Boxing: A question of faith – but not of the religious kind
Khan returns to homeland to silence his jealous doubters, not stir up tension
There seemed to be as many rabbis as reporters thronging the room when Amir Khan and Dmitry Salita faced each other at a London hotel, some six weeks before they are due to come to blows in Newcastle. The novelty of the occasion was not just that Salita is an orthodox Jew, a rarity in boxing these days, but that he is fighting a Muslim, a situation that in this country, as far as anyone could recall, is unique. Both had flown in from the United States – Khan from Los Angeles and Salita from Brooklyn, where he has lived since arriving as an 11-year-old from his native Ukraine.
For these clean-cut young men of immigrant stock it was a delicate situation, which they handled with aplomb, quick to diffuse any notion of racial or religious conflict being a factor in the WBA light-welterweight title bout which Bolton's Khan, 22, defends for the first time. The 27-year-old Salita, unbeaten in 31 fights, is the mandatory challenger.
Already there has been some disturbing media hype suggesting that this is a fight of faith. "Khan's kosher title date" was one tabloid headline that made boxers and Frank Warren wince. Normally, said the promoter, he would be happy to hear opponents shouting and screaming at each other in the cause of selling tickets. But this is different, knowing how certain political factions can make capital of any inflammation of ethnic differences. "These are two nice guys and we want to keep it that way," he said, adding cryptically: "If you could end wars in the boxing ring there'd be a lot of happy mothers around."
Both fighters are happy enough to talk about how their respective faiths have enhanced their lives and careers but Khan, a devout follower of Islam but – unlike Naseem Hamed – never a proselytising one, later confided to feeling very uncomfortable about religion being brought into the fray. "The last thing I want is for this to be turned into some sort of holy war," he said. "It puts pressure on you when it is just a sport. Religion should be private, especially when there's so much stuff going on around the world.
"I don't take religion in the ring with me," he added. "I'm not going to beat Salita because he's a Jewish fighter. I'm going in there because he's the mandatory challenger. He's also a nice guy – and these are the type you have to be worried about. When we get in the ring he'll want to knock my head off, and that's fair enough because I'll be trying to do the same to him."
Salita, who wears the Star of David on his shorts, is a well-spoken product of a family in which both parents hold Masters degrees. He won't fight on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, until after sunset, though it was pointed out that he won't be seeing much evening sun in Newcastle in December. "World politics is for another time, not the boxing ring," says the man who took up the sport because "immigration is a tough thing and boxing was a way of getting rid of some of those problems".
If the US was the land of opportunity for Salita, then it is fast becoming so for Khan too. He had flown in from training camp in LA – and gave the impression he couldn't wait to get back. As he first revealed in his exclusive interview with The Independent on Sunday before he won the world title against Andreas Kotelnik in July, he is gearing up to live there permanently. "Going to LA is the best move I've ever made. I'd like to move there eventually because it's getting tough to live in Britain. I love the British public and it would be very hard to leave them, but my career comes first. Whatever move I need to make, I will do.
"I seem to get recognised more there than I do here now. It's amazing because it just shows how much boxing means to people out there. When you win a world title you are someone. They respect a world champion. In America I've not come across any hate. People have come to me and said 'we want to look after you, you're a world champion' and you think to yourself, do these guys want something from me. Why are they so nice? But that's the way they are and now I know why they back their fighters up. That attitude makes it easier for me there.
"There's a lot of jealousy in British boxing. People think it's easy. They don't see me waking up at 5am, going running, all the hard work. They don't see my injuries, the pain, the aches, the bad side of it. They only see after a fight when you chill, buy a nice car, a nice house and make a lot of money."
A full house awaits Khan and Salita at Newcastle's Metro Radio Arena on 5 December. As Amir headed back to his adopted home, another British star in the making, Kell Brook – voted Best Young Boxer of the Year – prepared to defend his British welterweight title against Michael Jennings in another sell-out in Liverpool on Friday. Clouters don't need clerics to ensure that boxing still has a prayer.
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