Bolton, England: Having savoured the sweet taste of victory a matter of days earlier in southern California in late December, Amir Khan was back in his native northern England, and there was no denying where he’d rather be. Many ‘wise’ heads had dared to suggest that Khan would capitulate against the hitherto undefeated Carlos Molina, some of whom were present at Khan’s Gloves Community Centre gym in Bolton to pay homage and respect to Khan the victor.
He smiled a knowing smile and proudly displayed his newly won IBC Silver Light Welterweight belt. Khan accepted that his boxing career could have been in ruins had Molina won, especially given the two controversial defeats to Lamont Peterson and then Danny Garcia earlier in the year.
In the early hours of a Sunday morning in late December, under the guidance of new trainer Virgil Hunter, we witnessed a new style from Khan, a patient, more calculated approach, which was to earn a 10th-round victory over Molina. This win will now lead to the much-anticipated re-match with Garcia at some point next year, a fight that Khan is eagerly anticipating. Going back to basics under Hunter, with a mature, intelligent and patient outlook has paid dividends to his boxing, Khan exclusively told Gulf News.
“In the last fight, definitely,” he said. “I think it’s maturity, it’s a bit of waking up and seeing that you were making mistakes, and then not making them again. I used to make a lot of mistakes and I got away with them for a long time. But now, I’ve had to go back to the drawing board and be mature. You’re working on the mistakes, you improve on those mistakes, whereas before when I was winning fights anyway, there wasn’t any point in looking at those.”
There was acrimony and bitterness leading up to his last fight with Garcia, much of the bad feeling emanating from his rival’s father and trainer Angel Garcia. The re-match, and no doubt more verbal sparring with Garcia senior, is a fight that Khan is desperate for, even if Garcia seems a little reluctant for the bout to take place.
“That’s the fight that I want,” Khan said. “I know he’s been saying, yeah, he’ll fight me, but when the fight was put to him, he didn’t want it and I don’t think he’ll be keen on it. But I think he’ll be put in a position when he’ll have to take the fight, so he’ll have to take it. It’s a fight that I want, definitely, and it’s a fight that all my fans, friends and family want to see as well.”
In his eight years as a professional, Khan has had 30 fights, winning 19 by knockout, securing two world titles and losing just three times along the way. But the level-headed 26-year-old insists that, despite many fearing for his boxing career, an element of arrogance has to be present in all champions, as an essential element of their character.
“You have to have that confidence and I think with being confident, people might think it’s a little bit of arrogance. But I think it was more about going back to the drawing board, it was little things like you think that you’re the best. I’ve never thought I’m the best and I’ve achieved and learned everything, but it’s just that there were things I should have worked on, and never worked on, because I was winning fights. So in a way I kind of thought that I was too used to winning, not looking at the bad things, kept looking at the good things. You kind of forget about what you need to work on, and then it hits you.”
Mature words indeed from the 2004 Olympic silver medallist.
Sitting relaxed wearing a dark-blue jacket, striped shirt, purple tie and designer jeans, Khan is charm personified. As we talk, it occurs to me how much raw strength and power exists in his apparently light frame. A wise-cracking joker, who talks of his friendship with Canadian comedian Russell Peters, Khan insists that he is just that same kid who grew up on the streets of Bolton.
The conversation then switches to the rather more serious matter of his forthcoming marriage to the American heiress Faryal Makhdoom in New York next May. The wedding will naturally occupy a lot of his time outside the ring and Khan says he can’t wait for his impending nuptials.
“I think marriage will change me in a good way, because it’ll make me understand that I’ll be a family man then, so I will have to stop spending money on stupid things.”
The couple will resist the glitz of New York and settle in Bolton, but is his soon-to-be-wife be happy for him to continue boxing?
“Yes, she is, because at the end of the day it was there before I met her, so you can never disrespect that. But one thing is that I’ll know when it’s time for me to stop and at the moment I’m still young and I’ve still got a lot to achieve and she respects that. She understands that boxing is what got me here, it’s what made me, so she has to kind of stick with it.
“But at the end of the day, I’ll have my own family, it’s how you take it yourself, because it can get to your head sometimes, and you can forget about your family and friends when the money gets involved and all that. But I’m not like that. I’ll always be the same.”
His father Shah was flying in from Los Angeles on the day of this interview — and it has to be borne in mind what a significant influence he was in his son’s success. Wondering how to channel the energy and enthusiasm of his eight-year-old boy, his decision to take Amir to the gym would be one that would change the Khan family. It would also give Britain a world beater who transcends all ethnic and cultural divides. Many talk of inclusivity in sport, but in Khan we have a tangible asset to be proud of. Football would do well to take note.
Surrounded by all the wealth and trappings of his deserved success, Khan maintains a dignified level of humility and it all stems from that man who took his hyperactive son to the gym all those years ago. That humility remains to this day.
“I think it’s just the way you are as a person. I’ve got a great family around me, they keep my feet on the ground, they keep me level-headed. Look, I’m a normal guy at the end of the day. Allah gave me so much, it’s all about respecting that. Today you’ve got it all, tomorrow it can all go. That’s one thing I know, and especially in my sport, boxing. One punch can change a fight. It’s happened, so that’s what keeps me grounded.
“I’ll never change as a person; boxing can give me any kind of money, or whatever, I’ll still do charity work, I’ll still give back to the community, because without boxing I wouldn’t be in this position so you can’t disrespect that. I’m not posh now because I’m a well-known guy or whatever. I’m a normal guy, a grounded guy. People love me for the way I am and I’ll never change that.”
Legacy is the buzz word in sport these days, and it seems odd to ask someone so young about what he thinks his will be. Khan has a massive global fan base, none more so than in Pakistan. He has offered Team Khan’s support to boxing talent from the country to come and train in the UK to learn best practice in diet, nutrition and conditioning, to ensure the nation of his parents’ birth also benefits from his legacy.
We are actually sitting in part of that legacy, his well-equipped Bolton gym, which is producing the next generation of amateur and professional boxers. It is open to all and under the tutelage of trainer Liam Gallagher. An immediate family dynasty, with 21-year-old Haroon Khan due to follow his older brother and turn professional next year, will also ensure that the legacy will continue. For Amir, however, the message is simple.
“I just want people to remember me as a great champion, I want them to remember me, the fighter, giving back to the community, helping and using his status in a good way, in a positive way. There are a lot of people who use it in a bad way, but I want to use it in a positive way. And to do that is to do good things and the right things.”