By Thomas Gerbasi
It couldn’t have been easy being Amir Khan. The toast of the British sporting scene back in 2004, when he won a Silver medal in the Olympics at the age of 17, he was a mere teenager tossed into the spotlight and expected to not only be an international superstar in the ring but to act the part as well.
Amazingly, he survived.
“It was difficult,” Khan told BoxingScene. “I was only 17 at the time, but I did well. I had to stay focused, and I always had that mission of becoming a world champion and being a good professional fighter, and that just kept me going. If I said I was just happy with the medal, maybe I would have gone on the wrong path. But it wasn’t enough for me to win the Silver medal; I wanted to win more, and I had that hunger of going out there and getting more and more.”
Nearly seven years later, Khan is the WBA junior welterweight champion, on his way to the stardom in the US that he’s already achieved in his native England, and widely considered to be, if not the best, then at worst the second best 140-pounder in the world.
But it wasn’t that easy to get here. Far from it. Scrutinized for everything from his personal life to changing trainers and promoters, Khan endured a fighting apprenticeship few could relate to. Even the usual suspects fed to prospects on the way up the ranks knew that a win over Khan would change their lives and their tax brackets, leaving the Bolton native with a neon target on his back every time he stepped through the ropes.
“Everyone I fought from the first fight I had normally got six to eight weeks of notice, and they trained hard and worked hard because for them it was a massive opportunity, and people don’t realize that,” he said. “They come in the best shape ever, and I fought guys at their best because they knew that if they beat me, it would take them to a different level.”
One by one though, Khan struck down everyone in his path. Then he met Breidis Prescott in September of 2008 and everything came crashing down as Khan hit the deck and was stopped in just 54 seconds. Then the knives really came out from fans, media, and his peers. Khan was a fraud, a faker, a hype job. And those were the kinder comments.
It may have been the best thing that ever happened to him though, as the loss steeled Khan and made him realize that the only way to silence the critics was to get back into the gym and the ring, and beat everyone put in front of him. He knew what he could do in the ring, both then and in the future, and now he simply had to show it.
“There was a time after the Prescott fight where I was getting a lot of criticism, and I just wanted to prove to people how good Amir Khan is,” he said. “And I came back stronger and I did say to everyone that I’ll prove you all wrong and I’ll come back stronger. I think that punch that Prescott hit me with would have knocked out anyone. But I’ve come back from that, I got with Freddie (Roach), and I’m a better fighter now – wiser, and more disciplined, and a lot smarter. That defeat did me a world of good. I think if it hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t be in this position now. I would have been taking things slow. But maybe that one fight made me kinda go into the big fights and take on the big fights because I had to prove to people how good I was.”
The link-up with renowned trainer Freddie Roach has certainly paid dividends, but what may have truly saved Khan’s career is his training camp relocation to Los Angeles to work with Roach in the Wild Card Gym. In California, Khan is just another fighter. He’s not the superstar hitting the tabloids every day, he’s another 24-year old required to work as hard as everyone else in the gym. For some, such a switch could be humbling; for Khan, it’s refreshing.
“I love it here in LA,” he said. “I get away from all the distractions and I focus on my job, which is to fight and win fights. In England, I can’t do any of this. Everywhere I go, even non-boxing fans know who Amir Khan is. It’s a nice thing, don’t get me wrong, but sometimes you need to get away from all that and be seen as a normal person and a normal fighter. And in LA, I think that’s what happens here. I get treated like a normal fighter, and the only way to get respect here is to train hard and win fights. In a way, I started fresh. And slowly, more people have been getting to know who I am, and you do get a few people recognizing me. Hopefully by this time next year, more people will know who Amir Khan is and I’ll be a household name in America as well.”
If he continues on the path he’s on, that’s inevitable. In 2010, he began making inroads to the American market with Stateside wins over Paulie Malignaggi and Marcos Maidana, the latter bout winning the Boxing Writers Association of America’s Fight of the Year award and also answering plenty of questions about Khan’s chin and heart. And on July 23rd, he will take on veteran Zab Judah in a Las Vegas bout for Khan’s WBA crown and the Brooklyn veteran’s IBF strap. It’s an intriguing matchup, given “Super” Judah’s recent resurgence, and Khan isn’t looking past his 33-year old foe.
“He (Judah) has a southpaw stance, he’s very awkward, and he’s very tricky,” he said. “I just have to be very careful and don’t make mistakes because he’s got that experience behind him. We just have to go in there, be smart about everything, not make mistakes, and stick to the gameplan. One punch can change a fight in boxing and we don’t want that to happen. There might come a time when we have to stand there and fight with him, and there might come times in the fight where we have to box him. We know what we have to do to beat Zab Judah, and we’re going to do it on the 23rd.”
A win should propel Khan to the top of all 140-pound rankings, simply because the man he wanted to fight this summer, WBC and WBO junior welterweight champ Timothy Bradley, turned down the unification bout, much to the shock of the boxing community and Khan himself.
“As everybody knows, we really wanted to fight Bradley, and then Bradley – in my eyes – chickened out,” said Khan. “He just didn’t want to fight. Bradley had a great deal on the table, and hasn’t fought since January, so I think it would have been a great time for him to fight in July. The TV date was there, everything was there, but he turned it down. I even offered him 50 percent of the revenue in the UK, which normally we don’t give anyone. He turned that down, so we just have to turn the page over.”
“I really think he thought that he’d get beat and would have nowhere to go if he gets beat, and the only reason maybe HBO is interested in Bradley is because he holds two world titles and is number one in the 140-pound division,” Khan continued. “But at the end of the day, I have offered him the fight. At first he offered me the fight and I said yes, I’ve got (Paul) McCloskey to take care of, and as soon as I took care of McCloskey (via sixth round technical decision in April), then he just didn’t want to fight me. He said no and he still hasn’t come up with any reason why. I would think it’s just fear, to be honest with you.”
Fear isn’t a word in Khan’s vocabulary though, and his willingness to step up and battle whoever he needs to in order to prove it is enough to convince even his staunchest critics that despite his early hiccup against Prescott, he is the real deal and likely to get even better. It must be satisfying for the former boy king, who has grown to become a fighting man in front of the world, as well as perhaps the top junior welterweight of that world. Not bad at all.
“I fought Maidana, and then they said fight Bradley and I think people really thought I’m not going to take the fight, but I was the one who wanted the fight and he was the one who backed out,” said Khan. “I think it just showed that I really am the legitimate best fighter in the 140-pound division. And hopefully, winning this fight against Judah and winning the IBF and taking that off him, I think it would put me in a good spot as the number one in the 140-pound division. But who knows? At the end of the day, whoever they put in front of me, I’ll fight.”
What more can you ask?