Oliver Harrison, Amir Khan and the final word; blame

I’m struggling to summon a fight in recent memory to which more attention has been paid. Certainly, the column inches afforded to Amir Khan’s humbling defeat is entirely disproportionate to the superficial importance of the Inter-Continental bauble he and Breidis Prescott scuffled over on Saturday night. Of course, Amir Khan is not merely ‘just another’ fighter, Andrew Mullinder provides one final analysis of the fight, the aftermath and that most emotive of topics, blame.

Oliver Harrison, Amir Khan and the final word; blame

By Andrew Mullinder

When something goes wrong, we try to apportion blame. The frequency at which we do so has turned corporate liability into a mammoth industry. Psychologists believe blame is one of the first behaviour traits developed by children. Even Koko the talking gorilla blamed one of her trainers when she broke her toy cat.

And when things go catastrophically wrong, as they did for Amir Khan last Saturday, everybody gets involved in the cause and blame game. We gather in the pub, at the water cooler, or on forums and revel in the debate: it was the change in trainer; it was bad matchmaking; Khan simply can’t hold a shot; he had been over-protected by Frank Warren; he chose/was given the wrong tactics; his family are too involved; he believed his own hype; he spent too much time being a celebrity and not enough being a boxer.

Most of these theories have a ring of truth and sound logical. After all, Khan had won his first 18 fights, and in doing so had convinced many that he was destined for super-stardom. Then he loses comprehensively, brutally, awfully. Something must have changed.  

But that’s not really how cause-and-effect works. We are filtering events through our human need to see logical causes for abnormal events and to find somebody to blame. Steven Levitt explains this mentality best in his book Freakonomics: “A correlation simply means that a relationship exists between two factors – let’s call them X and Y – but it tells you nothing about the direction of that relationship. It’s possible that X causes Y; it’s also possible that Y causes X; and it may be that X and Y are both being caused by some other factor, Z…Washington has nearly three times as many police as Denver, and it also has eight times the number of murders. Unless you have more information, however, it’s hard to say what’s causing what.”

We do not really know what happened in training with new trainer Jorge Rubio, or what instructions he gave Khan. Nor do we know much about Khan’s attitude to training or his daily routine. For that matter, without an additional reference point, I do not think we have any real idea of just how good Breidis Prescott is or how hard he punches. We can speculate and make educated guesses, but that’s about as far as it goes.

What we do know, however, is that this is not a freak occurrence. There is a track record. Khan’s tendency to take a seat and play with the fairies every time he gets hit with a remotely solid punch has been catalogued before, and there are holes in his defence so big that the boot of Italy could squeeze through and kick his chin. The shocking nature of Khan’s sub-60 second wipe out, therefore, should come as no surprise. And perhaps this form guide should point toward a person conspicuous by his absence when journalists and keyboard commentators are apportioning blame: Oliver Harrison.

When he turned pro, Khan was one of the few boxers who seemed to justify the overused idiom ‘diamond in the rough’. His natural physical attributes – adept hand-eye coordination, quicksilver hands and feet, a thin waist-broad shoulders frame and all-round athleticism – intoxicated some, while his amateur, scatological style, over eagerness, lack of punch selection, open defence, and paucity of tactical acumen concerned others. But what seemed clear was that ‘the Kid’ had potential. 

Yet after his 18th fight, against Michael Gomez, much the same judgement could have been passed. It was difficult to see improvement. Bar one or two (debatable) areas, the cracks in his game had not even been papered over, let alone filled in. And, culminating in the Gomez and then Prescott fights, each bout seemed to bring fresh scares and raise new questions about his capacity to reach the higher echelons of boxing.

“Its obviously the wrong way to fight somebody who can bang”

Oliver Harrison

It makes Harrison’s criticisms of new trainer Rubio, recently published in various media outlets, sound absurd and delusional. “It was absolutely the wrong way to fight somebody who can bang”, said Harrison. “I can’t believe they learned him to keep his hands up and just stand in front of a fighter like that. He tries to be macho but that’s not Amir. He naturally has his hands low and slips and slides like Tommy Hearns. The Amir I know would have his guard in front of his face and slip and slide to avoid the punches. But the Cuban guy had him with his hands up just walking forward. Madness. Any half-decent fighter could have hit him.”

But just about every half decent boxer Khan ever faced did hit him; he has been rushing in without defending himself properly since day one. And the only similarities between Khan and Hearns I could identify were his usual advantages in size, and the unshakable feeling he could be knocked out at virtually any moment. Harrison’s Rubio-bashing is rather like Basil Fawlty thrashing his Mini with a branch: if the car had been properly serviced in the first place, there would not have been a problem.

That’s not to say that Harrison is a bad trainer. He patently is not, and is well respected within the boxing fraternity, which is perhaps why he has escaped much criticism for the dangerous habits Khan has failed to kick. Maybe, as Harrison suggests, meddling family members and a celebrity lifestyle interfered with the learning process. Certainly, history is littered with good trainers who failed to get the most out of talented boxers, and Harrison could hardly be expected to do anything about Khan’s chin.

But what is clear is that Khan’s defeat was not down to bad luck, poor matchmaking or a change in trainer. Khan’s record could not have remained pristine had he continued to box the way he did. Like San Andreas earthquakes, the knockout was bound to happen and had presaged us of its imminent arrival with warning tremors.

The causes and blame for the fault lines that run naked through Amir Khan’s boxing are to be found by looking at the last three years, not the last three months.

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