Amir Khan is not quite sure of the exact moment when he switched from being the child fighter in the 2004 Olympic final to the youngest veteran in the modern business of boxing.
Tonight Khan the man defends his World Boxing Association light-welterweight title in Newcastle against the unbeaten New Yorker Dmitriy Salita in a fight that will firmly end the apprentice days of the kid from Bolton. If he beats Salita in style he will be a genuine world-class operator.
His passage has taken him through the obligatory mismatches at the start of his professional career to a sickening loss, and then on a solitary journey to the workshop of champions where the boxing guru Freddie Roach made the kid a man.
Modern boxing's glazed-eyed cynics insist that their pursuit is devoid of fairy tales, but how wrong they repeatedly are and a glance at Khan's present situation is proof that even in sport's hardest profession there is space for a happy story. It is impossible not to like Khan.
"It's amazing really that I'm here and defending my world title," said Khan. "I've had to work harder than other boxers to come back from the defeat and I've had to carry on working harder than other fighters because people expect me to fail." He is right, it is amazing and the man responsible for the wonder is Roach.
In September last year Khan was blasted out in less than 60 seconds by an unknown Colombian called Breidis Prescott. In the ugly aftermath, Khan's trainer was kicked out and the boxer switched from the comfort of his multi-million pound centre in his hometown, to the seedy retreat on the wrong side of the Hollywood divide that is Roach's Wildcard gym. The transformation was brutal from the start with Khan having to fight from day one for his right to a locker in Roach's gym. Roach is far more than a mercenary trainer with a wisecrack and a towel for hire.
"There was no special treatment for him, there is no special treatment for any of my fighters," claimed Roach, who has worked for eight years with Manny Pacquiao, the world's greatest boxer. "Amir had to survive and he did and he has become a good fighter. He's a very good fighter right now."
Khan was made to spar with Pacquiao from the very start and that continues to this day. Roach insists that the sessions are even for a few rounds and then Pacquiao starts to pull away.
"Freddie is right, but I still try and take his head off and he still tries to take my head off," said Khan. "Sometimes there are over 100 people watching, people that have just come in to see the sparring. That has made me a better fighter. I want people to see how good I am." The Wildcard gym is an outpost of boxing's past, a forgotten sanctuary that attracts as many fallen former fighters as it does aspiring pros. It's not for everybody and Salita once tried Roach's regime, but quickly returned to New York.
It is known and respected that Roach has a savage approach to a fighter's preparation. His philosophy is simple and translates roughly as: they can fight or they can leave. In sparring, Khan has admitted, Roach encourages the boxers to score knock-outs, which is about as far removed from the comfort zone that Khan vacated as is possible.
"Freddie is about a lot more than just hard sparring. He talks to his boxers, works on the small details, makes adjustments and looks for ways to beat opponents. He's a brilliant man," continued Khan. Roach, however, has had a big few flops; failing to reach inside Mike Tyson's head, falling out with Oscar De La Hoya during a fight and also not quite understanding Bernard Hopkins and his maverick methods. Khan, it has to be said, was a much more willing scholar and was only 21 when he went to Los Angeles to study at Roach's feet and learn from Pacquiao, a fighter whose eminence is Roach's greatest achievement.
The partnership was sealed in March when veteran Marco Antonio Barrera, with Don King in tandem predicting tears for Khan, was stopped in a bloody five-round affair. There was mild controversy at the end, but Khan had taken the first step from boy to man by listening to Roach and performing to order a calculating lesson in sensible boxing. It looked like Khan was finally putting a bit of brain behind his punches and Roach was content in the post-fight glow to receive the accolades. It is obvious that Roach now considers Khan to be his next project, the man to inherit the main corner when Pacquiao finally quits to become the president of the Philippines.
A few months after the Barrera fight Khan won the WBA title with another tactically astute performance, where he never took a single risk and ran to survive at times, to outpoint Andreas Kotelnik. Roach is big on control and patience in fights and Khan believes that Pacquiao's main asset is his patience.
"I can get to Manny's level if I keep on learning," said Khan, whose voice and body shape have changed in the last year. "Manny believes in me and that is great motivation. There are a lot of people who believe in me in America." Khan has been critical recently of some members of the British boxing industry, particularly some fighters and broadcasters who wrote him off last year when he lost. He has made no secret of his desire to fight on in America with his current promoter, Frank Warren, working with him and the boxer's promotional outfit.
However, the tradition is for established world champions to walk away from the men that have crafted their careers, but perhaps Khan will be different and it needs to be remembered that it was Warren that made the fights available for the wounded Khan to use as his rehab following the Prescott shock. It's just another bit of the odd fairy tale.
"I have to beat Salita and make it look good. He's unbeaten, he's an American fighter and beating him will raise my profile there," said Khan. "I've got my own promotional company and I will be promoting my own fights in the future and I want Frank to be involved. It starts here with this fight."
Salita has a chance to catch Khan and I expect that he will start at a furious pace in a bold attempt to repeat the Prescott defeat, a loss caused by Khan's stupidity as much as Prescott's venom. Khan will need to listen to Roach and not his let his enormous heart get in the way of sense and if he does that he will win in the type of style that he will need to make it in America. He's a big boy now and after tonight he will be, in boxing terms, a fully grown man. It has been an enjoyable excursion so far and it is about to get a lot better.
Freddie factor: Champions created by Roach
Since retiring as a boxer in 1986, Freddie Roach has coached 25 world champions at his Wild Card Boxing Gym in Los Angeles, including:
The American heavyweight became the Roach's first world champion when he knocked out Leslie Stewart in the fourth round on 5 September 1987 to win the WBA world light-heavyweight title. Roach was only 27 when he led the fighter to victory and has said it is his greatest sporting achievement.
Roach installed the belief and discipline in Collins to make him a world champion. Roach was in the cement-jawed Irishman's corner throughout his career and most notably during his famous victories over Chris Eubank – to first win and then retain the WBO super-middleweight title in 1995 – and his knockout victories over Nigel Benn for the title in 1996.
The trainer helped Toney win the IBF middleweight and super-middleweight titles in the early Nineties, as well as engineering a comeback in 2003, when he dropped down two divisions to win the IBF cruiserweight title.
The Filipino, recognised as the world's best pound-for-pound fighter, has won all six of his world titles in the six different weight divisions under the tutelage of Roach. Roach first began training Pacquaio to become IBF super-bantamweight champion in 2001, and he is a regular sparring partner for Amir Khan.
*In less successful fights, Roach trained Mike Tyson before his fourth-round knockout defeat by the Briton Danny Williams in 2004, and was in Oscar de la Hoya's corner during his loss to Floyd Mayweather in 2007. Roach later said of his time working with De la Hoya: "He said, I will never fight again without you in my corner; I felt great, then I read a couple days later I'd been sacked." James Orr
Khan v Salita: Tale of the tape
Height: 5ft 10in
Wins (KO): 21(15)
Last Fight: Andriy Kotelnik:18 July 2009, decision
Birthplace: Odessa, Ukraine
Height: 5ft 9in
Wins (KO): 30(16)
Last Fight: Raul Munoz: 24 May 2009, decision
Tune in early: Mitchell and DeGale star on undercard
On the undercard of the Amir Khan fight tonight there is a mouth-watering affair featuring Khan's former one-round conqueror Breidis Prescott and the long-time next big thing, Kevin Mitchell. Mitchell, once seen as a genuine rival to Khan, has remained unbeaten but somewhat lost momentum, with two low-key wins over journeymen opponents all he has to show for what he hoped would be a breakthrough 2009.
Suddenly, with the turning-pro of Olympic gold medallist James DeGale, who also appears on the undercard fighting Nathan King, and his Beijing team-mates Frankie Gavin and Billy Joe Saunders, there is a sense Mitchell has been shunted out of the headline slot. Mitchell, 25, desperately needs that big test to catapult him back into the nation's consciousness, and there could hardly be a better – or indeed more daring – foe to face than the big-punching Prescott.
For Prescott, the fight also represents a crossroads. Having beaten Khan and won by disqualification over Humberto Toledo, Prescott blew his big chance of a Khan rematch by losing a split decision to Miguel Vazquez last time out.
An emphatic victory over Mitchell would almost certainly pave the way for that fight to happen, and such would be the hype surrounding it that it could even prove to be the occasion of Khan's projected Las Vegas debut.
For Mitchell, however, the rewards promise to be equally huge, with a victory over the man who destroyed Khan suddenly lifting the Dagenham man from Bethnal Green bill-topper to the verge of a WBA title shot.Reuse content