Boxing is in desperate need of stars. It has dozens upon dozens of talented fighters, but there are precious few who command attention in every room they enter.
Manny Pacquiao is one. Floyd Mayweather Jr. is another.
The list begins and, sadly, pretty much ends with them. But Amir Khan has a chance to get into that conversation. He's clearly talented enough – he won an Olympic silver medal as a 17-year-old and a professional world title at just 22 – and he has a megawatt smile and magnetic personality.
"He's got the star power," World Boxing Association heavyweight champion David Haye said of Khan. "He has the charisma and people take to him. He can be as big of a star [in the U.S.] as Naseem Hamed was over here. People here still talk about Naseem and I think Amir Khan can do the same thing."
Khan will defend the WBA super lightweight title against the interim champion, Marcos Maidana, in the main event of an HBO-televised card Saturday at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas.
Khan is in the right division if he wants to become a star, because super lightweight is packed with exceptional talent. In addition to the powerful Maidana, the division includes Timothy Bradley and Devon Alexander, who meet for the World Boxing Council/World Boxing Organization belts on Jan. 29 in Pontiac, Mich. Former undisputed welterweight champion Zab Judah is mounting a comeback at super lightweight. Victor Ortiz is another elite boxer at 140.
Freddie Roach, Khan's trainer, believes that Khan would be a good test for Mayweather at welterweight. So, the fights are there to for Khan to vault to stardom.
"The media love me," Khan says, not so modestly.
A small army of British reporters have made the trek to Las Vegas to chronicle Khan's march toward glory, and they clearly are smitten with him.
Maidana is decidedly outgunned in nearly every facet of the bout, save for one. Khan is faster, more athletic, moves better and punches better in combination.
Maidana, however, is one of the best punchers in boxing. He hits so hard that his veteran trainer, Miguel Diaz, said it's like facing a 160-pounder.
"He punches like a good-punching middleweight, not just any old middleweight," said Diaz, a wise boxing man not prone to hyperbole. "Believe me when I tell you, he could knock any of these guys out with one punch with either hand."
And therein lies the problem for Khan. The one chink in his armor is a questionable chin. He was knocked out in the first round of his only loss and hasn't done anything since that Sept. 6, 2008, defeat to journeyman Breidis Prescott to disprove the notion that his chin is shaky.
Multi-division former world champion Roy Jones Jr. said as much during a recent preview of the Khan-Maidana fight on HBO.
"Of all the guys in that weight division, [Khan] has one of the better-built bodies for it," Jones said. "He's a very good puncher – a very good puncher – and he's a pretty good-looking kid. I like his boxing technique. The only problem we may have is the strength of his chin."
Khan is 5-0 since the loss to Prescott, defeating three former world champions along the way. He has been nearly flawless in each of those wins, yet he has been unable to put to rest the chatter about his ability to take a punch. But he is dismissive of those concerns. He has been training with Pacquiao for the last year or so and has gone through grueling sparring sessions with the best fighter in the world.
"He handles himself well [against Pacquiao]," said Roach, who trains both men. "Some days, he gets a bit of the best of Manny. Some days, Manny gets the best of him. It's explosive. It's like a cockfight on the days when they both step it up."
Khan's confidence has been bolstered by his ability to take the best that Pacquiao has to offer and return fire of his own. Still, he understands that his best chance to win is not to try to be a gunslinger.
Trading shots with Maidana could invite disaster, so Khan plans to avoid fighting in tight spaces.
"We're not going to fight in the corner because we don't want to make mistakes," Khan said. "We made that mistake in the early days. We want to go in there and be professional and stick to the game plan. We know exactly the way to win this fight."
An exciting win over a dangerous opponent is a good way to start the quest for stardom for Khan.
With the multitude of potential big-time fights ahead of him, Khan could close 2011 as one of the sport's brightest lights. That means, though, taking care of business in the ring first.
And for the ultra-confident Khan, that's exactly what he plans to do.
"These are the kinds of fights you dream about getting," Khan said. "There's nothing better than a fight against a tough guy in Vegas. You make your reputation on these kinds of fights."
The stage is set. It's up to Khan to take advantage.