Amir Khan: Pulling no punches
The Bolton boxer opens up to Tim Rich on his Peterson rematch, promoting his fights Stateside, the loneliness of his trade – and why his mum can no longer watch
Monday 12 March 2012
You can tell a lot about a fighter from where he trains. On the path leading to Muhammad Ali's base in Deer Lake, Pennsylvania, was a series of boulders each painted with the name of a vanquished opponent; Sonny Liston's was on the first. After his disastrous split from his trainer, Brendan Ingle, Naseem Hamed set himself up in a gym in Sheffield complete with Greek columns and shutters that remained almost permanently down.
Amir Khan's is on a small industrial estate in Bolton. Inside, almost every bit of wall space is taken up with something. The Olympic flag under which he won silver. The gloves worn by Mario Kindelan, who beat him to the gold medal in Athens and then was beaten by Khan at the Reebok Stadium in his last contest as an amateur.
Everywhere else, there are posters and pictures and cuttings, sometimes of Amir sometimes of others. There is one of Ali toe to toe with Joe Frazier during the Thriller in Manila. It was taken in 1975, 11 years before Amir Khan was born. This is a man who understands history and who maybe understands his place in it.
There are also press cuttings taped to the orange-painted pillars. Some are by Liam Chronnell, a fine young reporter with The Bolton News who covered a lot of Khan's career but who sadly died aged 33, on the December night Khan lost his world title in circumstances that verged on the ludicrous.
The defeat to Lamont Peterson was the second of Khan's professional career. The first by a bruiser named Prescott – Breidis, not John – lasted 54 seconds but this hurt more.
Khan should probably not have travelled to Washington to lay his light-welterweight title on the line. It was Peterson's home city, where he had been transformed from a street urchin orphaned by prison and drugs to a local hero.
The judging was odd. Khan had two critical points deducted for "pushing" and then there was the appearance of the "man in the hat", one Mustafa Ameen, who despite having no official role, handled the scorecards, talked continually to the match supervisor and celebrated with Peterson in the ring. He, too, is from Washington. So was the referee. Without the controversy stirred by Ameen's presence, the rematch on 19 May in Las Vegas might not have been so swiftly rearranged.
"In Washington, they hadn't staged a real fight for about 18 years and what happened when we went over showed why," said Khan. "In Las Vegas they know how to organise a contest. Ricky Hatton and Lennox Lewis have gone over there and had fair deals. All you can ask for as a boxer is a good atmosphere and a fair fight.
"I was surprised I got the rematch because I thought he'd want a couple of easy runs, make a bit of money and then fight me. When they agreed, I felt a lot of pressure lift from me because I knew exactly what I had to do."
There is quite a lot for Amir Khan to do. He has to train, he has to promote the fight, he has to sell tickets and do endorsements. Here he is promoting Maximuscle, a protein drink he will use to prepare for Peterson as the carbohydrates are stripped out of his diet. Most of all he has to win and he has to win well.
Floyd Mayweather, born into a boxing family and who may be Khan's ultimate opponent, has long been adept at squeezing pay-per-view dollars from his bouts. He said the boy from Bolton had yet to realise that boxing is as much a branch of show business as it is sport and that his excursions into pay-per-view had been, well, dull. "The kid has to remember that it is: 'lights, camera, action'," Mayweather said and nowhere is that truer than on the Las Vegas strip.
"I am the biggest name in British boxing and possibly in Europe so for him to say that is just ignorant," says Khan. "He's been fighting people like Victor Ortiz who can't sell tickets under their own name and when it comes to the question of whether he is going to get in the ring with me all I hear are excuses. He said the same thing about Manny Pacquiao. Has he got into the ring with him? Of course not."
In sport, talk is cheap but in boxing it comes with two-for-one and buy-one-get-one-free offers. For the next two months he will have to become Amir Khan, in the same way that Stefani Germanotta becomes Lady Gaga.
"You have to give television what they want, which is part of the frustration," Khan says. "You can't say no to them because they are the ones who pay the big money. You have to go out there and put your tough face on. Going into the ring is the easy bit; it's everything else that surrounds it that's hard."
It reached the peak of stupidity when Dereck Chisora, his face covered in a Union flag handkerchief, slapped Vitali Klitschko at the weigh-in before their heavyweight bout in Munich and brawled with David Haye afterwards.
Time moves at varying speeds for a boxer. Time in the training camp will pass fast. In the ring, face-to-face with Peterson, it will shoot past at electric speed. One of the things Amir recalls about the end of all his bouts is how each round appeared to have lasted seconds, not minutes. However, during the week in the fight hotel, in this case the Mandalay Bay, it will crawl and Khan will spend a lot of his time reading, mostly sporting autobiographies. "I loved Lance Armstrong's It's Not About the Bike. If he can beat cancer and win the Tour de France, I can beat Lamont Peterson."
In another part of the gym are signed football shirts, not from his adored Bolton Wanderers but from Newcastle, where his friend Kevin Nolan moved after leaving the Reebok Stadium.
Footballers like Nolan play in a team. They can disappear into it, hide in it, if necessary, and take its glory. All individual sportsmen are alone but a boxer is probably more nakedly alone than any golfer or tennis player. "If a footballer loses, the team lost but, if I lose, well, who else is there to take the blame? But I've known it for years. I was 17 when I was chosen to go to the Olympics."
Does he not regret remaining an amateur and winning gold in Beijing, as he almost certainly would have done? "It would have been another four years and, financially, it made sense for me to turn pro," he says. "I could have broken my hand a week before the Olympics and that would have been four years down the drain. More seriously, I might not have been picked."
You are kidding? "No and I am not saying this as an excuse. They don't pick their best fighters for the Olympics; they pick their favourites. They want people who play the game, who say 'yes'. I was one of the guys who used to say what I thought and they didn't like that at times.
"They didn't pick my brother; he was the best in the country; he beat the fighters they chose for the Olympics but for some reason they didn't pick Haroon. There are a lot of politics involved."
Haroon chose to compete for Pakistan in the Commonwealth Games in Delhi, where he won bronze. His cousin, Saj Mahmood, plays cricket for Lancashire and England.
"If I do anything, I'd like to encourage Muslims to get involved in sports," Khan says. "Because, if you look around, there are not many of us who do. Often it's because we don't have support from the family and this is one of the reasons why we have opened this gym.
"We do get a lot of Muslim kids coming through the doors. Maybe they want to see what Amir's doing so they can take part in it themselves. Mum never goes to the fights now. When I fight she just stays in the hotel, she hasn't been to the last 10. It is very hard for her to see her son get punched.
"Grandma didn't want me to box either. She told me to take up another sport, like football or cricket. But my heart wasn't in it and I wouldn't have made it. I only had the discipline for boxing."
And yet, if Amir Khan really wants to break into the world occupied by Mayweather and Pacquaio, he may have to follow them to the United States and elbow into the schedules controlled by Home Box Office and Showtime. He already has a place in Los Angeles, his fiancée is from New York. He is articulate, good-looking. It would not be that difficult.
"They tell me I should," he said. "But I'd miss Bolton too much. Here, I can walk the streets and they leave you to it. It is when you go to London or Manchester that it gets a little crazy.
"I don't mind the craziness, really. It is how you deal with it. I say to myself that it is boxing that got me here. I have brothers and sisters who are normal and I am not going to say no to someone who comes over for an autograph or a picture."
It seems a strange word to use. Does he not see himself as normal? "Well, I do. I'll go off to get a bottle of milk for my mum or go to the supermarket. I don't have 'my people' do it for me. Me and my friends go through the fan mail after every fight and there are bagfuls. You can't not send something back to a fan."
Amir Khan uses and recommends Maximuscle. For more information go to www.maximuscle.com
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