Those who watched British boxing sensation Amir Khan's 7th round demolition last Saturday of his Danish opponent Martin Kristjansen in the World Boxing Organisation world-title eliminator at the Bolton Arena will know he is a special talent.
His story, though, really began in 2004, when at the age of 17 he made it to the Athens Olympics. He came back with a silver medal, losing only to Cuban legend Mario Kindelan, and became a high-profile sportstar almost overnight in the UK.
In his biography, A Boy from Bolton: My Story, Khan gives us “the first chapter in the story'' — his amatuer and pro career as a boxer and, more interestingly, life as a British celebrity of Asian origin.
The tone of the book is endearingly folsky, with sentences such as: “It was mad after the Olympics. My dad's phone was red hot'' and “… they wanted my autograph. I took photographs with them. Mega.''
Arguably, Khan's Asian origin is what makes him different. As he says in his book:
“There were no Asian lads boxing when I started. There aren't many now. I have never faced another Asian lad in the ring or appeared on the same bill as one.''
The credit for Khan taking up the sport should also go to his father Shajaad, who has been a big influence in his life. Wary of the lad getting into fights at school, Shajaad used to take his “hyper-active'' son to the local boxing gym so that Khan could channel his energies there. But he spotted talent very early in his son, and ensured that Khan got the training he needed to go all the way.
Khan is from a very close-knit family, and lives with them even today. Throughout the book, he speaks fondly of them, about sparring with his younger brother Haroon (who is also a promising amateur boxer), his sister, his mum's curries and his Uncle Taz. (Achievement in sports looks like a family thing — his cousin and close friend is Sajid Mahmoud, Lancashire and England fast bowler.)
Khan's paternal grandfather, Lall Khan, first arrived in England in 1963, from the village of Matore, near Rawalpindi in Pakistan. He came there, like the wave of South Asians at that time, to make a better life from himself.
He started off working in the fields, planting potatoes, and later moved to jobs in the cotton mills. In due course, he saved enough to bring the family over to live with him.
Khan sees himself as a Bolton boy, “through and through''. But the family maintained links back home. Some of the boxer's most pleasant memories are of regular family visits to Pakistan.
“Everybody knows everybody there … Matore is pretty much the same now as it was when my granddad left for England in 1963. It was strange yet familiar … I like it. You just chill, and drink tea, 24/7.''
In his last amateur fight in 2005, Khan took his revenge, beating Kindelan. And just days before his first professional fight, London was rocked by bombings.
British Muslims were under the spotlight like never before, and Khan emerged as one of the standard bearers of the community. In a highly symbolic act, the boxer — who is an observant Muslim — entered the arena draped in a Union Jack. The message was clear: Khan saw no contradiction in being Muslim and being British.
He dedicates the last chapter in his book (“7 July 2005'') to the incidents of the day and his own experiences as a British Muslim. “… overnight it turned me, a young boxer from Bolton, into a political figure. I became a spokesman for Asian youth. Like me, three of the lads [who carried out the bombings] were of Pakistani descent. One of them, Hasib Hussain, was exactly the same age: 18. It was mad.''
One event that made a big impact on young Khan was the horrific earthquake that struck Kashmir in October 2005, not far from his family home in Pakistan. The earthquake left at least 70,000 people dead, and more than 2 million homeless.
Many in the Pakistani community in Britain trace their roots to the quake-hit area. There were urgent appeals for help.
Khan visited the quake zone with the British charity Oxfam — an experience that moved the young boxer so much that he dedicated himself to raising funds for the affected people once he was back in Britain.
“It was heartbreaking to see it like this. As we got close to Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistani-controlled Kashmir, there were hardly any buildings left. Those that were standing had huge cracks in them. For all I knew there could have been people still in them, their bodies buried in the rubble.''
Once back in Britain, he attended charity-dos and auctioned gloves (one of which went for $10,000). He then made a second visit to the region, four months later.
A Boy from Bolton is a very readable, straight-from-the-heart tale of a talented young man's journey from small-town obscurity to international fame and fortune as Britain's hottest boxing talent.