By Jake Donovan
Not even a new trainer can shake loose old habits for Amir Khan. Luckily for the supremely talented Brit, his skill set combined with fresh eyes and words in his corner was enough to overcome disaster as he scored a narrow unanimous decision win over Julio Diaz in their modified welterweight bout Saturday evening in Sheffield, England.
Khan was fighting in England for the first time since his stoppage win over Paul McCloskey just over two years ago. The crowd reminded him of how long it’s been, offering a deafening round of cheers to fill the Motorpoint Arena the moment Khan made his way to the ring.
The action in the early going wasn’t quite as inspiring, but effective enough for the former unified 140 lb. titlist to pile up rounds on the scorecard. Khan offered a subdued performance in the first few rounds, boxing wisely and avoiding anything representing a senseless brawl.
Such tactics negated the perceived puncher’s chance given to Diaz, a former lightweight titlist now in the twilight of his career. The aged veteran knew the role he was assigned in traveling abroad, though didn’t necessarily mean he was prepared to follow the script.
The first truly dramatic moment of the fight came in round four. Diaz, undoubtedly shut out on all three cards to that point, punched his way back into the contest after scoring a knockdown courtesy of a left hook and right hand. Khan struggled to find his balance after the initial left hook, falling to the canvas via slight delay before quickly regaining his senses.
I remember everything that hapened in the round," Khan recalled afterward. "He caught me while I was off balance and I couldn't recompose myself.
Trainer Virgil Hunter – in his second fight as Khan’s chief cornerman – kept his fighter calm in between rounds, simply reminding him of the game plan to which he needed to adhere in order to reclaim the lead. Khan obliged, boxing his way to a successful round five and even scoring with a right hand that drove Diaz to the ropes.
Momentum remained in Khan’s favor for the next several rounds, as Diaz was reduced to a plodding brawler who enjoyed minimal success beyond the earlier knockdown. Khan gained confidence with each passing round, confidently shaking off and avoiding the incoming to score with power punches of his own.
Perhaps too much confidence was gained, as Diaz reminded the Brit of his fight altering power in a back-and-forth eighth round. Khan offered lateral movement while darting in and out with body shots and left hooks. Diaz eventually timed the house fighter, scoring with a right hand to briefly wobble the legs of his heavily favored foe.
Disaster was averted when the referee gave Khan an unofficial timeout to chastise Diaz for taunting. The threat of a knockout wasn’t entirely imminent, though the sequence allowed the crowd favorite to clear his head.
Khan repeatedly shot out his jab to start the ninth, but couldn’t help in getting caught up in an exchange from Diaz. Straight right hands by the former 140 lb. champ were met with a left hook that slightly stunned him. Diaz failed to properly follow up, allowing Khan to move out of harm’s way and score from the outside.
The turn of events down the stretch suggested Diaz was perhaps preserving energy. The 33-year old enjoyed a huge momentum swing in the 10th round, to where trainer Virgil Hunter tried in vain to restore his fighter’s confidence.
Diaz quickly restored whatever lingering doubt was previously running through Khan’s mind in a free-swinging 11th round. A left hook left Khan on rubber legs, getting caught as his chin was in the air and his hands down by his waist. Diaz connected with three more chin shots, leaving Khan to wobble around the ring but somehow survive the round.
The kid gloves officially came off prior to the 12th and final round, as Hunter demanded that Khan remain on the outside and resist all urge to get caught up in a brawl.
Khan attempted to carry out his marching orders, but Diaz fought purposeful, applying constant pressure while successfully cutting off the ring. Khan regained the crowd’s approval with a right hand in the final minute, but was caught with a left hook for his troubles.
Diaz sensed blood in the water and jumped on his prey. Two more power punches connected, but Khan managed to find just enough distance to disallow a meaningful follow-up as he made it to the final bell.
The early raucous applause accompanying the homecoming suddenly shifted to taunts of disapproval as Khan raised his arms while hoisted on the shoulders of his cornermen. Diaz’ efforts were valiant, but not enough to pull off the upset, even if making it a hell of a lot closer than most expected.
Scores of 114-113, 115-113 and 115-112 were in favor of Khan, who improves to 28-3 (19KO).
"The thing we proved - we told everyone that Julio Diaz was going to be a tough fight." insisted the 2011 Trainer of the Year. "The thing I told Amir is to not listen to the critics (who said it was going to be an easy fight). You can't put a world champion down. I'm proud of the way Amir handled himself."
Diaz suffers his first loss in nearly two years, falling to 40-8-1 (29KO). The battle-tested Mexican rode a three-fight unbeaten streak, including a 10-round draw in a strong showing against unbeaten Shawn Porter last December in Los Angeles.
That bout took place on the undercard of Khan's 10th round stoppage of Carlos Molina, where he was given a close-up of what Diaz brought to the table.
"Julio is a tough, tough Mexican fighter. He wouldn't take a step backwards. But we just stuck to the game plan and came out with the win," said Khan.
A loaded undercard featured the pro debuts of Britain's own Anthony Ogogo, the 2012 Olympic Gold Medalsit who knocked out Kieron Gray in two rounds, and Haroon Khan, Amir's younger brother who scored a four-round decision over Brett Fidore.
Highlighting the supporting cast was American heavyweight Deontay Wilder, blitzing Audley Harrison in just 70 seconds.
A full recap of the undercard can be found HERE
All bouts aired live on Boxnation in the United Kingdom. The Khan-Diaz will air via tape-delay on Showtime in the United States later this evening, as the final leg of a televised tripleheader.
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of Boxingscene.com, as well as a member of Transnational Boxing Ratings Board, Yahoo Boxing Ratings Panel and the Boxing Writers Association of America. Twitter: