Amir Khan showed his speed and timing are still there, as well as his vulnerability, in a convincing unanimous decision win over Samuel Vargas on Saturday in Birmingham, England.
The English welterweight earned scores of 119-108, 119-108 and 118-110 after twice flooring Vargas but also getting knocked off his feet himself in his second fight on his comeback trail.
This was a lot more difficult than the 39-second demolition job on Phil Lo Greco five months ago in another step back before a big fight after being knocked cold by Saul Alvarez in May 2015.
After a lengthy layoff and hand surgery, as well as a change of trainers, Khan (33-4, 20 KOs) insisted he was happy with the display despite being floored in the second round, after dropping Vargas earlier in the round, and then also being wobbled in the tenth.
"I really wanted to go the distance," Khan said.
"It's been three years since I went 12 rounds. There were a couple of times when I could have stopped him and I kind of stepped off him," he said.
But this was not a performance to overly concern the welterweight elite of Terence Crawford, Errol Spence, Keith Thurman and Manny Pacquiao, as well as Danny Garcia and Shawn Porter, who met later Saturday night. Garcia and Spence have both stopped Vargas, who Khan found tougher than expected.
Pacquiao, the 39-year-old boxing legend at the tail end of his career, or domestic rival Kell Brook, who was ringside in Birmingham, are Khan's most likely next opponents in December or February.
Former IBF welterweight champion Brook (37-2, 26 KOs), 32, had his last fight at junior middleweight after two knockout defeats and two broken eye sockets. They now share the same promoter Eddie Hearn, who tried to make Khan-Brook in 2016 and last year.
"It's now or never for the Kell Brook fight," Hearn said.
But Khan, 31, from Bolton, prefers Pacquiao (60-7-2. 39 KOs), who holds the secondary WBA belt and has twice been linked to fighting Khan before.
"Pacquiao is an amazing name in boxing," Khan said.
"I want to fight by the end of the year; 147 pounds is the division. I want Manny Pacquiao, Manny Pacquiao is my No. 1 pick."
Colombian Vargas (29-4-2, 14 KOs), 29, who is based in Canada, began looking defensively sound, and it was soon clear this was not going to be another wipe out like Lo Greco.
Khan might have thought it was going to be another early night when a left hook and right hand put Vargas on his back early in the second round.
Vargas got up and Khan coasted through the rest of the round until switching off with seconds to go. Vargas made Khan pay for the lapse in concentration, and an overhand right to the jaw sent him down. Khan got up quickly, with an embarrassed smile, and the bell rescued him from Vargas following up.
There was more drama in the third: Vargas was harshly given a count after he was caught by a cuffing right hand to the back of the head which sent him tumbling onto his back for the second time.
The Colombian was not seriously hurt and in the fourth caught Khan with a right hand. But Khan replied with a quick flurry and the Briton seemed in control, but at the same time vulnerable.
It was absorbing and typical Khan; you could not take your eyes off the action for fear of missing a knockdown.
In the fifth, the Briton came close to stopping Vargas after landing a sustained attack of clubbing hooks which left Vargas' face streaked in blood.
But Vargas, who was stopped by Garcia in seven rounds two years ago and in four rounds by Spence in 2015, stubbornly fought back and breached Khan's defense early in the seventh round.
Khan far from dominated the seventh, and he was not so energized in the eighth round, carefully pacing himself and launching fewer attacks than he did in the earlier rounds.
Khan -- last world champion at junior welterweight six years ago -- landed a stiff left hand in the ninth round and later sent Vargas staggering into the ropes from a right hand.
But Khan's work rate dipped in the tenth, allowing Vargas to land more punches and finished the round by landing a solid right hook on Khan's chin which turned his legs to jelly. Khan staggered backward but was saved by the bell once again.
Khan was more careful in the 11th, before unleashing fast combinations early in the last round.
The decision was not in doubt, but many were left unsure whether this performance shows Khan can become one of the leading lights at welterweight.