by Ralph Warner (@SoloWarnerBro)
Wild’n Cuz He’s Young
A room full of men beating the hell out of each other hardly seems like the place for a young boy to learn to become more relaxed and disciplined. Then again, being in a room with people who can kill you with their fists is also a great way to “whip” a boy into shape. But for 8-year-old Amir Khan, the pitter-patter of men hitting speed and body bags and the yelling of trainers all in a facility where blood, sweat and tears are literally shed on a regular basis was the perfect place to straighten out his behavioral problems.
“I was hyperactive when I was young. I always used to get in trouble at school and misbehave at home so my dad took me to a gym around the corner from where I lived,” says the world’s top ranked light welterweight champion as he rests up from a routine he’s become all too familiar with.
I was a tough kid, I got into street fights pretty often and was never really scared of anything.
Khan credits the boxing gym with giving him a place to let out aggression and fight in the ring, rather than the streets, as he often did before picking up the sport. “I was a tough kid, I got into street fights pretty often and was never really scared of anything. But I can honestly say that once I began boxing, I never fought in the streets again. I began behaving at home, school teachers saw the difference in me, I was a totally different kid.”
That gym in Bolton, England, would not only serve as a better therapy session than any number of trips to the psychiatrist or Ritalin prescriptions, it was also an opportunity to recognize a God-given talent. “It was brilliant. It felt so comfortable for me to step in the ring and to be training. I loved every minute of it. I was about eight or nine then, and I was one of the youngest but I was probably one of the hardest workers.”
About 16 years and 5,000 miles later, Khan continues the process he became familiar with as a boy but this time it’s in Freddie Roach’s Wild Card Boxing Gym in Hollywood. He’s not battering body bags and sparring partners in an effort to relieve frustration and work on his discipline, this time he’s doing it for a shot to become one of boxing’s household names. An impressive win in his December 10th bout with Lamont Peterson can solidify his reputation as the world’s best light welterweight fighter and lead to a move up to the welterweight class in 2012. The thought of fighting in a weight class where Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather have become super stars despite boxing’s faltering popularity over the last few years would have any fighter salivating. Especially one who’s yet to taste stardom in the U.S.
The Man Behind The Name
But Amir isn’t a stranger to having to prove himself when the big opportunity arises. Only six years after he started fighting competitively at the age of 11, his first test came as he prepared to compete at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. Despite hesitancy from his home country to back someone who was only a teenager, Khan’s prowess in the ring against fighters much older than himself—winning gold at the World Junior Championships, and a notable second-round TKO of Victor Ortiz—finally led England back to Khan.
Being the only British boxer at the Games, Khan did not disappoint as he brought home the silver medal, his only loss coming to 33-year-old Cuban Mario Kindelan in the final. “I got beat by a guy that was already a two time Olympic champion. He was Cuban. And Cubans are like professionals. Six months down the line I fought him again and beat him,” says Khan.
Nonetheless, Brits were pleased with the 17-year-old that they sent as their sole boxing representative to that year’s games. As expected, in a scenario with the appropriate soundtrack of Mike Jones’ “Back Then” anthem, Khan returned as a national hero, and is now an Olympic ambassador for the 2012 Games in London. No longer is he the baby-faced kid who hadn’t nearly seen enough experience in the ring to represent his country, now he's both the present and future of British boxing. England’s history of great fighters like Naseem Hamed, Lennox Lewis, Ken Buchanan, and Joe Calzaghe left some pretty big boots to fill for Khan, who turned professional at 18. But by 22 he won his first world title and now, two years later, he holds two light welterweight titles.
When I got beat by [Prescott], that’s when I kind of changed everything. I moved away from all the distractions in England, I changed my whole team and how things go.
The path to becoming one of the youngest champions in boxing history was no cake walk. One of his most defining moments actually came via a loss. In his Sky Box Office debut (England’s Pay-Per-View outlet for top boxing matches), Khan suffered his first and only professional defeat in a first-round knockout by Breidis Prescott on September 6, 2008. In 54 seconds, nearly five years of hard work, moving up through the professional ranks, was lost. That fall, following the embarrassing loss, Khan’s trainer Jorge Rubio was fired and Freddie Roach was brought in. But even one of Britain’s top boxing prospects realized that you can’t make the world’s top trainer come to you, you have to go to him.
“When I got beat by [Prescott], that’s when I kind of changed everything. I moved away from all the distractions in England, I changed my whole team and how things go. Now I’ve got a new conditioning instructor in Alex Ariza and a new trainer in Freddie Roach, one of the best trainers in the world.”
Not only did the move to Los Angeles bring Khan some of the best training in the world, it also brought the best sparring partner in the form of boxing’s pound-for-pound king, Manny Pacquiao. That fateful decision to move led to a bit of redemption in December 2008 when he defeated Irish fighter Oisin Fagan for the WBA International lightweight title in London.
Four fights later came his U.S. debut as he faced New York-native Paul Malignaggi at Madison Square Garden to defend his WBA light welterweight title. Khan made American boxing fans take notice as he pummelled Malignaggi before the ref stopped the fight in the 11th round.
Beating a fighter in their hometown is something that Khan will have to do again as he faces Peterson this weekend in the boxer’s turf in Washington D.C. But hometown favoritism is just another motivating factor for Khan, who is thousands of miles away from home but still feels he has the advantage. “It makes me train harder, to be honest with you. It makes me want to go in there and win this fight more comfortably. It makes me want to go in there and knock him out because I don’t want to let this be a close fight. It’s the best feeling to beat someone in the place they’re from.”
Three wins after Malignaggi, and with two world titles under his belt, Khan is a boxer on the brink of stardom in the U.S. But despite his success, it’s always the loss to Prescott that keeps him focused on the current tasks at hand, no matter how tempting it may be to look ahead.
Even with talk whirling of a mega bout with Floyd Mayweather in 2012, Khan says Lamont Peterson is the only boxer that matters at the moment. “I’m really focused on this fight. I know how hard this fight could be. We’ve tasted defeat before and we don’t want to taste that again. I want to win in style and look good against Peterson before I start looking at bigger fights.”
Way before his move to the U.S. in search of better training and better competition, Khan looked across the pond for inspiration. It wasn’t Lennox Lewis or Naseem Hamed that Khan grew up wanting to be but rather an American boxing legend whose career ended nearly six years before Khan was even born.
“Muhammad Ali was who l looked up to growing up. I always wanted to be like him and follow in his foot steps,” says the Pride of Bolton. “[In America] you’ve got more sparring partners, more fights, and better competition. If you become a star in America, you also become a global star.”
The thing about me, man, is that I’ve been open about my religion from day one. I’ve never been afraid or shy to talk about it. That’s just the way I am. People can like it or hate it.
Distractions outside of the ring were also a factor in the decision to move. “I can’t walk the streets in the U.K. because everyone knows who Amir Khan is and all the fans want to call you to go out and party, so I had to kind get away from all that. I thought coming to America where no one knows me would be the best thing for me.”
But just because he now lives in a posh apartment complex in Hollywood don’t think that Khan has forgotten about his roots. The young champ is often back home when not training and makes trips to Pakistan to support the country after natural disasters such as earthquakes and flooding. “I do a lot for both countries. My mum and dad were born in Pakistan, I do a lot of charity work, and my fights are broadcast live there so I get a lot of support over there, too.”
The thing that Amir credits most with keeping him grounded is his Muslim faith. His religion isn’t as in your face as Tim Tebow but Khan isn’t afraid to share his views with anyone who asks. Trips to the Mosque are as much a part of his regular routine as training, if not more. “I’ve been open about my religion from day one. I’ve never been afraid or shy to talk about it. That’s just the way I am. People can like it or hate it,” he says, growing more serious. “At the end of the day, I’m Muslim and I’m happy to be Muslim. There’s always good and bad in all religions. I’m like a role model to people out there who are good Muslims and I want them to be like me. When I go into the ring, I know God’s on my side.”
Although Khan is very public about his faith, the Bolton brawler says he hasn’t experienced much backlash in England, where tensions have sometimes flared between the Anglo and Muslim communities. Khan cites his success in the ring as a reason why all of Britain accepts him as one of their own. "[After winning silver at the Olympics] everything I did had so much support from the British people. Even being British-Pakistani, they saw me as a British fighter. I represented the country. I could’ve chosen to go tot Pakistan and represent Pakistan but I chose not to.”
Another reason why Khan has been so widely accepted in the U.K. is that, although he’s a devout Muslim, he seems to have found a balance that allows his public image to remain true to his beliefs but also be contemporary and appeal to British fans. For example, a sponsorship deal with Reebok keeps him fitted in the U.K. brand; he also loves fashion. Khan is quick to point out how British style may be a bit ahead of the curve when compared to fashion in America.
“[Prior to a few years ago] everyone here would wear baggy, loose stuff. With us in England, we’ve been wearing fitted stuff for a while now. A lot of Italian wears, Dolce Gabbana shirts and the right cut jeans. Three piece custom suits. Prada shoes. I’m big into clothing. I’ve being in fashion magazines, more recently I did a shoot with GQ during fashion week in the U.K.”
He’s Got Next
Though he’s only 25, Amir knows that it isn’t going to be flash and style alone that will make him a household name. He’s stepping his PR game up but realizes the fastest way to get the publicity he desires is by winning big fights. When the British sports star speaks of “big fights,” he means that both literally and figuratively. After his fight with Peterson, he will be moving up from the light welterweight division (140 lbs.) to the welterweight division (147 lbs.), a decision based on his domination of the 140 lbs. class, his natural weight being around 150 lbs., and of course his desire to fight in a division that features marquee names like Mayweather and Pacquiao, the latter of whom Khan is already quite familiar with.
Not only do they share the same gym and trainer, but he and Pac-Man have also sparred on several occasions. However, the fact that they’re stablemates doesn’t stop the outspoken Khan from talking about what advantages he has over one of the top pound-for-pound boxers in the world.
I think in the world now, there’s only one guy that people are saying would give Mayweather a test, and that’s me.
“Manny has the advantage of being a southpaw but I have the advantage of speed. I don’t think Manny’s ever fought someone as fast as I am. The shots that hurt you are the shots you don’t see and I think Manny may have a problem with that,” Khan says. He's also quick to admit what he's learned from the arguable pound-for-pound king: “I love sparring with Manny. It’s good experience for me to share the ring with one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world. It’s only going to make me better.”
Sparring in the ring isn’t the only place Amir has thrown a jab at Manny; many felt he took a shot at the Filipino after his last bout when Khan initially said he felt Juan Manuel Marquez had won the fight. “I’m one of those guys that speaks the truth. When I watched the fight live I thought Manny lost by one or two rounds, but then after watching the replay I think Manny was the more accurate guy and won by one or two rounds.” Despite the statement, Khan insists there hasn’t been any backlash between his camp, Manny’s or Freddie Roach. “They know what I said but at the end of the day, they’re not going to use it against me because me and Manny are friends. Everything's been cool.”
While a bout with Pacquaio isn’t likely to happen, Khan has publicly made it known that he wants a piece of Pacquiao’s rival, Floyd Mayweather. He says the competition Floyd’s been fighting isn’t on his level and that he is definitely different from the 42 fighters who have challenged Money May and come up short.
“What separates me from guys he’s fought like Mosley and Marquez is I’m younger, I’m more hungry, I’m stronger, I’m quicker, and I’ve got youth but also experience behind me. I think in the world now, there’s only one guy that people are saying would give Mayweather a test, and that’s me.”
A fight against Mayweather would no doubt give Khan the opportunity to become known throughout the U.S., a form of recognition Khan feels he’s worthy of as he sees himself in a higher class than Mayweather’s previous opponents.
“He fought Victor Ortiz and I stopped him in the second round in amateurs. He’s fighting guys that I know I can go in there and beat. Also, Marquez got beat by Mayweather, I offered Marquez a fight and he refused to fight.”
Marquez and Mayweather aren’t the only names Khan’s calling out. One fight that is less likely to happen but would surely be just as entertaining is one against Sacha Baron Cohen. Yes, the actor. “If there was one celeb I’d like to get into the ring with...one person I don’t like is Ali G, what’s he called now? Borat? Yes, Sacha Baron Cohen. I’d knock him out. I think he’s arrogant and I’ve seen him disrespect fans. I don’t like that because at the end of the day you have to give time to your fans.
And who would the ring girls be?
I'm moving up to 147 pounds because I want new challenges. I want to prove that I'm the best in the world.
“There’s a few good ones out there. Kim Kardashian, J-Lo, Jessica Alba. I think they would make good ring girls. That’s a nice mix right there. Oh, and Nicole Sherizinger. I’ve met her a few times as well. She’s a nice girl,” says the reportedly recently engaged boxer.
Whoa. Well, if Pacquaio v. Mayweather or Khan v. Mayweather doens’t happen we at least have one awesome alternative fantasy bout to pray for: Sacha Baron Cohen v. Amir Khan. Don King, Bob Arum and every other shady promoter out there—make this happen! We’d gladly pay the $70.00 to tune in.
All jokes aside, Khan sees the end of 2011 and moving forward into 2012 as his time to shine. As he continues to spar several rounds at the Wild Card Gym against fighters ranging from lanky 140 pounders to hefty, more powerful middleweight (154 lbs.) boxers, Khan remains confident in his ability to conquer another weight class no matter what big names stand in his way. “I’m moving up to 147 pounds because I want new challenges. I want to prove that I’m the best in the world.”
While we can’t really go all out and quote Paul Revere—Khan is one of only five English boxers holding world titles at the moment—we can say this one British brawler is coming for your favorite American fighters...and their belts.
by Ralph Warner (@SoloWarnerBro)