I don't know why nobody shows boxing matches in India--especially since ESPN apparently spends half its time whining that it lost the rights to Indian cricket and the other half trying to figure out something that will get better rating than so-called professional wrestling--but here's an introduction to a guy who could pump up those viewer numbers, for a few years, anyway, while he's being groomed for a title shot. ESPN, meet Amir Khan. I know, I know, the promoters actually want MONEY to show boxing overseas. Tell 'em that it's a choice of some money--admittedly, not too much--or no money. Nobody else is going to give them a dime to broadcast their fight in India, so why the hell not? And since the match will take place in the middle of the night, India time, what will you be putting it up against but repeats of England-Bangladesh cricket matches of the 1980s? (Which brings me to another bone of contention, you bastards: Why do you put the Live logo on everything? Do you mean the players are still Alive? Do you mean the guys who turned on the tape in the studio are Live? And why, oh why, do you opt to play tapes when there are actually real Live sports going on simultaneously to which you own the rights?)
Interview: Amir Khan
Monday August 29, 2005
A year ago today, on the last day of the Olympic Games in Athens, a sweet-faced 17-year-old boy from Bolton stepped into the ring to face a hardened 33-year-old Cuban fighter hailed as the world's greatest amateur boxer for more than a decade. Amir Khan had arrived in Greece two weeks earlier as a virtual unknown - a shy student from Bolton Community College who liked go-karting and playing football. He lived at home, still accepted a soft cuff round the head from his mum for not tidying his room and made it up to her by smiling like Bambi whenever he offered to walk down to the local shops to buy a pint of milk.
Mario Kindelan, meanwhile, came to Athens as the reigning world and two-time Olympic lightweight champion, his formidable amateur record after 340 fights burnished by the fact that many of his previously outclassed victims, like Felix Trinidad and Miguel Cotto, had gone on to become celebrated professionals. His victory over Khan in a third successful Olympic final was meant to be a brutal formality.
Khan, instead, pushed Kindelan close, stalking the Cuban with fluid intent. He then accepted his 30-22 defeat with a grace and dignity which seemed all the more striking at the end of a week in which another British teenage prodigy, Wayne Rooney, had been smeared all over the tabloids after visiting a brothel in Liverpool. Most of the eight million British television viewers who watched Khan receive his silver medal that afternoon were captivated.
"It happened so quick and it's gone totally mad since then," Khan says now, shaking his head at the thought that, after the recent attacks on London, normally sober writers have described him as "a standard-bearer among the Muslim community in combating terrorism" and "the single most important role model for a multinational British society". Khan laughs softly as, in a small office above a mini-cab firm in downtown Bolton, he tries to explain how much his life has changed in a year.
While he is reassuringly blasé when revealing that he has met the "down-to-earth" Queen three times and a "fairly normal" Tony Blair twice, Khan is more touching in describing the personal way in which fame has changed his life. "I keep telling myself that I'm still only 18 - even if most of the time I tend to act like I'm 25 or someone old like that. I haven't been able to go down to the shops for my mum for a long time. I tried it after Athens and people went mad. At first they would say 'you look just like Amir Khan' and I'd say 'you're the second person to tell me that today'. But then I started getting mobbed and it would take a couple of hours to get to and from the shops.
"But I'll tell you the weirdest thing. I keep getting everything for free. I'd rather be normal and pay my own way. If I go out for a meal with a few friends it can get embarrassing. When it's time for the bill the owner will come over and say it's on the house. I try to get them to take my money but it's their way of showing respect or admiration. I understand but I'm telling you it's not as good as it sounds.
"A lot of things have changed around me and that's why it can be quite hard. It makes me feel I've lost a lot of my youth. I came back from the Olympic Games and straightaway I'm this role model. So that means I can't mess around with my mates like I used to because, if I do, people are going to use it to knock me down. It used to piss me off but now I'm used to it."
His professional debut last month - a first-round demolition of a journeyman called David Bailey - was dominated by the decision to play Land of Hope and Glory during Khan's walk to the ring and his subsequent raising of a union flag in which the word "London" had been stitched in black. For an 18-year-old weighed down by his new social significance it seemed an unnecessary burden - and led to accusations that Khan might have been pressured into making a portentous statement.
Shifting uncomfortably in his seat, Khan insists that "it was down to me. Like everyone I was upset about the London bombings . . . but, you know, I'm only 18 and I don't really want to be a spokesman for anyone. It might sound selfish but I'm learning now to say no to people. I have to put myself first and think of the boxing rather than the rest of it."
His eyes widen and glitter as he remembers the 109-second fight more vividly than the surrounding political metaphors. "I was excited and nervous but as soon as the bell rang it went quiet in my head. It was just me and him. I knew it was going to be easy as soon as I saw him charging at me. That made me totally relaxed and he just fell on to my shots. I blew him away."
A far more telling measure of Khan's undoubted potential had emerged in his previous bout in May, his last as an amateur, when he gained imperious revenge over Kindelan. In dominating the Cuban, who claimed to be determined to win the final fight of his majestic career, Khan proved that his exceptional talent is allied to a steely nerve and sharp intelligence.
"In Athens I faced so many completely different boxers that I couldn't get my head focused on Kindelan and his style until just before the final. But this time it was just like a professional fight. I studied Kindelan so closely that by the time we got into the ring I reckon I knew before him what he was going to do next. And then I'd hit him - bam! Bam-bam!"
He leans across the small table separating us and gently hammers his fist against the wooden surface. "I was actually surprised by how easy it was and that gave me a lot of confidence because Kindelan is a lot better than most pros. After the fight I spent some time with him in Cuba and that was special. I met the other Cuban legends like [Teofilo] Stevenson and [Felix] Savon, and they told me how much it hurt Kindelan to lose his last fight. But he was so respectful to me that I was inspired by him and the whole Cuban boxing history."
Khan's unbridled passion for the ring is more intriguing than liberal attempts to sanctify him in modern Britain. It also helps explain why such a charming and engaging 18-year-old is able to bring such dark spite to his work between the ropes.
"You need that kind of pleasure as a fighter. You have to like what you actually do in the ring. That's why in the pro game I look up to the Mexicans. Marco Antonio Barrera and Erik Morales are the guys I want to base myself on. They fight with their whole heart and with such work-rate. They just don't stop punching. I want to be like that - never boring."
When asked to pick his favourite between two fighters who have shared three thrilling but excruciating battles - with two wins for Barrera, "The Baby-Faced Assassin", shading the lone victory of Morales or "El Terrible", as the hollow-eyed super-featherweight from Tijuana tags himself - Khan leans forward. His voice sounds husky. "Morales is my guy. I've always loved him as a fighter. I hope to meet him one day - just to shake his hand."
It is, crucially, not lost on Khan that Naseem Hamed was finally ruined by Barrera - even if his demise had begun years earlier. "It's definitely a lesson for me. Naseem was my hero for a long time and at his peak he was brilliant. If he had fought Barrera four years before I think Naseem would have beaten him. But the money got to him, and the hype, and I think he stopped putting the work in. The Mexicans are different; they never stop working."
Khan remembers how, in the early hours of a Sunday morning in April 2001, "at my mate's house in Bolton we sat up all night waiting for Naseem to fight Barrera. I felt I should support Naz but he had no chance against Barrera that night. Barrera left Naseem hurt and confused. It explained again why the Mexican way - fighting hard, staying hungry - is such a big thing."
Like Hamed, Khan imagines becoming a "legend" and retiring undefeated from boxing at the age of 25. He is too young to accept, when it is pointed out to him, that every fighter professes the same noble aim but that none, beyond Rocky Marciano, has managed to walk away unblemished. The ring is too dangerously addictive. Yet as long as Khan remains in thrall to Morales and Barrera, rather than the bloated shell of Hamed, he could forge a remarkable career.
He may eventually shatter prejudice or even spread more unity in a splintered society but for now it seems enough that Khan lights up when talking about Bolton Wanderers or Freddie Flintoff. He and Flintoff often train alongside each other in the same Salford gym: "Freddie's real strong and I reckon he'd have made some boxer. But I'm happy he chose cricket because I can't get enough of the Ashes. I've been racing home after training every day to see us against the Aussies. It's been brilliant."
Flintoff has been invited to be Khan's special guest a week on Saturday when the young lightweight fights on a Joe Calzaghe undercard in Cardiff. In the midst of the deciding Test at The Oval Flintoff will presumably be able to watch another fast win for his Lancashire ally only on ITV - as Khan should easily dismantle the 34-year-old Baz Carey from Coventry.
Far greater tests await Khan, if not Flintoff, and it as almost as significant as his Mexican fervour that he has picked out his own future rival. "I always said as an amateur that I'd want to one day fight and beat Kindelan because he was the best out there. Same thing in the pros. I look out there and I see that Floyd Mayweather stands head and shoulders above everyone else. He's another fighter I would like to base myself on because he's got incredible fast hands and feet. He's flashy but, man, is he good."
The idea of Khan one day fighting Mayweather - a vicious and brash unbeaten 28-year-old American light-welterweight who calls himself "Pretty Boy" - may be a Hamed-like invitation to hubris. Yet, staring across the table at a young fighter flaming with wild hope and grand dreams of his own, I hear myself asking Khan how long he realistically believes he needs before he might be ready to face a consummate boxer like Mayweather.
The reply is fast and certain. "Three and a half years . . ."
I raise a brow at the speed and seeming exactitude of his ambition. "Well, maybe four years," Khan finally says, with a grin. "As long as I don't allow myself to get distracted I think that's possible. If I keep focused like Morales or Barrera then I can do it. Why not?"
In the meantime Khan will continue living at home with his parents, two sisters and young brother Haroon - a 14-year-old bantamweight. "Haroon is already a Four Nation and British champion and he thinks he's going to be better than me. We spar a lot and sometimes, even though he weighs only 6½ stone, he can hurt me. I give him one back then - just to let him know who's boss."
The older brother smiles knowingly, sounding suitably mature, just as he does when recognising his own youthfulness in his very next breath.
"Y'know, I don't want to move out of home for a few more years. I don't want to be opening envelopes, reading bills, posting cheques. That's too much pressure for an 18-year-old. I've got enough on my plate at the moment. All that other boring stuff will come soon enough. Until then I just want to chill out - and fight."