By Jake Donovan
Ever since his title winning effort over Andriy Kotelnik two years ago, Amir Khan has claimed to be the best junior welterweight on the planet.
With each passing win, his massive herd of supporters have been every bit as vocal in echoing such sentiments.
This weekend offers the chance for the confident Brit to truly put something behind his words, as he takes on Zab Judah at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas (Saturday, HBO, 10PM ET/PT).
Standing in the way of such a boast becoming a definitive reality has been Timothy Bradley, an undefeated American who entered the title fray a year ahead of Khan and has repeatedly bumped off top competition.
However, Bradley’s career progress has come to a screeching halt thanks to an ongoing promotional contract dispute with Gary Shaw Productions and Thompson Boxing, both of whom claim there’s still time left on the clock.
Until it gets sorted out, all Bradley can do is sit back and watch the parade go by, his top spot (which isn’t definitively his to begin with) in jeopardy as the best of the rest in the division march onward.
Leading the charge is none other than Khan, perhaps the only other junior welterweight in the world who boasts a resume that matches – if not trumps – that of the sculpted American.
The great debate began just two years ago, when Manny Pacquiao laid claim to the lineal junior welterweight crown with his rousing second round knockout of then-reigning king Ricky Hatton, only to immediately bolt to the welterweight division.
At the time, Khan had yet to make his mark and in fact was still in the recovery stage of his career after getting blitzed in less than a minute by Breidis Prescott just a year prior.
Meanwhile, Bradley had already claimed wins over Junior Witter and Kendall Holt, with impressive performances against Nate Campbell and Lamont Peterson to eventually follow, emerging as the clear-cut choice for the division’s de facto leader.
Khan’s points win over Kotelnik – which took place two years ago this past Monday – suggested that company at the top was well on its way.
Lacking at the moment were sufficient credentials, though his 2010 campaign coupled with Bradley’s actions – or lack thereof – helped bridge the gap considerably.
Khan racked up wins over a pair of Top 5 contenders on the year, while Bradley’s lone fight over those same 12 months took place at the welterweight limit.
First for Khan – who captured Olympic Silver while serving as the lone member of the 2004 UK boxing squad – on the year was a stateside debut. The Brit traveled to New York, where his rabid supporters helped nullify the hometown advantage that was supposed to be enjoyed by former titlist Paul Malignaggi, who was forced to succumb in the 11th round of their HBO-televised bout.
Seven months later came the first time that Khan could legitimately stake his claim as a candidate for the top junior welterweight, surviving a to-hell-and-back war with Marcos Maidana in a fight hailed by many as the very best of 2010. Khan scored an opening round knockdown and somehow survived a nightmarish 10th round to take a well-deserved decision win and serve notice that t where was plenty of substance to go along with the style.
One month later, Bradley returned to the mix, though perrhaps with more of a whimper than with a bang. Still, his technical decision win over fellow unbeaten titlist Devon Alexander was impressive enough in a manner of collecting scalps to where his overall body of work had to be taken into consideration.
Wherever Khan stood at the time, he certainly didn’t gain any ground with his following performance – a lethargic technical decision of his own in a homecoming bout against Paul McCloskey that did little more than mark time.
The fight was supposed to set up a head-on collision with Bradley, the reason that July 23 was reserved by HBO executives, and also why the network invested so heavily into their lead-in bouts.
Instead, Bradley passed on the opportunity when deciding that he would rather ride out his remaining promotional contract and test the free agent market, perhaps revisiting this fight at another time.
By the time he revisits, he could potentially find himself in second place.
That’s because Khan opted this time around to not rest on his laurels, but instead come to terms for an alphabet unification with Judah, who is on his third tour as junior welterweight titlist in addition to having once upon a time served as lineal welterweight king.
Judah managed to punch his way back into respectability earlier this year, dominating Kaizer Mabuza en route to a seventh round stoppage in laying claim to a vacant title belt.
The win was a much needed shot in the arm for the transplanted Brooklynite, who now calls Vegas his home. Four months prior to conquering Mabuza, he struggled mightily and was forced to climb off of the canvas to barely eke out a disputed points win over Lucas Matthysse.
Controversy aside, the performance itself against an undefeated rising contender was enough to land Judah among the world’s best junior welterweights for the first time in seven years. The follow-up against Mabuza reminded people of the damage he was once capable of causing, and that there was plenty of fight left in him.
Enough to where there is legitimate belief (or concern, depending on your viewpoint) that the early rounds against Khan could provide some seriously anxious moments.
Also enough to where if Khan comes out victorious, serious discussion will immediately follow and perhaps with more conviction than has previously been the case in regards to the true divisional leader.
Most will argue that a fight with Bradley still needs to take place in order to provide a definitive king.
What can be settled once and for all as early as this weekend is in which order the two appear in the rankings by the time such a showdown takes place.
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of Boxingscene.com. Follow Jake on Twitter at twitter.com/JakeNDaBox or submit questions/comments to JakeNDaBox@gmail.com .