By Terence Dooley
In April 2006, I made a phone call that brought me into a higher level of boxing than I had imagined possible when starting out at various .coms. I had somehow managed to obtain Billy Graham’s phone number just before “The Preacher” guided his fighter, Ricky Hatton, to a world light-welterweight title win over Kostya Tszyu in June 2005. It lay dormant in my mobile for many months. When I eventually plucked up the courage to phone the intimidating fight figure, he told me that he had a deep distrust of the Internet, but he gave me 10 minutes to change this opinion.
At the end of the 10 minutes, he paused for a moment then asked: “Can I trust you to talk to the Internet for me and let them know what I’m about?” I told him I’d give it a shot. By noon the next day, I was sat in Kerry Kayes’s Betta Bodies gym waiting for Graham, who had invited me to watch a training session.
Introductions were made, interviews were conducted. As we left Graham's Phoenix Gym base, we said our goodbyes and I walked away. Graham called me back: “We’ve got sparring coming in tomorrow, I’ll see you then," he said.
I went back the next day, stayed the whole week and we hooked up for all the trainer’s fights through to his last one with Hatton, a decision win over Juan Lazcano in May 2008, and Graham’s very last job in the sport, Ojay Abrahams’s first-round disqualification loss to Jamie Ambler in August of the same year (the less said about that night's long, epic and surreal car drive home the better).
Graham and Hatton were preparing for a WBA welterweight world title challenge against Luis Collazo when I first met them. Roll on eight years and Collazo’s meeting Amir Khan, 28-3 (19), in the Oldham’s fighter’s first fight at the weight. Collazo, 35-5 (18), was Hatton’s first foe at 147 so Graham knows from personal experience that the former WBA and IBF world light-welterweight titlist is taking a big risk at the MGM Grand on Saturday night.
“I’m concerned for Amir going into this fight, that’s for sure, but I actually think he’ll be better at welter,” said Graham when speaking to BoxingScene about the BoxNation-televised fight. “It’s been a struggle for Amir to make light-welter, so it’s a different position Ricky was in that the time he fought Collazo. Collazo is very good though—I’m really impressed by Collazo and have been for a long time.
“Making light-welterweight wouldn’t have helped Amir’s chin. It isn’t the best chin in the world and it isn’t the worst—we’ve seen him take some big shots against [Marcos Rene] Maidana. What [Breidis] Prescott hit him with would have knocked out a mule. What is most alarming is how much it registers when he gets hit, but that’s part of what makes him exciting, it really is.”
Talking about Collazo took us back to 2006. At the time, Graham was extremely wary of the southpaw and had asked me if: “You’ve seen Collazo fight, and I mean really seen him fight?” I had. Graham had too. He argued against Hatton-Collazo from the outset.
“I just thought it was a ridiculous fight to take, and I told everybody that,” he recalled. “I got a tape of Collazo’s fights sent to me, but I hadn’t wanted Ricky to move up anyway for anyone but Mayweather. I had no problem with stepping up if it meant fighting the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world. Collazo’s a southpaw, which is an advantage, especially if they are smooth, as they take away a lot of stuff from you and can make you look bad. I wanted Ricky to shine. It was a silly fight.
“Anyway, I’m watching these tapes, looking at it and thinking he’s not bad. He was nice and smooth, some southpaws can look ungainly and awkward, but he was really putting stuff together. I thought: ‘Ricky will do it and get the title’, but I really didn’t want it too much.
“A few days later, I looked at the dates on the fights. They were from a while ago. One fight was a second-round stoppage to a wily pro called Edwin Cassiani. I insisted on getting another tape, which Don King made difficult at first, and then we saw he was a totally different fighter by the time he won the title against Jose Antonio Rivera [W SD 12] and defended it against Miguel Angel Gonzalez [W RTD 7].
“We had a meeting in Monaco, I told them all categorically that I didn’t want this fight. That it would make me out to be a fool as a trainer if I took this fight, so I said I wouldn’t stand for it but I wasn’t running the show. Ricky just said: ‘F*** it. I’ll fight him’. I contacted Boxing News to tell them I hadn’t wanted the fight. I didn’t want to be one of those trainers who says that after the fact. I wouldn’t let people think I had bad judgment as a trainer, but I still thought Ricky would win, and he did do.”
Hatton scored a flash knockdown in the first round only for Collazo to slowly come into the contest. By round 12, the American was landing fierce shots on Hatton, forcing the challenger to ride out the storm to take a close decision. Far from a patsy, Collazo had dished out a last ditch pasting and landed enough leather to persuade Hatton to dip back down to 140 for his next few fights. Still, it case a case of “Job done” as Hatton had showed Floyd Mayweather that he could travel and was a viable option at 147.
“It was close, we learnt a lot about Luis Collazo that night,” said Graham. “I tried to find out as much as I could about his personality when they said the fight was on. I really liked the guy. We found out that he wasn’t just seeing himself as an opponent for Ricky’s big U.S. fight, he was very ambitious and wanted to make a name for himself. Collazo proved himself to be one hell of a fighter, Ricky’s shots just bounced off him, but we got through and I was glad to see the back of him.”
Collazo’s stock dipped when dropping a wide decision to Shan Mosley in 2007, he lost a close one for the WBC title against Andre Berto in 2009, lost again on points to Freddy Hernandez in 2011 then built up momentum in 2013 before sealing the Khan fight with a stunning second-round demolition of Victor Ortiz in January. The “Nearly man” had become the “Banging them out early man”.
“People go on about the Mosley fight,” said Graham. “Let’s face it, ‘Sugar’ Shane Mosley was still sh*t-hot—look at what he did after that—and he’s a great fighter with a granite chin, so people read too much into that.
“I picked Collazo to beat Ortiz, so him chinning Ortiz wasn’t a surprise—he was definitely going to win that fight. He also looks a lot stronger now. He’s 33, which is a warning for Amir. At 33, he’ll be better than the guy who fought Ricky Hatton, trust me. The guy’s got ambition. He’s not shopworn yet, he’s battle hardened and he’s a better fighter now.
“The age thing is a load of crap. Some kids in boxing over-exaggerate the age thing. Give me a good 30-year-old fighter, as long as he’s not shopworn and has lived the life, and, as long as he still has desire, he’s a lot more dangerous than a 20-year-old kid. Look at [Bernard] Hopkins—he closes fights down. You’ve got to take your hat off to Bernard for what he can do, but that’s proper extreme. Luis will be up for it. He believes in himself and is an ambitious man.
“Saying all this, Amir’s good, and he is lightening quick as well as hitting hard enough to command respect. Amir can hurt you to the head and body. Amir has fighting spirit as well. It could be that he’s too fast and reflexive for Luis, who isn’t slow, but he’s not Amir Khan fast. I’m glad Amir took this. As I said, I wouldn’t look forward to fighting Collazo myself, but as a fan it’s the type of fight you love, the one you want to see.”
Speed is key for Khan; he also might have to ride out some storms. Graham believes that a lot rests on the 27-year-old handing himself better when hurt than he has done in the recent past. Khan either stands and trades or gets on his bike, Graham wants him to forgo both and plump for a more pragmatic approach.
He said: “Khan could possibly stay one step ahead because of that speed, but I think that’s all he’s got on Collazo, who is a well-rounded fighter coming to his peak. I hope Collazo is up for it and Khan bangs a bit, because that’s what will make it a great fight.
“Yeah, Amir can get hurt, so could other great fighters. As a coach, I hear them saying all these things that need to be done for Khan’s chin, boxing on the move and all that lot. Let me tell you something, I was a tall fighter and the last thing you should do when you’re hit on the chin and buzzed up is start moving around the ring. Your distance is f***ed. Your balance is gone. You’ve got a fuzziness in your brain and ringing in your ears. You’ve got no concept of anything because you’re all groggy. That’s when you have to dig deep and grab hold of that f***. You should stay safe, and close is safe.
“Commentator’s say: ‘Amir’s hurt, he’s got to keep moving’, what a load of old bollocks. He just needs to learn how to tie people up, step aside, take them for a walk, let the referee untangle them before getting back to work again. What he doesn’t need to do is leap about then start storming in again before his judgment is clear and his brain is working. That’s what I think you need, not getting up on your toes and dancing about.
“A cool head wins fights. A cool head is a real asset to a top pro. I won’t knock a bit of passion, either. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of passion. In fact, passion and desire’s probably won more fights than it’s lost. I’m not telling Amir to become a robot. Just tie people up when you’re hurt and stop moving about without any thought. Close is safe as long as you know what you’re doing. You don’t have to be afraid in close if you can handle it. Getting on your bike with an unclear head is bad tactics. You’ve got to survive the moment, that’s it—don’t start working until your head is clear and your distance is back, then you can put things right.
“I know what it’s like in the heat of that moment. If someone hits you on the chin, well you wouldn’t want to make any life changing decisions in that moment because you’re not aware of what you’re doing, so how can we expect fighters to show the best judgment after they’ve been hit? It has to be drilled into them until it becomes an instinct.”
Memories of Hatton’s late struggles with Collazo crowded in again, “The Hitman” came out looking for a big finish only to be met by some huge right hooks. Hatton showed the level of grit and savvy required to move away from the brink of a crisis.
“We told Ricky he needed a big round, but we actually knew the scores. I used to do that, if possible, to get an advantage and know where I’m at,” revealed Graham. “I knew he was in front, but Collazo had come on so we wanted a big last round, one last step on the gas to seal it. Then he got caught badly. Of course, Ricky knew to stay close because that’s what I’d preached to him. Those shots late in the fight would have taken out most other fighters, but Ricky was special.”
Collazo is no one’s idea of a fall guy; he will feel that he is at the peak of his powers, mature enough to come through big occasions and young enough to rise to them. The New Yorker may also feel that he needs a win to make up for the bad nights against Mosley and Hernandez.
“That’s the kind of guy he is, he’s an ambitious fighter who might think he’s underachieved, and he might be right in thinking that,” said Graham. “He’s not slow, he can put them together—he’s the real deal. I expected Ortiz to go the way it went. Collazo could bomb Khan out as well, he’s more than capable of it, but I just think Amir’ll be too quick for him, so long as he’s disciplined when he gets hurt.”
Khan has been unfairly criticized in the past. Sure, he has had some bad nights, but he has also provided plenty of excitement in both victory and defeat. Mayweather’s aesthetically boring brilliance is great for the sport yet it also needs the blood and guts gladiatorial spectacles that fighters like Khan can deliver.
“It’s because of the way he fights,” answered Graham when asked to sum up Khan’s enduring appeal to Golden Boy Promotions and U.S. TV viewers. “People want to see people hurting each other, but they also say they don’t want to see anybody get hurt. I like to watch fighters who want to do damage to each other. It’s the nature of game, and it’s a brutal game but I happen to love it. People forget how savage it is, but then they want to see more of that brutality than ever before. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s what we all like to see, but the difference is that I want to see it done skillfully.”
He added: “I can admire all styles of boxing, you do what it takes to win a fight, but this is the truth: people want to see excitement, people rocked and hurt, knocked down and coming back to win. Apart from when it’s your own fighter, if it’s your guy you’ll settle for a points win with no real drama! You don’t enjoy those exciting fights involving your own fighter at the time. It’s a buzz when it’s over. At the time it’s happing it’s a nightmare to sit there and watch it unfold.”
Graham laughed before acknowledging that he is still on the fence over this one. His coaching brain tells him that Khan should and will box to a game plan, keep it long, build an early lead and take a clear decision win; his fighting heart is telling him that Amir’s fighting heart could step in and turn it into a tear up. All bets are off if that’s the case.
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