The latest loss for the former world champion underlines he has little hope of returning to the summit of the sport

It was less than an hour after Terence Crawford’s comprehensive beatdown of Amir Khan on Saturday night and the conversation had already shifted to what lies ahead for the talented American, whose uncommon blend of tactical aptitude, mental dexterity and power in both hands is drawing straight-faced comparisons to Sugar Ray Leonard.

It was an apt metaphor for a sport that appears to be leaving Khan behind.

On one hand the former welterweight champion is only 32 in a trade where advances in nutrition and training techniques have made fighters who can still operate at a high level into their late thirties more common than ever before.

But the inconvenient truth facing Khan as he picks up the pieces from Saturday’s latest setback is he is campaigning in a talent-stacked welterweight division that includes two champions who appear in the top five of most pound-for-pound lists (Crawford and Spence), a pair of younger and primer American title-holders in Keith Thurman and Shawn Porter, followed by another tier of contenders including Danny Garcia, Manny Pacquiao and Yordenis Ugas, all of whom are capable of giving the Bolton fighter a tough day at the office at his best.

The field is no friendlier at 154lbs where he would be conceding length and size against complete products like the unified champion Jarrett Hurd, superstar-in-waiting Jaime Munguia or established junior middles such as Erislandy Lara or Jermell Charlo.

It has been seven and a half years since Khan last held a world title and there is nothing about the crowded present-day landscape in and around his weight class that suggests a return to the summit will become any more plausible. Time just moves ahead. The speed that once compensated for his technical deficiencies, like those nasty habits of coming over his front foot and leaving his chin exposed, is no longer the equaliser it once was.

So many of the questions he fielded at Saturday’s abbreviated press conference were devoted to the details of the finish and Khan’s insistence that he did not quit that he never definitely stated whether he planned on soldiering on – even if there was nothing beyond the implicit in his remarks to suggest he is ready to hang up the gloves for good.

The obvious answer is a long-awaited domestic grudge match with Kell Brook, Khan’s long-time media rival who took in Saturday’s action from ringside. Stage it in an outdoor stadium, bank another few million pounds and call it a day: win, lose or draw. As Brook put it on Saturday with a glint of schadenfreude: “He’s got nowhere to go.”

Sensible endings, of course, are all too rare in the cruellest sport, where there will never be a dearth of young lions eager to add a household name to their résumé. One can only hope Khan, a promotional free agent after completing his three-fight contract with Matchroom on Saturday, chooses his next step more carefully than his track record suggests.

Khan faces an uncertain future in the sport after the 32-year-old suffered a defeat to Crawford in New York. Photograph: Andrew Couldridge/Action Images via Reuters

But flat notes borne from mismanagement and bad luck seemed to hit at the most inopportune times: whether the 54-second destruction against Breidis Prescott in his 19th paying fight, the tactically inept knockout defeat at the left hand of Garcia, the end of his second and in all likelihood final world title reign in a dubious hometown decision against Lamont Peterson, who was subsequently found to be using performance-enhancing drugs.

There were professional missteps and humiliations: like his ugly divorce from his former trainer Freddie Roach and twice putting his career on hold to pursue a fight with Floyd Mayweather only to be left twice at the altar by the impish American shot-caller. (And let it be said that Khan’s particular skill set at that time would have given late-period Mayweather’s brittle hands more trouble than one might expect.)

Even some of the victories worked against him, like a touch-and-go decision win over Chris Algieri in a fight designed to make him look good that left observers both friendly and sceptical deeply underwhelmed. Through it all, however, he never backed down from a challenge and was seldom in a boring fight, which has made him consistently popular in an American market less hung up on what he is not than what he is.

Were circumstances different it could be argued Khan has earned the right to go out on his own terms, seeking out more justified paydays and more chances to compete at what he loves to do. But the realities of the day, including the incurring of undue punishment for a doomed cause, must prevail. Let it be Brook or let it be the end. There is nowhere else to go.