Boxing: Khan's huge test before shot at marquee name
Bolton belter craves world title fight in States but must see off slippery Salita
Amir Khan's ambition knows no bounds, and that's fair enough for a young man nudging 23 who is already a celebrated world champion and now wants to make a bigger name for himself as a marquee fighter. "Marquee" is fight-game speak for topping the bill at mega-venues such as New York's Madison Square Garden or the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, though the buzzword on Khan's lips now is Marquez rather than marquee.
He may be getting ahead of himself – after all, he has to dispose of his mandatory challenger Dmitriy Salita when he makes the first defence of his WBA light-welterweight title at Newcastle's Metro Radio Arena on Saturday – but the man he fancies as the first rung on his ladder to fame and even greater fortune in America is Juan Manuel Marquez.
He is the Mexican former multi-world champion last seen having his ears comprehensively boxed by Floyd Mayweather Jnr. Says Khan: "I know Salita is going to be a tough test for me but it's what I need to be able to take me to the next level. If I could pick one fight I could have in the States next year, it would be Marquez. I think he's made for my style. He's a big name in America and it would do my own reputation good."
There is just one snag, the fast and skilful Salita apart. The 36-year-old Marquez has also been earmarked by Ricky Hatton as his possible comeback opponent next year, so it could be a matter of beating the Hitman to the punch out of the ring before eventually getting the opportunity to do so in it. "I'm surprised he's thinking of Marquez," says Khan. "I thought he would want an easier fight than that first. But good luck to him. Let's wait and see what happens."
There is no doubt that Khan has been totally seduced by the Californian lifestyle since he began training in Los Angeles with Freddie Roach following his KO defeat by Breidis Prescott 15 months ago, and this has led to speculation about his future with Frank Warren, the promoter who has nurtured him since he turned professional as an Olympic silver medallist.
He is now on a fight-by-fight arrangement with Warren and, like Hatton and Joe Calzaghe, has formed his own promotional company. Is this an indication that, like his former stablemates, he is planning to discard loyalty and walk away?
Khan puts the record straight. "My ambition has always been to fight and live in the States, as I told you before I won the world title, and I want my next fight to be there. This fight [Salita] is being promoted by Frank Warren and it would be good to go there alongside Frank; I hope that's the case. Frank has done a great job in getting me the right fights and I am sure our relationship will stay the same and we can go to America together and get bigger fights. But I've got to win this before we go anywhere."
Salita, aka the Star of David, comes from a long line of Jewish fighters, from Britain's bare-knuckle king Daniel Mendoza to Yuri Foreman, who has become the first Israeli to win a world title. This is the first fight in Britain between a Muslim and a Jew, but Khan rightly rubbishes suggestions of religious or racial undertones. "I want to beat Salita because he is a good fighter. The fact he is Jewish has nothing to do with it. We respect each other."
In many ways, the Ukrainian-born Salita, 27 and now from Brooklyn, represents Khan's most testing challenge yet. He is quick, young and unbeaten (one draw in 31 bouts, though his opponents seem mainly to come from boxing's Who's He? rather than Who's Who). He takes a better shot than he gives, though he has been on the floor.
But there is no doubt that Khan's technique has been sharpened by working in the same Wild Card gym in downtown Hollywood as Manny Pacquiao, and Roach believes some of the fantastic Filipino's gold dust has rubbed off. He says: "They push each other. They both have the same work ethic and similar qualities, and some of the things Manny has are now showing up in Amir's moves. Amir's left hook is getting better and better. He's much more of a complete fighter. Salita's pretty clever but I think Amir will have too much power for him."
On a mammoth undercard which features the further adventures of Olympians James DeGale, Frankie Gavin and Billy Joe Saunders – and the pro debut of teenage amateur welterweight star Ronnie Heffron – the most intriguing match-up is a world lightweight eliminator between the unbeaten British champion Kevin Mitchell and Breidis Prescott, the Colombian clouter who temporarily blighted Khan's career, but subsequently lost his last fight.
Khan issues a word from the wise. "It's ironic that since Prescott beat me, I've become a world champion and his career has gone a bit downhill. But it's a great fight for Kevin, who can learn from the mistakes I made. He must keep his hands high up and tight, and bob and weave and go under his shots rather than try to slip them."
A similar gameplan against Salita should see Khan humming: "California Here I Come".
Amir Khan v Dmitriy Salita is in High Definition on Sky Box Office next Saturday. To order, call 08442 410 888. Tickets: metroradioarena.com
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