American boxing fans might be forgiven for thinking that Amir Khan had retired. Certainly, after the crushing knockout he suffered at the hands of Canelo Alvarez in 2016, plenty thought that he should have.

He hasn’t, and will take to the ring against Terence Crawford in Madison Square Garden this Saturday night for one last shot at placing himself among the greats of the game.

Khan is one of the most confusing boxers on the circuit. He was a transcendent talent as a kid, an Olympic silver medallist at just 17, and has the potentially the fastest hands in the sport – certainly the fastest at his weight or above. He’s a former World Champion who has been in with some of the best of his generation: Canelo, of course, but also Zab Judah, Paulie Malignaggi, Danny Garcia, Marcos Maidana, Lamont Peterson, Marco Antonio Barrera…you get the point. It’s some resume.

And yet, despite that, Khan is probably most famous for who he hasn’t fought that who he has. He spent years chasing both Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao but never managed to convince either of them to step into the ring with him. On top of that, his nearest domestic competitor, Kell Brook, has spent the thick end of five years trying to get Khan to agree to fight him, without success. Khan chose to dance with Canelo – giving up a huge weight advantage and copping a horrendous knockout for his trouble – because he couldn’t get either of his targets to face him. For his sins, Brook did the same and got leathered by Gennady Golovkin. Such is boxing.

Khan is also widely disliked as a fighter, especially in his native UK. This is particularly strange, as he is probably in the top three best fighters of his generation in a nation obsessed with boxing, not to mention a successful Olympian in a country that values Olympic success beyond almost anything. During the fight tomorrow, go check British Twitter: it won’t be people cheering him on.

The elephant in the room, of course, is that Khan is a British Pakistani Muslim and came to prominence in 2004, when vilification of Britain’s Muslim community was at its height. The specter of race is always there when talking about Amir Khan. No British Asian – Asian, in the UK context, always means heritage in South Asia rather than East Asia – has ever played for England at soccer, the national sport. Only one – Khan – has ever won an Olympic medal in any sport. He is by far the most prominent Asian athlete in the UK, and probably the most prominent Asian in general.

Amir Khan has always worn his heritage and his role as a standard bearer for his community with pride. He often fought in shorts emblazoned with both British and Pakistani flags. His personal life has been under permanent scrutiny: he has twice been convicted of driving offenses and relationship dramas with his wife have often been played out in public. But by the standards of boxers, Khan’s misdemeanors are relatively tame. Certainly, he has not deserved half of the abuse that he has received. Simply put, there are a lot of people in the United Kingdom that enjoy seeing Amir Khan lose, and it has absolutely nothing to do with what he does in the ring.

Khan has done more than enough to earn the love of his countrymen. His fights are almost never dull, and his style is easy for casual fans to appreciate. Yet, probably as a result of the reaction he has received from many in the UK, Khan has often chosen to fight outside of his homeland in search of greater financial gains, often in the backyards of his opponents. From his first fight in the US – in the small room of Madison Square Garden in 2010 – until his loss to Canelo in Vegas in 2016, he fought just twice on home soil. While the likes of Anthony Joshua are selling out stadiums, Khan has been absent.

Khan’s strengths and weaknesses as a fighter have colored why Manny and Floyd turned him down, and why few will fight him on his own turf. He is as fast as they come and thus the sort of fighter who legitimately could have outpointed Floyd, while his major weakness – a weak chin – was less likely to be exposed by the defensive Mayweather. It was just too easy for Floyd to just fight someone else. Pacquiao, too, wasn’t interested in such a risky fight, despite having signed to fight Khan in the Middle East. Khan doesn’t bring enough to the table to force them to fight him, but he certainly brings enough to make them think twice.

Though Khan has four defeats, there is an argument to say that he is a lot better than that makes him look. One can disregard the Canelo loss, for one, as he should never have been in the ring with Alvarez in the first place. It was a free hit for Khan, and he certainly got hit. His early loss to Colombian fighter Breidis Prescott, too, is caveated: Khan was 22 and inexperienced and has proven to have been a success in the long-term, as he learned plenty from the defeat. Against Lamont Peterson, Khan was considered to have won by many of those in the arena, was harshly deducted two points for pushing (without which he would have won) and Peterson was later suspended for PED use. That leaves only Danny Garcia, who knocked Khan down three times to score a huge underdog victory in 2012. Garcia’s record since suggests that a defeat to him isn’t much to be ashamed of.

One might legitimately question Khan, especially given the caliber of opponent in the other corner. Terence Crawford is a superlative fighter: he’s ranked second in the world pound for pound and not without reason. His record stands at 34-0, he unified the titles at lightweight and then moved up to win them again at welterweight. He can slip from orthodox to southpaw and back again, has fast hands and packs power. Oh, and he doesn’t get hit. He’s as close to a complete package as there is anywhere in boxing today. Crawford will enter Madison Square Garden on Saturday night as a strong favorite.

That said, he’s never faced anyone like Khan. The man from Bolton would himself be favorite against everyone that Crawford has beaten to date. It’s as big a challenge as Terence has faced. For Khan, it is the last chance to be taken seriously on the world stage. He’ll still have Brook, of course, as a final payday, but as far as world titles go, this is it. He’s up against it, but don’t count him out.

Source: Mike Meehall Wood