The Outsider: Amir Khan’s Battle For Acceptance

Like all teen stars, Amir Khan seems to have been around forever. It is nigh on a decade since an unknown 17-year-old lightweight boxer from Lancashire captured the hearts of a nation. His gallantry at the Olympic Games in Athens returned an unexpected silver medal. And while the Val Barker trophy for the tournament’s most outstanding boxer went to the Kazakh Bakhtiyar Artayev, Khan was its star. Back in 2004, it seemed that Bolton — of all places — had unwittingly germinated the next Oscar De La Hoya or Roy Jones Jr.

In the prologue to his 2006 autobiography: “Amir Khan: A Boy From Bolton: My Story,” Barry McGuigan — a sage eye — suggested that Khan possessed as much potential as the young Floyd Mayweather, Jr. The former featherweight king also alluded to Khan, as a British Muslim, potentially becoming an important religio-political figure – a uniting force. It was a glowing reference and a presage to Khan’s impending greatness; not just as a fighter, but as a man.

Promoters fell over themselves to secure the jug-eared flash’s professional contract. Barry Hearn outbid both Dennis Hobson and Frank Warren. Crucially, though, Warren impressed Amir’s father, Shah, and so clinched the most coveted signature in British sport.

Khan began mowing down journeymen on ITV, the main terrestrial rival to the BBC — who’d screened his Olympic hijinks. He cloaked himself in the Union Jack. However, in his tenth bout, and flouting an errant defence, he roused his dissenters by taking a standing count against French novice Rachid Drilzane. Three fights later, Khan looked as delicate as rice-paper against Glaswegian Willie Limond – rallying from the brink of calamity to break the light-punching underdog’s jaw.

The backlash was inevitable. No longer a plucky kid taking on the might of Cuba’s amateur boxing programme, Khan’s opponents were hopelessly overmatched. It is the way for all budding champions of course, for the process of building a boxer is tantamount to bullying. Nevertheless, it made for uncomfortable viewing when dressed up as prime time sport. And the viewers didn’t like it.

Amir had grown cocksure. Reports surfaced of traffic violations — misdemeanours committed in flash cars; a foundry worker, Geoffrey Hatton, was mown down at a pedestrian crossing. Increased scrutiny of his performances led to the sacking of trainer Oliver Harrison with Cuban Jorge Rubio (whom Harrison labelled an “amateur”) usurping him. Celebrity had turned Khan’s head. His comeuppance was absolute; a 54 second drubbing at the hands of Colombian import Breidis Prescott left his career in tatters. He was still only 21.

Khan regrouped, of course. Rubio was replaced by renowned trainer Freddie Roach, who helped guide him to an alphabet belt at 140 lbs. However, pockets of fans had began booing his fights; after luring faded Mexican great Marco Antonio Barrera over to Manchester, local costume shops sold out of sombreros.

Puberty is a death knell for Hollywood’s child stars. Once Khan ceased to be a precocious teen boxer, did he similarly lose his appeal? Or was there something more sinister at play?

“It’s probably jealousy and sometimes skin colour does make a difference.” Khan asserted before a title defense against Dmitriy Salita in Newcastle. “I know if, maybe, I was a white English fighter, I would be a superstar in Britain.”

It is a claim that can’t wholly be discounted – Khan has been the target of bigotry throughout his career. Another explanation is that his overwhelming confidence (perceived as cockiness) disconnected Khan from the British public. Fight fans are predominately working class; they demand fighters are tough but humble (and if they are braggarts then they’d better be good). Lennox Lewis, Chris Eubank and Joe Bugner were considered aloof, and so were never embraced in the same manner as Frank Bruno, Nigel Benn and Henry Cooper. It should be noted, though, that Bugner and Lewis were eyed as foreigners masquerading under a flag of convenience until, in the case of Lewis, he achieved greatness. Everyone loves a winner, right?

Khan brushed off the Prescott defeat yet refused to entertain a rematch. Instead, he talked about becoming a legend. The manner of his collapse, though, had left him untrustworthy, as it had fellow Olympian Audley Harrison. Harrison, too, had succumbed to a fragile chin and failed to live up to his own hype. He was labelled a fraud – the most heinous of insults in such an honest pursuit – and a dreamer.

Khan rebooted in L.A. He hit a purple patch under Roach and the Wildcard Gym’s in-house conditioner at the time, Alex Ariza – the team that had overseen Manny Pacquiao’s incredible winning run. He sparred the Filipino and outboxed future world titlists Paulie Malignaggi and Marcos Maidana; the Maidana fight was named as the Boxing Writer’s Association of America’s 2010 fight of the year. A victory lap in Manchester was penciled in against Dungiven’s Paul McCloskey, yet the majority of tickets were procured by the Ulsterman’s fans. After Sky relegated the bout from its pay-per-view platform, Khan’s management hawked the fight to lowly cable provider Primetime instead. A controversial (and less well-paid) victory followed and Khan, after falling flat on home soil once again, returned to the States.

There, he bombed out veteran New Yorker Zab Judah in Vegas but was outhustled in Washington by hometown fighter Lamont Peterson. A scoring controversy paved the way for a rematch. However, Peterson failed a drugs test 10 days prior to the opening bell. Khan complained he’d been cheated all along and moved on to face unbeaten Philadelphian Danny “Swift” Garcia. He was summarily dispatched in four rounds – racially abused by Garcia’s father in the build up and then tossed around like a rag doll in the event. Roach was ousted, Virgil Hunter was brought on board and Khan has recorded two lacklustre victories since.

At 27, Khan, now a welterweight, faces 33-year-old American nearly man Luis Collazo in Vegas on Saturday. Originally a frontrunner to face Mayweather in the main event (a windfall he’d allegedly qualified for due to his large number of Twitter followers), social media feedback had been damning. After a protracted flirtation, Khan was out and Maidana – the man he’d enjoyed his finest hour against — was in. His spot on their undercard this Saturday can be viewed as a compensation award.

Greatness as a fighter is almost certainly beyond him. Collazo, who gave Ricky Hatton nightmares eight years ago, may prove to be also. Should the wheels falls off Khan’s career on Saturday, it will be difficult to judge it a success. A win – and he must win at all costs — might reenter him into the Mayweather sweepstakes, yet a smarter next step would involve a match with another fighter who features on the undercard, the obnoxious Adrien Broner – boxing’s undisputed King Rat. That fight would allow Khan to play the hero for a change and recover that which he lost against Prescott: the respect, and affection, of his people.

About Andrew Harrison