Kell Brook might have earned a unanimous decision win over Michael Zerafa on Saturday, but his performance leaves doubts over his ability to win back a world title.
Brook received scores of 118-110, 119-109 and 117-111 for defeating Australian Zerafa in a final eliminator for the WBA junior middleweight world title at Sheffield Arena in Sheffield, England, but the Briton was left disappointed by his disjointed display in which he was caught too often.
It was Brook's second successive win since losing the IBF welterweight world title to Errol Spence Jr. in 2017, which followed another stoppage loss to Gennady Golovkin at middleweight in 2016.
Brook was stronger and more accurate with his shots, but his defense betrayed him on too many occasions against Zerafa.
A fight against English rival Amir Khan, which had been hoped for this year, still seems a long way off, but after seeing Brook's latest performance, Khan might be tempted to agree to terms at last.
"It was harder than I thought it would be, I was a bit rusty," Brook said. "It looks good for those opponents who were running away from me, and they might grow a pair now.
"I felt a bit flat, normally I'm sharp, couldn't let my right hand go and get into my rhythm. I'm loving boxing again. 2019, I'm coming for those big boys; I will go to welterweight. It's not my fault this fight isn't happening. Amir, I'm here and I'm ready."
Victory makes Brook (38-2, 26 KOs), 32, the mandatory challenger for the WBA title held by American Jarrett Hurd, also the IBF titleholder, who last weekend disposed of Brook's fellow Englishman Jason Welborn in four rounds. But the fight Brook really wants is Khan.
Earlier in the week Khan (33-4, 20 KOs) claimed he was hopeful of fighting WBO welterweight world titlist Terence Crawford next instead of Brook.
And rather than be ringside to see his big foe in action, Khan was elsewhere celebrating his 32nd birthday.
Brook and Khan share the same promoter Eddie Hearn, who tried to first match them in 2016, again last year and then again in 2018.
"If I was Amir Khan I would be on the phone now [after seeing Brook's win over Zerafa]," Hearn said. "Kell knows that was below par. He's now mandatory to Jarrett Hurd, but he knows he has to be a lot better than that."
At least Brook got some rounds in. In his two stoppage-loss to Spence and Golovkin, Brook suffered broken eye sockets in both fights and only returned with an easy two-round win over Sergey Rabchenko in March.
Zerafa (25-3, 14 KOs), 26, from Melbourne, could not quite ruin the plans to make Brook-Khan, but he did make Brook look unpolished at times.
Brook, who had new trainer John Fewkes in his corner instead of his long-term mentor Dominic Ingle, began full of intent as he buried hurtful body shots into Zerafa.
Zerafa was better in the second round, landing with a combination after good work with the jab, but he was caught with a left uppercut.
Brook was relentless in the third round, landing several hard shots that began to leave their toll on Zerafa. But as good as Brook was coming forward, he was far from faultless with his defense, and Zerafa repeatedly landed single shots on the counter.
Brook, with just two rounds of action since May 2017, was nailed by two lead right hands in the fifth round by Zerafa, and this was not a contest the Briton was completely in control of.
The former champion, who landed the harder punches, did enough to win the rounds, but his defense was porous, which a welterweight or junior middleweight elite would have capitalized on.
Brook was more aggressive in the seventh round, unloading a series of power punches, but his energy levels dipped in the eighth and Zerafa was able to catch him with right hands.
In the ninth, Zerafa landed his best flurry of punches after initially stunning Brook with a long right hand.
Brook tried to finish it in the 12th, but Zerafa returned fire and the Briton decided to be more careful for the rest of the round.
On the undercard, Ireland's Jono Carroll escaped with a split decision draw with France's Guillaume Frenois, who was more unhappy with the decision in an eliminator to face IBF junior lightweight champion Tevin Farmer.