In just four days time, at the MGM grand in Vegas, one of British boxing’s most divisive figures will continue his professional journey. It does seem peculiar that in a nation short on sportsmen with real star quality, a 27 year old elite fighter, in the prime of his career, who won Olympic silver as an amateur and the Commonwealth title and two World belts as a pro, is receiving a relatively muted response from both media and public. Even more so when you dial back three years and recall him being placed on pound-for-pound lists and tipped as a successor to the Mayweather / Pacquiao axis after knocking out Zab Judah. Despite well publicised hiccups he remains highly regarded in the States. Over there they love a guy who provides entertainment and comes to fight. The Bolton man who has adopted the US as a second home and taken the rather immodest nickname of ‘King’ unfailingly does that. Yet despite his youth and glittering achievements, he has never managed to fully capture his home nation’s hearts.
Amir Khan’s lack of British popularity, outside of his fanatical support within the Pakistani community is problematic to explain. Many point instinctively to ethnicity. They may have a case – we don’t really do Asian heroes over here. The topic of race and racism is still a thorny one in sport and while much has been done to tackle it (largely on behalf of Afro-Caribbean athletes) it is remains more than capable of rearing its head. It is not a fact easily escaped that while recent decades have seen black sportsmen like Daley Thompson, Ian Wright, Mo Farah or Boxing’s own Frank Bruno elevated to national treasure status, a glass ceiling still remains regarding acceptance of Asian figures.
Cricketers like Mark Ramprakash or Monty Panesar don’t get the necessary levels of publicity while the mysterious scarcity of British-Asian footballers leaves a chasm in the national sporting consciousness. In Boxing it was possible for a supreme talent like Naseem Hamed (technically of Arabic background, not Asian) to wow fight fans with a decade of scintillating performances, while still never winning the masses over with his personality. Khan himself has not been shy in playing the race card, often making the observation that his lack of support in his home country is because he is Asian and Muslim.
While it is impossible to discount this belief in its entirety and it probably does play a part, there is more to all this than simple prejudice. Khan must face and accept this, if he really wants to effect a change. During his early career, forged in a blaze of good will and publicity after the 2004 games in Athens, Amir was a clear beneficiary of the imbalanced way that the Boxing business can operate. Whisper it quietly, but hot prospects who sell tickets get ‘looked after’. It is a euphemism that is readily illustrated by Khan’s experiences.
By the time he fought Willie Limond for the Commonwealth Lightweight Title in 2007 he was 12-0 and riding on the back of four years of hype. His ascension to the highest levels of the sport seemed pre-ordained. A huge betting favourite, Khan produced five rounds of typically rapier fisted, front-foot boxing before being caught by the light punching Scotsman in the sixth.
Limond had only recently stepped up from Super Featherweight and had been picked as an opponent by promoter Frank Warren because he had the experience and technique to provide a real workout, while not possessing enough weight in his fists to pose a serious danger. Or so it was believed.
Thirty seconds after the bell for that dramatic session, Limond pressured Khan towards the ropes and landed a perfectly timed right, stunning the young champion-in-waiting. Khan was suddenly a shambling mess, lurching across the ring while Limond landed an unanswered four-punch salvo. Ringside observers sat open-mouthed. Promoters and TV companies saw pound-notes vanishing in puffs of smoke. The Bolton boy was down, badly hurt. He rose on shaky legs, eyes like a wounded deer. Referee, Marcus McDonnell counted as far as 8, only for Amir, still shaken and confused, to go back down on one knee.
Instead of counting on, as rules dictate he should have, McDonnell bizarrely told Khan to get back up, as if part of his role that evening was to mentor the ex-Olympian and offer advice. Khan obediently did as he was told and the fight continued. Most baffled observers, myself included, thought he should have been counted out. It’s true that Amir survived the rest of the round courageously, pulled himself back together and went on to stop Limond in the 8th, but that couldn’t banish the impression that he seemed to have been overtly favoured.
Roll forward a year and the young prince had defended the Commonwealth title three times and signed a lucrative five fight deal with Sky Sports, earmarked to be their next Pay-Per-View cash cow. Despite the blip against Limond and the whispers of doubt it had generated, his ascension still seemed assured. Amir took on Colombian Breidis Prescott for the WBO Inter-Continental Title as a preparatory step towards world glory. The master plan was for him to be crowned king before his five-bout contract with Sky was up.
The fight was brief and explosive. Prescott hadn’t read the script and simply steamrollered Khan, knocking him out in 54 seconds. But could that be allowed to force the Boltonian back down the golden ladder? Sky needed a world champion and nothing less would do. No sooner had Amir mumbled his way through the post-fight interviews than the spin doctors and money-men went to work. They had too much riding on him to let a destructive defeat against relatively indistinguished opposition get in the way.
So the disastrous knockout loss was marketed as a blip – ‘these things happen in boxing!’ – and Khan magically retained his place at the front of the queue. Rather than returning to domestic level, he was managed back into world contention with a credible, yet safe win over 35-year-old, badly faded, Marco Antonio Barrera. In the meantime Prescott lost to both Miguel Vazquez and Kevin Mitchell.
Amazingly, within three bouts of being blasted out by the Colombian, while ignoring calls for a rematch, Amir and his handlers had their world title. The KO loss had been erased from memory because the carefully laid plans of promoters and TV executives could not be disrupted by something as irrelevant as what actually happened in the ring. ‘King’ Khan thus claimed his throne at light-welterweight with a unanimous decision over Ukrainian Andriy Kotelnik in 2009.
Big fights in America followed and more belts. Amir’s quick hands and attacking instincts made him a dangerous opponent for anyone. Victories over Marcos Maidana and Paulie Malignaggi proved beyond doubt his world class credentials, but the thought that he had been gifted his chances, rather than made to sweat blood for them, was difficult to dispel. Other fighters would have fallen a long way down the line after the Prescott smashing. The fact is that the cocky, hyperactive, Asian Olympian had been identified from-day one as a golden goose, then spoon-fed on the honey of opportunity.
None of this is Khan’s fault of course. He can’t be blamed for taking advantage of the plan laid out for him. He still had to beat good opponents to claim his titles and is unquestionably a very talented, albeit flawed, fighter – probably the best welterweight we have, with a decent argument from Sheffield’s Kell Brook. But considering the way wheels have been greased for him from his earliest days, he seems reluctant to show much in the way of humility or grace.
The British public don’t like braggarts – ask Carl Froch. Khan’s public persona, too often characterised by classless ostentation and arrogance – posting Twitter pictures of himself with strippers and wads of notes, flash cars, allegedly cheating repeatedly on his wife – may go down fine in the USA, where Money May has set the example for others to follow, but it’s not the way of British heroes.
Professionally too, Amir still clings to delusions of grandeur, losing his two world belts in the ring to Lamont Peterson, typically being awarded them back via a convenient administrative decision, then immediately losing them spectacularly again to Danny Garcia. Rather than attempting to re-build, after a couple of sketchy tune-up bouts, Amir displayed his sense of entitlement like a peacock’s tail, putting his career on hold for a full year while trying to engineer a lucrative showdown with Mayweather that few believe he deserves. Ironically, his opponent on Saturday, Devon Alexander, the former IBF Welterweight champ, was supposed to fight Khan in 2013, but Amir pulled out, still hoping vainly that his numbers would come up in Floyd’s pay-per-view lottery.
It may be easy to shout racism as an excuse, but it is to a large degree for these reasons many Brits sniggered into their pints when Garcia separated him from his senses and titles in 2012. It was simple Schadenfreude – seeing the spoilt brat getting his comeuppance.
There are some signs at last that Khan is maturing and making adjustments. Since the last scandals attached to his name broke in May he has kept himself out of the news. His most recent in-ring performance, against the dangerous brawler Luis Collazzo (also in May), was an object lesson in controlled aggression and boxing-to-your-strengths. Gone were the days of gung-ho, lead-with-your-face naivety. For those who had written him off as chinny, believing his weaknesses would always be exposed by the best, there was food for thought. Hearing stinging public criticism has perhaps affected him, made him reassess, strengthened his resolve. With that mindset Amir showed he is more than capable of repositioning himself among the elite. Devon Alexander is a slick boxer, not short on speed and skill himself, but not a banger. If Khan fights the right fight he should be able to control the tempo and take the win.
If he can do that, putting his setbacks behind him, while showing the increasing grace and wisdom he has demonstrated of late, the British public will soon warm to him. If he stops trying to talk his way into a retirement fund dust-up with Mayweather, fights Kell Brook, Keith Thurman, Ruslan Provodnikov or any of the other dangerous Welters out there, they will admire his resolve regardless of race. They may even then support his financially motivated ambitions, cheering him on against Floyd or Manny at Wembley Stadium. Brits like a man who perseveres and shows determination in the face of danger and struggle, rather than waiting to be given presents. It’s something they haven’t seen from him yet but he is still young enough to turn public perception around.
If he wants to, within three years Amir Khan can achieve his true destiny, as imagined a decade ago with that silver medal swinging from his teenage neck – to attain crossover status and become Britain’s first sporting Asian superstar. The first step happens this Saturday.