Ageing is natural. It happens to all of us. I just always want to look like myself, even if that’s an older version of myself.
Halle Berry, Actor (1966- )
In the summer of 2004 a boxer called Amir Khan, aged just 17, the possessor of unfathomable hand speed and armed with a quiver of jabs, a favourite grandson’s smile and a vest beneath which beat a fearless heart, became a household name in Britain when his voyage to an unlikely Silver medal at the Athens Olympics was broadcast live on terrestrial television. Fight fans, sports fans, grandmas, uncles, friends, all bore witness to Britain’s sole entrant.
On Saturday night, much closer to home than the Greek capital and now a retired veteran of 35, Khan climbed the steps to the ring for the final time. The loneliness of his entrance in to the public’s consciousness as a boy all those years ago reflected back in a brutal departure from the prize ring. Referee Victor Loughlin showing sufficient mercy to save a wilting Khan from a pitiless and increasingly rampant Kell Brook in the sixth round.
A fight 17 years in the making was over in 17 minutes.
For 17 minutes Khan clung on to his pride, his youth and his faculties. Betrayed by age. By the platitudes of those closest. By the greed of the years spent dismissing Brook and chasing Floyd. In the end, he was punched around the ring. A tiny boat on waves too big and with holes beneath the water too long-standing to remedy. Loughlin’s salvation was welcomed and Khan left on his feet and not on the stretcher shaped shield too many clamour for.
Rivals for their entire adult lives, Khan and Brook, now two middle aged men; busted and broken at the fists of bigger, better opponents, brought what they had left to the Manchester Arena. That they drew a crowd as large as the one that gathered is a recognition of what they once were as much as that which they remained. Despite Khan retaining his shoe-shine speed, the gaps he once left as a 20 something were now chasm like, the combinations isolated in delivery and the timing and placement far less assured, less precise. Brook fought as the bigger man, looked less detached from life as a fighter than his rival, stronger, more compact and with confidence in his plan.
Breakthroughs were immediate, multiple and revealing. Whether a fight a decade earlier when both were belt holders in neighbouring divisions would have been the same is impossible to know. Brook was always bigger, perhaps the more solid puncher. Khan was always prone to being clipped and finding himself on the floor or disorientated but he was always fast too, but with better balance, better movement and a better engine than he could summon on Saturday.
However potent the propaganda, 35 year olds do not get fitter, camps do not go better, fighters do not improve. Wisdom teaches, but it comes with age, and with age comes erosion. In the end, the grudge match was won by the man who had more grudge left. The bitterest of the two bitter rivals.
The man who wanted it the most, won.
This writer hopes Brook retires too and is not deceived by the dominance he enjoyed. For the vanquished Khan, he surely returns to the retirement he’d already begun and should be remembered for his vital role in the resurgence of boxing in Great Britain. Without him, there may never have been the Amateur funding that supported his successors and transformed British boxing for the better.