The view of Amir Khan and Kell Brook that prevails today in boxing circles corresponds roughly to their respective failures to get themselves a meaningful and lasting antagonist. That both fighters have suffered multiple losses—meaning they’ve already “met their match” on at least one level—is beside the point. Neither has avenged a defeat because their losses have never called for reparation. Even Breidis Prescott, whose agricultural right hand mowed down Khan famously in a single round in 2008, was never summoned back as an opponent: their rematch ceased to possess pizzazz by the time Prescott was exposed—first by Miguel Vazquez, then by Kevin Mitchell—for the limited puncher that he was. Instead, Khan and Brook now resemble the modern boxer in the form of the worker as an enterprise of one: their careers aren’t defined by any particular connection with another fighter or institution, but by successfully marketing themselves as individuals.
This is the consequence, in part, of competing under the fragmented conditions of modern boxing: fighters nowadays rarely appear often enough to establish the sort of rivalries by which they are first understood and later, perhaps, remembered. Yet fighters have always been guns-for-hire more or less in a sport whose securities have never been greater than scant. What both Khan and Brook represent—the latter perhaps to a lesser degree—is a more fully elaborated version of this type. Ever since losing to Lamont Peterson and Danny Garcia in consecutive fights, Khan’s career, in particular, has acquired a randomness that is almost impossible to arrange into narrative or sequence. Two comeback bouts in quick succession in December 2012 and April 2013 were followed by a year-long spell on the sidelines. Twelve months in which he fought and beat Luis Collazo, Devon Alexander, and Chris Algieri were succeeded by another year-long absence. An absurd fight with Saul Alvarez in May 2016 was followed by an even longer stretch of inactivity. Only this April did Khan return to fight in the UK after half a decade’s absence: he is associated with no particular place or promoter. The result of this seemingly arbitrary attitude to fighting and the pursuit of fighting has been to transform his career into a patternless assemblage, whose defining punctum—to borrow Roland Barthes’s term for the arresting detail in a photograph—remains the image of his prone body after being downed by Prescott. The feeling of significance is sustained not by its reality but by its attestation: Khan’s fights are meaningful only by virtue of the halo of meaning that attaches to them, rather than any actual manifestation.
With Brook, whose career has been spent mostly at welterweight and in Sheffield, it is easier to discern a guiding narrative. After jettisoning long-term promoter Frank Warren to sign with Eddie Hearn’s Matchroom Promotions in 2011, Brook beat a spate of solid gatekeeper types—including Lovemore N’dou, Rafal Jackiewicz, Matthew Hatton, Carson Jones, and Vyacheslav Senchenko—before finally winning a world title in a mild upset victory over Shawn Porter in August 2014. Yet a change in status provoked no corollary change in kind, as Brook continued to beat the same kind of fighter—Ionut Dan Ion, Frankie Gavin, Kevin Bizier—as he had before. After Khan chose to throw his chin to the wolves against Canelo Alvarez (after trying and failing to secure bouts with Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao), Brook followed suit by agreeing to fight Gennady Golovkin in another absurdly uneven bout, in which Golovkin was so unthreatened by the specter of Brook’s power that he fought defenselessly and still won in five. A more promising fight with Errol Spence, Jr. followed, in which Spence completed Golovkin’s work by busting up Brook’s other eye and taking his welterweight title. Brook returned in March to beat Siarhei Rabchanka in two rounds.
For a long time, Brook and Khan had seemed destined to fight one another. Not only have they been the UK’s premier post-Hatton welterweights in an era in which domestic bust-ups have sold particularly—if not unusually—well, but their respective styles and attitudes would seem likely to make for an especially attractive clash. Both boxers chat like they fight: Khan is fast, sensitive, fragile, and flash; while Brook is a bizarre blend of uncharismatic overconfidence. Neither is especially secure or stable: Khan’s chin is as bad as fabled, while Brook’s skin has proven over time unable to withstand the most rigorous competition. Yet by failing to fight in 2016, when the esteem in which they were held remained particularly high, Khan and Brook spurned the opportunity to establish an antagonism whose competitive and domestic significance would have lent their careers real meaning. Uncompetitive fights with Alvarez and Golovkin followed instead, in which the normal risk-reward ratio shot from a simple calculation to algebraic nonsense. What was the risk, after all, when Khan and Brook never had a shot at winning?
Today, the chances of their fighting should be better than ever—Khan has signed with Brook’s promoter, Hearn, on a three-fight deal, and has seemingly re-committed to fighting in the UK. Nevertheless, whereas once their careers appeared set on a collision course, now they are lurching and staggering their way to each other. Brook’s body seems increasingly to have entered into a state of disrepair—this week, a serious ankle injury saw him withdraw from a July 28 fight with Brandon Cook. Khan will fight next against Samuel Vargas, another mid-tier pro whose biggest fights against Spence and Danny Garcia have all ended in defeat, in Birmingham on September 8. Brook is expected to be out of action until November.
Ultimately, even as a bloodsport whose essential condition is the refusal to recognize the other as anything but a rival, boxing continues to articulate the necessary interdependence of the one and the other. Individual careers are never defined only by individual feats. The best boxers are in very real ways the product of a relation whose basis is anti-social and social in equal measure. This is to say that historical fighters are defined always through their relation with another: boxers are in fact collective, not independent, efforts. Invincibility is far less important than such acts of collective definition: Manny Pacquiao will be remembered better for fighting Juan Manuel Marquez four times—two wins, a draw and a loss—than Floyd Mayweather will for remaining unbeaten. Such company is overexalted for Brook and Khan. Yet now in their thirties, with a surfeit of memorable fights behind them, it is hard not to wonder what might have been. A natural rival is a gift, not a curse. With the ends of their careers almost upon them, Khan and Brook may have one last chance—in each other—to find the significance which has thus far eluded them.