When you are waiting to fight, particularly when you are waiting for a fight that will decide your career, time crawls. As the hours before he met Julio Diaz drained down, Amir Khan took a photograph of Sheffield’s Peace Gardens from his hotel window. Given the violence that he was about do at the city’s Motorpoint Arena, there was something ironic about the choice of picture he would put on his Twitter page.
Metaphorically, Khan was standing on the ledge rather than inside his hotel suite. He had lost his world light-welterweight title in highly controversial circumstances to Lamont Peterson and in Las Vegas in July he had been floored in a championship bout by Danny Garcia. Few boxing careers can stand three straight defeats. Diaz is 33; a hard Mexican journeyman but, if Khan lost, it was a long way down. He won.
“The one thing about fighting in England is that you always have that pressure,” he said. “Your family and friends are watching you, close by. When you are walking around the ring and the anthem is playing, you catch sight of people you know and you tell yourself you have to ignore them. There was a little scare in the fourth round.”
For those in Sheffield it was quite a big scare. Diaz knocked him down. “He caught me with his left as I moved to the left,” Khan recalled matter-of-factly. “I only had one foot on the ground and, when Diaz hit me, it was bang on. I was down for two seconds. When I got back to my corner, my trainer said: ‘Look, just stick to your game plan’.”
Amir Khan’s game plan is based around attack and blurring speed. It is what makes him box office and, should he fight Floyd Mayweather for the world title in a year’s time, it is the one thing that makes you believe he might win. Diaz had no answer to it.
Yet, at 26, Khan knows it may not be enough and that until he retires or is retired, he will be forever on the ledge. His close friend, the West Ham United midfielder Kevin Nolan, can miss a penalty; his cousin, the former Lancashire fast bowler Sajid Mahmood, can be hooked for six; but there will be other penalties, other deliveries. Khan alone has no margin for error.
“You can win every round and make one mistake and the fight is over. It has happened to me in a world title fight. One second can ruin everything. Your fight is over and maybe your career,” he said. “If I fight twice a year, I am paid twice. I’m not on a weekly wage and if I break my hand a week before the fight, it all goes. Then, when you recover, you find the game has changed. Your opponent has moved on and you might not get the same fight or the same purse.
“But it is boxing, it is what I do.” And without it you would be what? “I would have liked to have been involved in property. I always had that ambition to live in a nice house and have a nice car. I would have done whatever it took to make it.” He has a nice car, an Aston Martin, and in boxing he has made it, lost it and is making it again.
His next fight will be in December in Las Vegas, perhaps against Garcia, maybe against Peterson. Should he win, there is the prospect of Mayweather, still perhaps the best boxer in the world, despite the two-month jail sentence he has just served for punching the mother of his three children.
Khan flew to Vegas to commentate on Mayweather’s recent comeback victory over Robert Guerrero at the MGM Grand that maintained boxing’s most precious currency; an unbeaten record. That alone should ensure Mayweather fights whom he wants and where he wants.
“Las Vegas is a strange place and you can only do a couple of days there before it gets to you but you can’t avoid it. It’s the Mecca of boxing,” Khan said. “I will fight Mayweather. He is 10 years older than me and doesn’t like speed but the money will be so big he will be unable to resist.
“It won’t be in Vegas, either. He will be unable to avoid coming here. He avoided Manny Pacquiao but he will not be able to avoid me – not for the money we could raise for a fight at Wembley.”
First, there is a wedding in New York, his fiancée Faryal Makhdoom’s home city, at the end of the month for Khan to prepare for. “It’s at the Waldorf Astoria,” he laughed. “I am doing it in style because I only intend to do it once in my lifetime and everyone is going to be flown over. Then there’ll be a little celebration in Manchester. Well, it won’t be that little because 4,000 people are going to be there.
“I haven’t booked a honeymoon yet and I am still getting my outfit sorted. I don’t know where we’ll go but we need to be alone because we hardly see each other. When I go the States it’s to Vegas and she’s in New York. Then I go into a training camp. It’s a very tough relationship. I’m just thankful we have Skype.
“She doesn’t like watching me fight. She’s on the prayer mat praying for me while I fight. She doesn’t watch, all she wants is one phone call that it’s over and I am OK. She says she doesn’t care if I win or lose, all she wants is for me not to be hurt.”
Khan has been through one divorce already – that with his trainer, Freddie Roach, who coached 24 world champions, including Pacquiao, who understandably took more of his time. Khan announced the split after his defeat to Garcia and, although the parting was said to be amicable, it was a big step. Save for that between a comedian and his scriptwriter, there is no closer professional relationship than between a boxer and his trainer.
“Big decision,” said Khan, mulling over his choice of Virgil Hunter. “The guy you replace is going to hate you. Then you are taught to change your style, to go to a new environment. And sometimes you ask if it’s worth it or will you ever get used to it? Virgil’s big thing is to be more patient, not going wild and running the risk of being hit.”
Hunter will give him more time than Roach was able to, but the fact that he is based in San Francisco, a minimum 13-hour flight from Manchester, has its own obvious disadvantages. Hunter’s mantra is that Khan needs to spend more time training between bouts and that he is handicapped by not living in America.
“Maybe I should have moved to America, maybe I would have had more opportunities,” Khan said. “But I went to school in Bolton, my friends are here. I know my neighbours and I know that people in England love me. I was in London a few days ago and I had people coming up asking for autographs and shaking my hand. I love that.”
Here, Khan finds himself in the David Lloyd Centre in Bolton, promoting one of his main sponsors, Maximuscle, whose Protein Project encourages people to change their diet and with it their lives. James, a banker from Fulham, has transformed himself to the extent that he has earned the right to a training session in the ring with Khan.
James is well above average fitness levels but remarks with a smile: “What you cannot get over is his speed.” Only close up can you really judge how much separates a world-class sportsman from the rest.
Going back to intensive training is something most boxers loathe. Once Khan’s honeymoon to wherever is over, he will begin again preparing for another bout in December, with Ramadan and its requirements to fast between sunrise and sunset slap in the middle.
“You put your body and your mind through so much stress that when you get out of the ring after a fight you feel you have killed yourself,” he said. “It is very hard to get back in that ring, you will think of anything not to do it. It’s not like you can take it easy in the gym and, as you get older, you get lazier, your opponents get tougher and you’re more likely to be injured. When I first started, I never put weight on. Now, whatever I look at sticks to me.
“Mentally, we need a break. It’s almost as if mentally we need to get fat but people think we don’t respect the sport. I don’t drink but I like to stay at home and chill. Sometimes, you need to empty your mind of what you do. Ramadan is good for that. It will be hard for me but I’ve read that it is good to starve the body because it trains the mind.
“That is why the mosque is important. I sit there, do my prayers and feel free. In the mosque I’m treated as a normal person. Nobody sees me as different. That’s what I love about going there. I am normal. Sometimes, I think I should catch the bus to go.”