By Ryan Maquiñana
After a one-fight hiatus, strength and conditioning coach Alex Ariza has come back to Amir Khan’s corner in time for the WBA junior welterweight champion’s unification bout with IBF holder Zab Judah this Saturday.
In the wake of Ariza’s unceremonious departure from the team last April, Khan admitted he was unsatisfied with his performance against Paul McCloskey. The Brit’s lackluster sixth-round technical decision win paved the way for Ariza’s return and some immediate adjustments.
“I think that we had a longer camp for about ten weeks,” Ariza says. “We needed to focus more on strength training. The gameplan is to get Amir bigger and stronger slowly but surely as he eventually prepares to move up in weight. Hopefully he’ll be able to generate a little more punching power here against Judah.”
Handspeed has always been Khan’s forte, and before his one-fight absence, Ariza has endeavored to transform his prodigal charge into a more complete fighter.
“I started making changes starting with the Marcos Maidana fight,” Ariza recalls. “I was hoping Maidana wasn’t going to get up after that first round when Amir got him with that body shot. It’s a fine line. You need to be careful about sacrificing strength to gain speed and vice versa. He’s punching harder now in sparring, and progressing quickly, but moreso than in the past for this camp, we’ve emphasized strength.”
What were the building blocks to harnessing Khan’s strength? Ariza quickly points to his fighter’s anatomy for the answer.
“When I first got him, I felt that he was so symmetrically imbalanced,” he remembers. “He was so magically muscular for a small guy. He was built up top and had such skinny legs for a boxer. I think that’s what caused him to suffer in other areas as far as range of motion, his balance. His speed and handwork didn’t complement each other simultaneously and rhythmically together.
“Sometimes when you’re big like that you develop this false sense that you can punch through anything and your skills start to deteriorate. You rely more on your power and not on your technique which is what got you to where you are. We had to reconstruct him completely, starting with his speed and then everything else. It took a long time."
Of course, Ariza first made his name in the sport for his work with the pound-for-pound king, Manny Pacquiao. He cites the “Pac-Man” as a case study in the importance of a well-proportioned body.
“Manny’s got powerful legs,” Ariza says. “The thing is that most trainers believe power comes from upper body or shoulders, but power comes from leg and core strength. My program focuses so much on those things. Amir has the speed, tremendous volume, which are things that Manny has. We just had to change some things.
“You know, Manny didn’t become this super big puncher. If you remember his last fights in the lower weight classes, he went 12 rounds with [Juan Manuel] Marquez and 12 rounds with [Marco Antonio] Barrera. When you start to change things and add things, and they complement the other things you do, that’s when things start to happen like they did for Manny and now for Amir. He needs to be complete.”
The proof is in the pudding. Unless you count Shane Mosley’s bogus knockdown of Pacquiao last May that referee Kenny Bayless acknowledged was a mistake (a rare error for him), none of the three big names Ariza is associated with—Khan, Pacquiao, and Julio Cesar Chavez Jr.—have touched the canvas. Many say that you either have a chin or you don’t, but Ariza argues otherwise.
“The big misconception is that people believe that punch resistance comes from building a big neck,” Ariza warns. “But when you analyze it, the first thing you notice is that when a fighter gets hit, his legs are the first thing to go. Of course, being well-conditioned and being pushed to the limit are things that will build resiliency. But really, everyone that trains with me knows I focus on legs. Having strong, durable, flexible legs are important for enduring punches.”
Lately Judah threw some verbal lobs at Khan’s camp, including one that alluded to the claim that they had broken into Ariza’s hotel room and stolen his contract with Khan, a development that almost put their relationship on ice.
“I don’t think that was a swipe at me as much as it was Amir’s guys,” Ariza says. “I don’t dislike Zab. He’s a good guy, but he’s got to do what he’s got to do. It’s part of his game. It’s nothing personal. This is a competition, and a lot of this game is mental.”
It’s also physical, and Ariza expects Judah, who has enlisted the services of Victor Conte, to be in prime form.
“I didn’t know Zab was working with Victor Conte, but either way, we always have to get my guy prepared because whenever anyone goes up against Freddie [Roach] and I, they’re in their best shape,” Ariza declares. “When I saw Chavez fight [John] Duddy, that was the best Duddy in years! And when [Sebastian] Zbik fought us, we saw ten tapes on him and he came in great shape. And the Maidana that fought us was incredible. That’s not the same Maidana who fought [Erik] Morales. They come in tip-top shape ready for war, and we need to be ready for them in our own way.”
The scale is a good barometer for a fighter’s readiness, and in this instance, Khan’s target is 140 pounds, a task that usually involves whittling away weight by any means necessary. Not for Ariza.
“With the way I bring my fighters down in weight, there’s a little ritual I do to get my fighters ready before they have their first solid meal,” he says. “I don’t believe in dehydrating the body. I do things a little differently. I don’t go through the whole week without eating or drinking water. I want to prepare the body before it takes on something heavy like a steak or beef or something like that.”
Only a few days away from fight night, Ariza assures this writer that Khan is right on schedule.
“Amir’s sparring is winding down now,” he informs me. “He did about four or five rounds with [Cleotis] Mookie [Pendarvis]. I think when you’re conditioned, your confidence goes through the roof. This is what I tell my guys, especially when they’re going through three or four sparring partners. You’re never going to spar at 100 percent strength. We train so hard in the morning you’re constantly being challenged. It’s constantly a fight game and you might be sparring at 60 percent.
“When fight week comes, I’m all about resting and recuperating and eating and preparing for the fight. When you go into the ring 100 percent, your confidence goes through the roof. You’re resting since there’s no more sprints, no more swimming, no more sparring left leading up to fight week. You go from 60 percent to 100 percent. You’re like a beast being unleashed.”
This Saturday, Ariza hopes to let Khan loose on Judah.