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Virgil Hunter plotting Amir Khan’s coronation

Oakland, United States: Amir Khan has the potential to cement his place in boxing history and become one of the greatest the sport has ever seen, his American trainer Virgil Hunter says.

Khan’s only limitations on future success are of his own making and, Hunter claims, a multi-million-dollar box-office fight with Floyd Mayweather scheduled for May 2014 is definitely on the cards.

Khan’s prospective fight with Devon Alexander, which at one stage was heavily rumoured to be set for Dubai, fell through last weekend and the Briton will instead watch Alexander take on Shawn Porter at Brooklyn’s Barclays Centre on Saturday.

But Hunter says that won’t rule Khan out of a potential clash with Mayweather. “I think logic says that the possibility of the two fighting each other is quite high, so that would be something that I know that he’s looking forward to. And, of course, I would be looking forward to it also,” Hunter told Gulf News in an exclusive interview.

“I think it’s definitely a fight that makes sense and a fight that the people will be talking about. I’ve heard that Floyd wants to come to the UK. I don’t see any fighter on the horizon wanting to make the UK fight more exciting or more profitable and more intriguing to the world than with Amir, so that’s something that I hope could happen as it would be a big moment in his career.”

Hunter became Khan’s fourth trainer in September 2012 after the Bolton boxer, who turns 27 on Sunday, ended his near four-year association with Freddie Roach.

The American, who has mentored world super middleweight champion Andre Ward for many years, recalls how Khan personally sought to work with the man credited with revealing ‘the science of boxing’.

“I received a phone call from a gentleman in Los Angeles, his name was Mir and he asked me whether I’d be interested in meeting with Amir and taking a look at him and that Amir had sought me out as someone that he would like to work with,” Hunter said. “So I agreed and hopped on the plane — I believe it was that night — and I went to New York to meet him.”

Even as a 17-year-old rising star, Hunter was aware of Khan. He recognised his potential first hand as early as the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, where Khan won a lightweight silver medal, and Hunter helped Ward to win light heavyweight gold. The opportunity to train Khan, however, was not something that Hunter had ever envisaged.

“I felt he had an amazing amount of athletic ability and talent and that he displayed an uncommon mental head for his age,” he said. “He had a natural attitude towards victory. He wanted to win. That’s what I picked up from him because I happened to see him at the fight when he had to come from behind and win, when his back was against the wall.

“But as far as the building blocks are concerned, of course, I mean, it was a little obvious that the building blocks were in place for success,” said Hunter.

His propensity for working with his fighters every day has been tested, as he lives in northern California’s Bay Area while Khan spends most of his time in the UK. Hunter, however, has been able to get Khan to commit to mini training camps in between fights and he says that Khan will reap the rewards of this regime.

“When you’re involved with him in a training camp, he works hard and he’s an exceptional athlete,” Hunter said. “He’s very coachable and he’s not bringing anything negative to a training camp or putting up any barriers that deny him getting coached. That’s his strength — he’s a pleasure to work with.

“If he directs and re-focuses his energy and time in boxing, if he can bring that to the forefront, there’s nowhere else for him to go but up. But he has to commit in between fights, this is where he learns, this is where you correct your flaws. He said that he would, I believe him and, for the first time in his career, in between fights, he’ll be at training camps, which he should have been through his whole career.

“A mini camp can be anywhere from 15 to 20 days to work on one particular thing or what you might consider a flaw. It’s also an opportunity to just kind of wake the body up and get your timing and all the things like that. It’s designed to keep your level.”

Along with Khan’s plaudits, however, Hunter has become accustomed to the barbs in a sport that sees rivalries amplified in the media. These can get too personal, and that was the case when Khan met Danny Garcia in July 2012. At a pre-fight press conference, Angel Garcia — his opponent’s trainer and father — questioned Khan’s Pakistani heritage and said that he’d never seen a Pakistani fight. The comments were viewed in some quarters as possibly racist towards Team Khan.

In the ring, Khan was floored four times by Garcia before being stopped in the fourth round. Looking on from afar, Hunter was transfixed, knowing that Khan could do better.

“It’s a sport where you take no prisoners and also you have no compassion,” he said. “So that remark from the Garcia camp, the things that they said, I wouldn’t have said them. However, they are part of the game and part of the fighting process because it’s a sport where one loss can get you some negative press, where one loss can affect your career, so when you’re in a situation like that, a lot of things can go off.”

Khan was still under Roach for the Garcia loss, but the two split soon after. Roach’s widely reported comment to ‘keep him away from the punchers’ was nothing but sour grapes in Hunter’s view. Khan’s issues in making weight, and the tendency to fade in later rounds, have now disappeared under Hunter’s guidance and now there are no concerns over Khan’s hydration either.

Although rarely critical of his predecessors, Hunter nevertheless admits Khan’s previous preparation and the defeat to Garcia was avoidable.

“He wouldn’t have lost if he was with me at the time, most definitely not,” Hunter said. “Coming off the controversy from the Lamont Peterson fight, he didn’t anticipate the loss.

“I actually thought that he fought quite well. He got caught but he was ahead, that one punch did not dictate the outcome of the fight. I think he survived the punches effectively. It’s encouraging to know that he recuperates well.”

The issue of Khan’s perceived shaky defence, however, won’t go away and this is something that Hunter pays particular attention to, with more than a hint of concern at former practices.

He said: “Because of his athleticism, and because of his relative youth and hand speed, he was never really taught a defence. So he’s open to being taught a great defence without sacrificing his offense.

“I really care about him and I care about him because he gets unnecessary criticism. There’s a lot of people in the game that don’t like him and there are a lot of people who would like to see him fail. I’ve learned that from being with him and by some of the questions being asked of him.

“Some mistake confidence for arrogance and I think it’s undue, it’s unnecessary. I’m now with him all the way and I will protect him to the best of my ability, so that’s where it stands with Amir and myself.”

— The writer is a freelance journalist based in the UK