Once maligned as an over-hyped boxer with no chin, Amir Khan is expected to do Britain proud this weekend when he attempts to wow the Las Vegas public against Marcos Maidana. For the Daily Telegraph’s Kevin Garside, Saturday marks the beginning of a new era for Khan...
“It’s my time” – a bold statement that chimes beautifully with sensibilities in Las Vegas. It was as close as Amir Khan has come all week to bombast, that cornerstone of boxing patois. It might be overstating the case to claim that Khan’s address at the head-to-head with Marcos Maidana was his Martin Luther King moment. It is fair to argue, however, that his measured words marked a departure of significance for a young British athlete making his way in the world.
There was deference and respect for his opponent, the implacable, iron-fisted Argentine sitting to his left. There was gratitude for the organisers and a balanced assessment of why his name is topping this bill. He has paid his dues as an amateur and as a pro. The message was this: it might be that public opinion does not yet accord with my own, but get there it will. You’ll see.
Khan is that rare paradox, a superstar awaiting rediscovery. The teenage warrior who warmed our hearts in Athens with the improbable heist of Olympic silver six years ago, somehow fell the wrong side of the rainbow. A narrative that played for him as a schoolboy trading leather with hairy-backed Kazakhstanis twice his age flipped negatively when the money started rolling in.
He probably did not help himself driving around Bolton at 18 with L-plates attached to a Range Rover. The 6-series convertible Beemer that followed was fatal for his hopes of blending into the community. Neither did the big house in the posh part of town progress the idea that Khan would not be corrupted by fame and fortune.
Envy was on the loose and spreading. Khan behaved, of course, as anyone would. The instinct to better one’s circumstances, to alter positively the terms and conditions of our engagement with life is a primal goal. His mistake was to be a chippy youth from the northern fringe of post-industrial Manchester one day and the next a teenage millionaire, a species guaranteed to put the nose of blue-collar Britain out of joint.
Spending big in Bolton the money that promoter Frank Warren provided on the signing of his first professional contract went down like a bad pie in the chip shop.
There is also the problematic matter of Khan’s ethnicity. Though it is taboo to raise this issue in some circles, the undercurrent of racial tension rippling along the north-Manchester axis on which Bolton sits is too important to ignore.
While one would like to believe that his background played no part in souring the love story, Khan would not be the first British Asian to suffer negative profiling. Khan, you will recall, made his professional debut nine days after the London bombings of July 2005. Those responsible were from the same demographic as Khan, teenage sons of Pakistani immigrants.
Khan denounced the perpetrators, distanced himself absolutely from Muslim extremism, proclaimed his essential Britishness, wore the flag of the Union on his shorts. Though the enlightened majority did not need convincing, the episode hardened prejudices elsewhere and complicated what should have been a tale of sporting gold.
When the inevitable adolescent skirmishes with life occurred, motoring misdemeanours in his case, there was in some quarters a depressing delight. The corresponding hiccups in the ring, the knock-downs inflicted by Willie Limond and Michael Gomez eroded his credibility further and then in September 2008, Khan ran into the career car crash that was Breidis Prescott’s right hand. Khan was gone in 54 seconds, a write-off according to many.
Here, in the countdown to his Las Vegas debut, Khan can smile at the memory. The two years of painstaking rebuilding under the aegis of Freddie Roach have drained the poison from the wound. It is now a technical issue to be deconstructed, an abstraction in the formula being developed by Roach that is transforming Khan into a great boxer.
“No fighter wants to lose, especially getting knocked out. I see more of that fight than any of my wins. Everywhere you go people just want to talk about the one you lost. I understand that. And I’m glad they do because it makes me realise that it if you make mistakes it can happen again, that you are not invincible. You can get hurt in boxing.”
Khan is Roach’s 25th world champion. The Wild Card gym he opened with actor Mickey Rourke is the most sought after finishing school in world boxing. Roach offers Khan the same sympathetic nurturing he received at Mick Jelley’s amateur gym in Bury. LA and Bury; that is some twinning of towns.
“I have so much trust in Freddie. If he says don’t throw a punch, I won’t throw it. That’s how much I trust him. He can see a fight, read a fight. If I had started my career with Freddie I might have been unbeaten. But things happen for a reason. If that defeat hadn’t happened I would be nowhere near as good as I am now. It motivates me.,” said Khan.
Six years on from his Olympic success, Khan is demonstrably a man, a good man at that. He has come through the first phase of new wealth. What we are seeing now is a dynamic graduate empowered by a sense of his own potential and relishing the responsibility that comes with being a grown up. All that remains is for the British public to catch up.
“When people ask me the question, ‘do you want to walk out of this game filthy rich or leave behind a legacy?’ I tell them I want to be remembered as a great champion and role model like Manny Pacquiao. We all fight for purses. It’s a business. Manny makes great money all over the world, but he is still humble and loves boxing. I want to follow in his footsteps.”