Sports

The Cult: Amir Khan

When Amir Khan won silver at the 2004 Olympics, many predicted a career without limits. With the 2016 Games upon us, it is fair to say that the erstwhile golden boy has experienced both glory and failure inside the ring.
August 11, 2016, 6:42pm
Illustration by Dan Evans

With the 2016 Olympics in Rio just days away, this week's Cult entry is a boxer who made his name at the Games 12 years ago: Amir Khan.

Cult Grade: The Faded Golden Boy

It was never meant to be this way. Then again, perhaps it was. When Amir Khan won silver at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens – making him Britain's youngest ever boxing medallist, which he remains to this day – many predicted a career without limits. He was incredibly fast, fleet of foot, and had rapid, free flowing hands. Khan was a far cry from the traditional come-forward fighters that Britain had produced more readily in the past. He was exciting to watch, with chiselled good looks and a ready supply of charm. Truly, a future golden boy had arrived.

Hailing from the former industrial town of Bolton, Khan was a proud British Muslim of Pakistani heritage. In the post-9/11 climate of heightened racial tension towards Muslim communities throughout the Western world, to have a beacon of successful multiculturalism like Amir in the public eye was a source of national pride. However, the expectations and pressures he carried on his young shoulders from an early age as a result of this may have been his downfall.

Britain relishes the making of a golden boy. We all love to rally behind an undefeated champ like Joe Calzaghe, blindly (or perhaps just lazily) supporting the easy option, the one who goes through their whole career winning at every turn. We prefer our golden boys immaculate, clean, without a single blemish or stain. God forbid that our sportsmen or women could be fallible, prone to mistakes, susceptible to defeat.

Still, if there's one thing Britain loves even more than the making of a golden boy, it's revelling in the downfall of someone who dared to try and failed.

Point of Entry: Low

Much has been made of Khan's psychology since he turned professional, from when he entered his first fight at Lightweight against David Bailey at the Bolton Arena in 2005, to his most recent bout, at Middleweight against Saul Alvarez, in Las Vegas in 2016. People have always said that Khan is too cocky for his own good; that there are perhaps shades of another prodigious but partially unfulfilled talent in him: that of Naseem Hamed. In calling himself 'King' Khan, he did seem to be inviting comparisons with the admittedly far flashier 'Prince Naz', but for me these claims don't hold up – although he is perhaps similar to Hamed in another way.

READ MORE: The Cult – Mike Tyson

Yes, Khan is confident about his ability, but I can't think of a professional boxer who isn't. Yes, he may be vocal about it at times, even to the point of arrogance, but again I can't think of many British boxers who have sounded more humble than Khan about themselves or their next opponent. If anything, Khan has always been respectful of his next fight, tending to focus more on his own skills than his opponent.

But, like when Naz lost his undefeated record to Marco Antonio Barrera, never fully recovering and retiring in relative ignominy, so too did Khan lose his sheen and his golden boy status when he was shocked by a brutal Breidis Prescott knockout in the first round of his 2008 Lightweight fight. Suddenly he wasn't that beacon of success he had been at 17; suddenly he had a weak chin, was too confident in himself, too flashy. He had been 'brought down a peg'.

If you compare the reactions of the media to Khan's loss as opposed to his fellow Olympic golden boy Luke Campbell's first defeat, a worrying if altogether predictable pattern emerges. When Campbell lost against Yvan Mendy – someone on roughly the same level as Prescott – there was a collective media shrug and a 'still plenty of time' vibe; when Khan was beaten, it felt like his career was over. Now he would officially never live up to the media's unrealistic expectations, and instead was subjected to what many confident, strong and successful sportsmen and women of colour face in Britain: belittlement and thinly veiled contempt.

READ MORE: The Cult – Ricky Hatton

How dare Khan lose a few fights but still believe in himself enough to go on to hold world titles across two weight divisions. He must be arrogant, even if his ability in the ring largely (bar standard boxing bravado) reflected what he said out of it. Perhaps the pressure he faced from the media – the fact the country never truly warmed to him – is what drove him to the U.S. to train with Freddie Roach. Perhaps it was a different kind of pressure that made Khan so reckless in the ring, needlessly going toe to toe with much heavier punchers like Marcos Maidana, Lamont Peterson and Danny Garcia.

If there is one phrase we've grown accustomed to Khan repeating at press events throughout his career, it's 'I want to show what I can do', or a variation on that theme. You get the impression he always wanted to be that golden boy and felt stung by Britain never warming to him, ultimately through no fault of his own. You feel that he always had something to prove to his critics. When Khan went toe to toe in a fight that more often than not he was comfortably winning, it felt like he was telling his detractors that he could take a punch, that he didn't have a glass jaw, that he was brave and worthy of our admiration.

Whenever Khan does fight, it's pure box office if nothing else. His hand speed and foot movement are things of beauty. The way he slips into range, unleashes a four- or five-punch combo then wheels out untouched is as elegant as any dancing you'll ever see. It's just as efficient, slick and graceful; when Khan sticks to this kind of game plan, you feel he could outbox nearly anyone in the world, certainly in his natural Light-Welterweight class. Then, when he doesn't stick to the plan and has something to prove, what you get more often than not is knockdowns, shaky legs, and big hits on the inside – from both Khan and his opponent

READ MORE: The Cult – Chris Eubank

Like most exciting fighters, Khan wants to be the very best. Perhaps as a result of his unfair media treatment, he became obsessed with reaching the very highest echelons and proving to everyone that he was right to believe in himself all along. Like Prince Naz, he's wasted a good amount of time between fights, always fruitlessly chasing the super box office draws like Floyd Mayweather or Manny Pacquiao for months, even if they had given no public inclination of wanting to face him. But maybe he had a point; maybe Mayweather was dodging him. Other than Pac, Khan was the only boxer around with the speed and movement to trouble an aging Floyd.

We will never find out if he could have beaten him, which is a shame, but that's how the modern game goes. Khan has ended up squandering his best years waiting for what he felt he deserved: the chance to show what he could do, the chance to be the golden boy again.

The Moment: 11 December 2010 – Defeating Marcos Maidana

Oscar De La Hoya called it one of the "fights of the decade". The Boxing Writers Association of America named it 2010's Fight of the Year. If there is a contest that truly sums up Khan as a boxer, this is it. Set in the Mandalay Bay Arena, Las Vegas, Khan dominated much of the early going, and even knocked Maidana down in round one with strong a body shot.

But invariably, as the fight wore on, Khan became embroiled in a toe to toe war with the extremely heavy handed Maidana, who caught him with numerous sickening hooks in the 10th and wobbled Khan's legs to an almost comical degree. Nevertheless, Khan managed to hold on until the final bell, quite literally at times, and successfully defended his WBA Light Welterweight title for the third time.

Closing Statements

"At the age of eight, my dream was to become a world champion; and now I've achieved that title. I've achieved it not only for myself, but…for the British people and also the Pakistani community – and all the Muslims in the country." –– Amir Khan will always proudly fly the flag for British Muslims.

Words @williamwasteman / Illustration @Dan_Draws