Boxing: California dreamin' as Khan seeks stardom in the city of angels
British lightweight seeks stardom in the city of angels but first comes Kotelnik and the business of growing up
Sunday 12 July 2009
It is just after midday in Manchester and a crowd of around 500 have gathered in the bowels of the Triangle Shopping Centre to watch a young man from Bolton skip, scuffle and sweat in a tiny ring pitched between a burger bar and a coffee shop. It is all a long way from Los Angeles, where Amir Khan has become a star pupil alongside the maestro Manny Pacquiao and other ring luminaries in the spit-and- sawdust classroom of the man known in boxing as "The Professor".
But Freddie Roach, the trainer who is acknowledged as the sport's supreme strategist, is here with him, painstakingly wrapping layer upon layer of bandages around the fists they both hope will wreak havoc on the features of the Ukrainian WBA world light-welterweight champion Andreas Kotelnik at the city's MEN Arena next Saturday night.
Khan had returned from LA less than 48 hours before and was trying to shake off the remnants of jet lag with a training session designed to remind the locals either to snap up the few remaining tickets for the fight or tune in to Sky Box Office.
By this time next year he is likely to be residing in LA permanently after being seduced by the Californian lifestyle and becoming convinced that to achieve your dream and be recognised as a ring legend, the United States is the only place to be.
He already rents a comfortable three-bedroomed apartment there and this year he has been commuting regularly to train with Roach so a permanent move seems logical. "Going to Los Angeles has totally changed me," he says. "It was the best thing I've ever done. I changed from a boy to a man. I'm on my own there. I have to do things for myself. Here, half the job's done for me and it's easy to think of yourself as God's gift.
"I'm known everywhere I go in England, which I quite like and I am happy to give my time and autographs, but I need my mind to be focused and LA is the place for that. There I can get lots of rest and no one mithers me. I can chill out and mind my own business. I love it there. I get up at 5.30am, go for a run in the mountains where the air's brilliant. Then I look up at that Hollywood sign and think 'Wow! This is me.'
"Yet nobody really knows who I am among all those Hollywood stars," adds the 22-year-old. "As a boxer I've had to earn my respect in the gym alongside fighters like Pacquiao.
"Every fighter dreams of making it in America and I want to build a fan base there. Winning this title will lift me in world boxing and create the interest in America that I need. When the big fights start happening that's where I want to be. But I'd never turn my back on Bolton. I know my parents would never leave. All my friends are in Bolton and I'd keep coming back to see them. Also my community gym is there, which I would want to keep supporting."
Reports that he is thinking of becoming an actor are, he says, a load of Bollywood. "I think someone dreamed that up to help sell the fight."
And selling the fight was what he was doing rather well in the crowded shopping centre where, the moment he stepped from the ring, most of those 500 onlookers were queueing for autographs, photos and a hug. It was almost an hour before Khan could slump back on a sofa in a storeroom and relax. Many teenage girls were among the array of admirers. Not so long ago most of Khan's female fans wanted to mother him, now it seems their aspirations are more than matronly. So they'll be disappointed to learn he's spoken for.
He has never had the reputation of a ladies' man but there is now a lady in his life – apart from his doting mum – a 23-year-old doctor's receptionist from Bolton named Aakila, with whom he is in a steady relationship. "It's something I like to keep private. We started as friends but we have been dating for some time." She may be his partner but she'll never be a WAG. "She understands that I am a fighter and what that entails and that I will be away a lot and that boxing will always come first as it is my life. She's happy with that."
Aakila, who also trained as a beautician, will be at ringside in Manchester although his mother, Falek, won't. She had to be given oxygen when she collapsed after seeing Amir stiffened by Breidis Prescott 10 months ago. "Mum says she won't go to any more fights. She'll just stay in the hotel and wait until I get back. She knows that my fights are going to get tougher and there may be a lot of blood and pain involved. It's not nice for her to see that. She's never been happy about me boxing and she certainly didn't want Harry [his younger brother Haroon] to take it up either. She's asked me to make it a very short career but it's in your blood and it's one of those sports that it's hard to walk away from – fighters retire but they always seem to come back. It's addictive. Look at Oscar De La Hoya and Floyd Mayweather."
It was obvious from the audience at his workout that Khan, perhaps more than any other British sports figure, has a cross-community appeal – which makes the hostile reaction from some fans and fellow fighters after the Prescott defeat all the more shocking. It certainly hurt him more than any of the Colombian's blistering first-round punches. "There was a lot of hate around," he says.
And regrettably, even during his redemption victory over Marco Antonio Barrera in March, there were boos and barracking that had racist overtones, something Khan has always ridden above. "When I heard there were a few racial remarks in the crowd I was shocked because it's something I've never experienced before.
"The thing is, the British public seem to want winners. It was the same with Ricky Hatton. I was at ringside when he got knocked out by Pacquiao and those guys who had flown thousands of miles to cheer him then turned on him and booed. Most of what happened with the Prescott thing was jealousy and in a way I can understand that. I've been lucky enough to probably make more in 10 fights than they have in their whole lives.
"I've never had people coming up to me making racist remarks. I think it's the way you are. Maybe if I had a kind of Naz [Naseem Hamed] attitude it would be different, being very arrogant and stuff, then maybe people would hate me. Naz should have kept his religious beliefs inside him. You don't express it the way he did. Naz created enemies the way he went about it. I'm kinda religious as well, but it's behind closed doors."
Khan reads the Koran, attends a mosque on Fridays whenever he can and prays briefly in his corner before the bell. But unlike fellow Muslim Hamed he does not irksomely preach or proselytise, and his commitment to Britishness will be evident again on his shorts and dressing-gown when he climbs into the ring against Kotelnik after a three-week postponement because the champion pleaded a tooth infection – which Roach dismisses as "bullshit", suggesting he needed more time to get into condition.
Says Khan: "I can't wait to get in the dressing-room, do a bit of shadow boxing to warm up, start walking to the ring and hear the fans shouting. That's when the adrenalin kicks in. There's 20,000 screaming your name and as you get closer you can feel the hair on the back of your neck stand up and all the nerves are kicking in. You say to yourself, 'Come on man, this is the time'. And you are not scared of anything. You just want to get in there, hear the bell and start fighting."
Apart from sharing initials, he and Kotelnik had similar amateur pedigrees – both losing in successive Olympic finals to the peerless Cuban Mario Kindelan – but in styles and temperament there is a difference. Kotelnik is stoic, somewhat pedestrian and defensively sound, measuring his punches to harvest the points. The Khan we know is fast, fierce and flamboyant but with a flawed jaw. He may start favourite but, as he says himself, this is no walk in the park. "Freddie has told me this can be a tough one. Kotelnik has never been stopped, never knocked down in 34 fights. He has a typical Eastern European style, strong, coming forward, and I know I've got to be a bit more technical, not lunging in, picking the right shots and being very, very careful. The days of the hands-down tear-up have gone."
Khan used to say that by the time he was 25 he would be "chilling out and getting fat" but he has had a rethink. "Now I don't think I will peak until about then. I'll probably be in my best condition ever so what's the point of stopping when you are at your peak. I'll stop when it's time to stop.
"I've made some mistakes in my career in the ring and out – you do when you are young – and I am sorry. But in these past few months in LA I've learned more about boxing and about life. I'm not perfect by any means but I do my best to be a role model.
"My dream is to be recognised as one of the best fighters in the world pound for pound and one of the best-ever out of Britain. I'm only 22 and in five years' time I'm sure I'll be on my way to being a legend." And not only in America.
Life and times
Born: 8 December 1986, Bolton.
Height: 5ft 10in. Weight: 63kg.
Education: Smithills School and Bolton Community College.
Family: Originally from Punjab region of Pakistan; His brother Haroon, 18, is an ABA junior champion, and he has two sisters.
Career: Lightweight silver medallist aged 17 at 2004 Athens Olympics. Won Commonwealth title in July 2007 and WBO Intercontinental lightweight title in April 2008. Ranked best pound-for-pound fighter in the UK and 13th in the world.
Pria de Eyto
Possibility of fighting Ricky Hatton...
'I'm up for it if he is. People say it should happen and maybe it will if Freddie [Roach] thinks it is right for me. It would be an honour to be in the same ring but Ricky has to decide if he wants to come back. If he does, it's up to the promoters to sort out. But I have to win this one [against Kotelnik] first.'
Breidis Prescott, the only man to beat him...
'Can't wait to fight him again. And I won't make the same mistakes, never. Getting beat by him was a blessing in disguise because it changed me so much. I am grateful to him because if it wasn't for that defeat then I wouldn't be where I am now. But I just want to get in there, beat him and shut all those critics up.'
Women's boxing, to make its debut London 2012...
'You don't really want to see women fighting, do you? This is a violent sport, you get hurt and I don't think women should be a part of that. If it gets into the Olympics then so be it, but I don't think I would watch it. I think women should stick to something like tennis. Boxing is a man's sport.'
His next opponent, Andreas Kotelnik...
'You don't pull out of a fight because of toothache. It's pathetic. I think he was scared he was going to lose the title and wanted a delay to get into better condition. I've never pulled out of a fight even when I couldn't punch properly because my hands were mashed up.'
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