It was the end of Amir Khan’s boxing life late on Saturday night at Madison Square Garden in New York when a dreaded combination of age, desire and illegal punches left him bloodied, suffering and desperate after just seventeen seconds of round six.
Khan was fighting a losing battle from the first bell against Terence Crawford, the WBO welterweight champion, and was dropped in round one, shaken, chased, abused and in round six was clearly hit so low that he instantly doubled over in pain.
It was low, but it was not intentional and as Khan hobbled back to his corner, sucking up air and initially unable to talk, there was an instant frenzy of speculation in the ring, outside the ring and in a lot of living rooms. At that point of utter confusion, with the Garden’s lights slowly starting to illuminate the ancient hall, Amir had five minutes to recover under boxing rules, five minutes to clear his head and ask his body if it could continue the fight. I’m not so sure he asked the question, but he knew the answer.
I was in the ring, just a few feet from Amir when Virgil Hunter, Khan’s trainer, called the fight off to end the mess, end the fight and probably end the remarkable career of Khan. It was an ugly way to finish a very public life in the boxing ring and Khan looked broken.
“I asked him if he could continue? He said ‘No’, and I stopped the fight,” Hunter said, emotion heavy in his drained voice. “I have read studies that show five minutes is not enough time to recover after being hit in the testicles.” Hunter did what his fighter wanted, it is that simple.
“I would never quit, I couldn’t breathe,” Khan told me. “He was better than I expected, but I was still in the fight before that last punch.” Crawford, meanwhile, insisted it was not low, which it clearly was. There is, however, a suggestion that it was low but not lethal, which Khan rejected thirty minutes after the fight when he offered to show me the swelling and bruising to those most private and protected regions.
At the post-fight conference a bruised and bloodied Khan initially sat down to polite applause and was then confronted by Crawford’s dismissive attitude and words. Crawford insisted the punch was not on the groin, but at some harmless spot on the leg, which is still highly illegal. “You done quit,” Crawford repeated. It seemed a bit harsh and if Khan, after a career of extreme bravery, had decided to quit he could have easily added a touch of theatrics and simply jumped on the canvas when hit somewhere on his thigh during an unforgettable night.
The crowd had filed in slowly during the preliminary fights, gently filling the slopes of the ancient hall with their phones and cheers and suddenly by about 11pm the pieces of a great fight night were all in place. Forget the ending, this was an event, watched at the Garden by just under 16,000 fans
In the opening round Crawford connected cleanly with a fast counter right hand and as Khan’s legs started the now familiar dance of hurt, Crawford followed up with a left and Khan was down, not hurt badly but clearly bad enough to be looking up at the lights and the referee. He survived the round, won the second, but was having to fight at a relentless pace just to stay competitive. Crawford, now unbeaten in 35, was slowly closing down the shrinking ring, taking away inch-by-inch all of the escape routes for Khan.
“After the first round, Amir had to change the plan,” said Hunter. “It was about defence, getting through the rounds - by round five he was starting to measure Crawford’s rhythm. And then it was over.”
The reality is that Khan was never comfortable, never happy and Crawford, with his wicked smile, was just taking his time; the illegal finishing blow was just part of his bag of old-school tricks, a punch designed to slow down an opponent. It worked, Khan could not - when the fight was stopped - have continued. Crawford could have simply taken another round or two, found another headshot and finished Khan without debate. Crawford is arguably the finest boxer in the world right now.
And Khan, well, he has a nice bank account, a lovely wife and family and many glorious memories from a life in the boxing game. He was just 17 when he won an Olympic silver medal in 2004 and still only 32 when Crawford’s punches ended his career in the Garden. He can now leave the sport proud of his achievements; world champion, a name in America, a pay-per-view attraction and the chaos of Saturday night’s finish should not ruin his legacy. Khan has done all of his fighting long before Saturday’s first bell.