Amir Khan hasn’t been recognised.
In this part of the world, Omaha, Nebraska, it isn’t entirely unusual for the former world champion and Olympic silver medallist to escape days unnoticed – a far cry from his life at home in the United Kingdom.
Just a couple of months ago, he was plastered all over Instagram, promoting a new kebab shop in Ilford, East London, signing autographs and taking pictures with hundreds of adoring fans who’d queued for hours, including one who’d brought a microwave for the ‘King’ to sign. It’s been that way for almost 17 years, and Khan (34-5, 21KOs) is learning to appreciate the silence when it presents itself.
“It still surprises me when I go somewhere, and someone recognises me if I’m out for a walk. They’re like, ‘Hey, you’re Amir Khan, right?’ And I’m like, ‘Damn.’ You get used to it, a little bit. You get recognised when you go out and about; but for it to happen in places like America or in the Middle East, Pakistan, or Europe, it is quite shocking. You think, ‘How on Earth do these people know me?’ From where I’ve come from, hundreds of miles away, and they still follow my career…” he trails off, as if reminding himself of the long road from humble beginnings in Bolton, Lancashire.
“I’m training in America, but it’s the first time I’ve actually come to Omaha. It’s very, very quiet. It’s a quiet state [Nebraska], but that’s what I need for training. You walk around, you hardly see anyone out and about. It’s perfect for me, it’s what I need mentally, it keeps me calm. I’ve just got a message from a guy I met the other day. He took us all the way through the airport, an American guy, and he stopped me from queueing up anywhere, like I was a VIP.”
“The same thing happened here [in Omaha], too. I met a guy in the airport – he recognised me – and he’s been hitting me up asking if he can bring me some food over,” laughs Khan, with a certain appreciative warmth. “The thing is, I’ve got a great chef over here, so I said, ‘I’m okay, I don’t want you to go out of your way.’ But these are nice things from nice people I’ve met on these trips, and I know I’m very fortunate.”
Despite being a month out from one of his biggest fights, it appears Amir Khan is in a reflective mood. Back in England, he’s as much a celebrity as he is a boxer. It hasn’t always been that way, though, and since being hoisted on the nation’s shoulders after his outstanding showing in the Athens 2004 Olympics – where he captured silver at just 17 – his profile has peaked and troughed. Khan has been both lauded and laughed at, appreciated, and at times abandoned, though he still thinks of himself as ‘British’ and extremely proud.
The media’s coverage of his Olympic heroics was nationwide, terrestrial, and non-stop. Khan was British boxing’s golden boy at such a young age, and with years to run until he’d even touch his twenties, it seemed he could go on to become immortal, unbeatable even. But boxing makes fools of us all.
“When I first turned professional, I’d just come back from the Olympics, and it was all of the mainstream [news] that was recording your career back then. I was in all of the tabloids, the magazines, the TV shows, and the news channels. It was hard,” admitted Khan, now aged 35. “All of my other teenage friends were going out with their girlfriends, meeting up, hanging out, playing cricket or football. All of that stopped for me. I didn’t do anything. They’d be going out every weekend to bars and clubs, and I missed a lot of my youth because I was always in training, away on camps abroad. I was so focused on my career; it was boxing for me. And that all paid off.”
It did all pay off, until he faced a relatively unknown Colombian, Breidis Prescott. That fight exposed a vulnerability in the young, blue-chip prospect, who reacted horribly after being initially struck in the temple, and then caught clean at the base of his chin. The legs went, a lot of his fans’ faith dissolved, but his heart and determination refused to remain stricken on the canvas. Khan has suffered five defeats in total: another punishing knockout to Danny Garcia, in a fight that was bubbling nicely, a decision loss to Lamont Peterson, a brutal knockout to Mexican mega star, Canelo Alvarez, and most recently, a stoppage loss at the hands of Omaha’s own, Terence Crawford.
Now, he spends his days in Crawford’s gym, as former foes forge friendship and fight on. One thing Khan is keen to remind Boxing Social, is that he actively tried to make amends for those early losses: “If you look at those: the Breidis Prescott fight, we just couldn’t get that one. What happened there was, Prescott was fighting Paul McCloskey, and if he’d beaten McCloskey, my next fight would have been against Prescott again. Because McCloskey beat him, he then became my mandatory for the WBA title – so, I beat him. Danny Garcia, man, that was one we were chasing for a very, very long time. One of the reasons I joined Al Haymon was to get that fight, but the fight just never materialised. It just didn’t happen; I don’t know why.”
Khan continued, “Lamont Peterson, obviously the rematch was going to happen, and then he tested positive [for PEDs] and he got banned from boxing. It’s a little bit unfortunate really because these are fights where I’ve wanted to regain those wins, and I just didn’t get the chance. It would have been brilliant to do that but it’s just one of them things. Sometimes, you wanna fight the guys who beat you just to show them it was a mistake in life, but that didn’t happen for me. You have to keep moving forward from there – and from those losses, I’ve gone on to beat better fighters. I didn’t just stop there; I kept moving forward.”
When asked if revenge would have helped silence the doubters, Khan concurred without hesitation, disappointed that the opportunity escaped him through no fault of his own. It’s apparent those fights took something from him, not physically in the way we often discuss damaging losses, but they pierced his armour, stole five of his nine lives, and they perhaps subconsciously allowed self-doubt to sneak into future preparation.
On February 19th, in Manchester’s AO Arena, Amir Khan will be able to settle one score. This isn’t a case of righting a wrong as such, but more of vindication, as he squares off opposite long-time domestic rival, Kell Brook. And let’s get it right, it’s why he’s speaking to Boxing Social. This fight doesn’t need much in the way of build-up – the tickets sold out entirely in just 10 minutes, making it one of the most popular events (notice the exclusion of the preface ‘sporting’) in the United Kingdom. I tried to source a ticket from Brad Rea, an exciting undercard fighter. All gone again, 30 minutes flat with nothing to spare at his end, Rea estimated.
Detractors have made no secret of the fact that both men may be past their best, but numbers never lie. Khan was forthright, addressing the promoters who’d claimed both former world champions should have been put out to pasture, revealing they’d tried to snare the fight themselves: “People say, ‘Six to eight years ago this fight should have happened.’ Obviously, we were both on our own journeys, we won world titles separately in different weight divisions, and we knew that with both of us being British, this fight was gonna happen. I know there are other promoters out there saying, ‘Ah, the fight’s not that good; it’s not the same as it would have been five years ago…’ Okay, fine, I hear that.”
“We-sold-out-in-10-minutes. We’ve got rid of 22,000 tickets in 10 minutes. I mean, that’s no joke. That shows there’s serious interest in this fight, and whichever promoter said it wasn’t a good fight and they didn’t wanna be a part of it, I think they made a massive mistake. Credit goes to Sky for believing in this fight and grabbing the fight, saying, ‘This could be big.’ The numbers prove it. And for Eddie Hearn, who said the fight was past its sell-by date, listen, Eddie offered more money for this fight. I don’t know if anybody knows that…”
“When the deal was being done, Eddie and DAZN offered more money – I turned Eddie’s deal down,” Khan reveals, though one would assume Hearn’s story differs. “It wasn’t about the money. For me, it was the opportunity for the UK public to get to see me fight. Sky might have been half a million less, but for me, it makes more sense business-wise to do it on Sky; this is a massive platform, and I want everyone to see it.”
Politics aside, Khan and Brook roll into Manchester, determined to snatch one, last vital win. It isn’t ‘vital’ in terms of the wider landscape or world titles, but for Britain, it helps solve one of boxing’s great unanswered questions on these shores: Khan or Brook? But boxing is just a part of Khan’s life now. His philanthropy, his appearances on social media channels, reality TV, and as a respected pundit, fill up whatever time is spent outside of the gym. And that’s what comes after he hangs up the gloves: the brand, for the people he can help.
In recent years, Khan has been carrying out inspiring work in countries worldwide, building orphanages in various parts of Africa including Gambia, setting up water wells to provide hundreds of struggling villages with fresh running water, and his small team have also been on the front foot when responding to states of emergencies, such as typhoons and flash flooding. For him, it isn’t about praise or personal profile, it isn’t even about religious duty; it’s simple – it’s because he can. And if you can help, why wouldn’t you?
“I think it’s just the way I am as a person,” he explains. “I’d done it once or twice before and I liked it, it gives you that warmth and makes you feel happy that you’ve helped someone. Look, I know what boxing’s done for me and what I need to do to stay at the top [of the sport]. It’s just nice to do stuff like that because it’s more motivational; it really brings the best out of you. I know that when I retire, I’m going to do more charity work, I’m going to spend more time [on things that matter], I’m going to be the people’s champion. But this is where fighters take the wrong path; they go onto drugs, they go onto drinking, depression. Everything I’m doing in life, it’s building for my future, and I can keep helping other people.”
He knows what people will say. With his appearances on I’m a Celebrity, his own reality show with his wife, Faryal Makhdoom, and everything else in between, they’ll ask if boxing really is a priority anymore? When questioned if fans and media would be right to question his commitment, he tells Boxing Social that he “totally gets that.” But it’s just not up for debate.
“I have to do that to keep my brand growing. That’s what gets me the big deals for these fights. You can’t just do nothing and only post boxing because people wanna see more of you. They know you’re a high-profile person, so they wanna see more than just boxing. And to be a people’s champion, you have to do a lot more as well. That’s the reason. People are always gonna have a dig at you, no matter what, even if I didn’t do it. I never really let that get to me.”
We could talk all night; Khan displays such depth that we only scrape the surface of a career in the cruellest sport.
I’ve been wrong before in discounting him; I’ve been mistaken in thinking that his appearances on television are merely attempts at staying relevant. He’s a good man; he’s a family man. And while approaching a fight that – despite presenting itself at the tail end of his career – is legacy defining, he couldn’t be more gracious.
His bond as a burgeoning manager and promoter is also strengthening, with a small stable currently consisting of British-Sikh prospect, Tal Singh, and his own cousin, Abdul Khan. He talks both men up, telling former amateur talent Singh’s story in enough detail to command its own feature at some point down the line, purely to make certain he’s doing it justice. But we must push ahead, with time escaping us.
The question of national acclaim raises its ugly head, and Khan fairly responds that those honoured recently in the Queens New Year’s Honours list “hadn’t done half” of what he’d done in their chosen sports or fields, while still declaring his respect for those named. That debate rumbles on. Many would assume that Khan had been in receipt of an MBE or an OBE, after dedicating half of his life to flying the British flag at boxing’s summit. Wherever he goes, Pakistan, the Middle East, or the States, he’s introduced as a ‘British fighter’ or a ‘British great.’ Yet, on home soil, his plaudits seem to slip the jab.
He tells Boxing Social the invites, accolades and awards must be “lost in the post,” and moves on, laughing, before confirming a hug is waiting for bitter rival Kell Brook, win, lose or draw. Sportsmen, after all, should be filled with humility. He knows that Sheffield’s Brook will view this as his last big chance, which could be said of both men. But Khan’s achievements – inside and outside of the ring – may prove more prolific when reviewed in years to come. Bereft of any official acknowledgement from the monarchy, he continues, fighting physically, and for worthy causes.
Amir Khan hasn’t been recognised.