By Greg Beacham, AP Sports Writer
LOS ANGELES — Amir Khan has reached the precipice of serious boxing stardom. Although he just turned 24 on Wednesday, Khan realizes his next few fights are likely to determine whether he joins Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather Jr. among the elite, or turns out to be an overhyped mediocrity.
Khan is eager to find out for himself, because he's got his eye on much more than a few gaudy title belts. He dreams of global domination — Nike commercials, ridiculous wealth and one-name recognition beyond his native England and his ancestral Pakistan, where he's already the biggest thing going.
If Khan (23-1, 17 KOs) can't defend his WBA 140-pound title in his Las Vegas debut against Argentina's Marcos Maidana on Saturday night at the Mandalay Bay Events Center, those dreams will recede into the distance. Khan isn't eager to chase them down again.
"If I want to be the champion I say I am, I have to win fights like this," Khan said. "I have to leave a statement in the States. I want to get people talking about me, to start looking forward to my fights over here. Fighting in Las Vegas, and beating somebody as good as Maidana, is the only way to do that."
Although each fighter accused the other of ducking him in the months leading up to the bout, Khan isn't shying away from the pressure. He's been carrying an awful lot of it on his slim shoulders ever since he won a silver medal at the Athens Olympics, where the boy from Bolton became a darling of the British press and embarked on his well-covered path up the boxing ladder.
Khan has a winning personality, dazzling athletic skill, strong promotional backing and a multicultural appeal that all seem perfectly packaged for the success he seeks. What he doesn't have are victories over his sport's elite — but there are plenty of opportunities in the stacked junior welterweight division starting with Maidana (29-1, 27 KOs), who also aspires to take control of the weight class with his raw punching power.
"It's like a freight truck hitting a Ferrari," Golden Boy promoter Richard Schaefer said.
Khan traveled from Hollywood to the Philippines this fall during four months of training with Pacquiao guru Freddie Roach, who pitted his top two pupils in multiple sparring sessions. Khan has been a near-perfect fighter since upending his camp after his only loss, a stunning first-round knockout by Breidis Prescott in September 2008.
"If that loss hadn't happened, I don't think I'd be here," Khan said. "I don't think I ever would have sparred with Manny Pacquiao. When everything is going well, you don't think you need to do anything else. I had to lose that fight to rebuild myself and get to where I am now."
After making his U.S. debut last May in a one-sided win over Paulie Malignaggi, Khan landed in boxing's capital city with his most respected opponent to date. He acknowledges hoping to return to England for this fight before making a bigger splash next year, but Maidana's apparent reluctance to fight in Europe put the fight in Las Vegas.
The bout also is a breakthrough for Maidana, whose only loss was a split decision to Andreas Kotelnik in February 2009. Maidana jumped to the division's forefront last year with a thrilling win over Victor Ortiz, who will fight on their undercard at Mandalay Bay.
While Maidana is thought to lack Khan's speed and skill, his pure power has impressed every opponent — including Ortiz, who knocked down Maidana three times in the first two rounds of their bout before Maidana stopped him in the sixth. If Maidana connects with a big punch, Khan's chin will be tested in a way it hasn't been since his loss.
Maidana also hopes he can finish the year by following up countryman Sergio Martinez's spectacular knockout of Paul Williams with a similar result.
While Khan thinks Maidana is better than fellow 140-pound studs Timothy Bradley and Devon Alexander, Maidana has been much less complimentary toward Khan. Maidana said this week he doesn't consider the matchup to be a difficult fight for him, while trainer Miguel Diaz has labeled Khan "ordinary" and "average."
Khan knows his reputation will precede him until he backs up the hype with results. In his first appearance on the Vegas stage, he can't wait to perform.
"You've got a boxer versus a fighter," Khan said. "You've got a big puncher versus another big puncher, but a smarter puncher. If you try to fight him, that's when you'll get knocked out. You've got to box him. I'm not going to fight his fight by standing there and trading shots. I'm going to box him and beat him."