversibly. Khan shouldn’t fight again and arguably, neither should Brook. But in reality, you wouldn’t be surprised if both men carry on with hopeless, boundless optimism. A fighter’s worst attribute, perhaps. On that night in Manchester, the pair dazzled as we all knew they would have 5-, 10- or 12-years prior. It was exciting and engaging, capturing the attention of British boxing fans and polarizing opinions. But now, once again, the lights are out. And it’s in that darkness that both men must ask themselves the hardest questions.