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Training Day with Amir Khan

Just days away from a "make-or-break" match with Devon Alexander, Amir Khan held court on everything from Floyd Mayweather to his role model ambitions.
December 11, 2014, 11:37am
Photo by Stephanie Trapp

On Thanksgiving Day, utility trainer Robert Garcia wrapped Amir "King" Khan's hands next to a ringside table. It was a few ticks past 1:30 p.m. Khan was keeping Garcia and head trainer Virgil Hunter's attention away from family and turkey to continue preparations for his upcoming bout with Devon Alexander, this Saturday in Las Vegas.

Garcia meticulously protected Khan's speedy fists with tape, padding, and a wrist splint. The early afternoon sun cleared the preceding night's much-needed rain. California's severe drought had been going on for much, much longer than Khan's camp, which started in September. With the hand wrap finished, the day's light workout of shadowboxing and pad-work commenced.

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Hunter, 61, also trains The Ring super middleweight champion Andre Ward. Khan considers the renowned trainer's knowledge worth sacrificing the comforts of his UK home. In California, Khan (29-3; 19 KOs) is more than 5,000 miles from his hometown of Bolton. His wife, Faryal, and his first child, six-month old daughter Lamaisah—a name that means "gentle touch"—await his return after the showdown with the southpaw Alexander (26-2; 14 KOs).

"If you want to be a champion, this is the way you have to live," Khan told VICE Sports during an in-camp exclusive. "You have to isolate yourself from the world and change the things around you. It gets bad at times; I miss home, but if you want to be the best, I need the right amount of rest and I need to really move away from all the distractions."

Photo by Stephanie Trapp

Khan, a 2004 Olympic Silver Medalist, was a boxing star before he was able to legally drink in the UK and U.S. By now, he knows that the work-life balance required from a prizefighter is extreme. That's not to say he's entirely alone. His younger brother Harry, an upstart pro himself, nursed a shoulder injury ringside, switching between watching his iPad and his brother's training session.

Their father, Shah, also observed. Shah immigrated from Pakistan to the UK with his family in 1970 seeking a better life. Shah provided for his sons though the car business and his wife, Zeenat, ran a grocery store. Shah enrolled Amir in boxing at the age of eight to burn off the boy's excess energy, and Amir's enthusiasm never wavered.

Shah noted immigrant families always want their children to be engineers, doctors, or lawyers. The approach taken with his own sons was more open: "Let them make their own decisions." No one really knows why Amir committed to the sweet science. They settle on a common phrase amongst their fight chatter: "It's in the blood."

Ten years of fighting professionally has transformed Khan from eager kid to sensation to comfortable star, eyeing a higher perch by besting Alexander. Shah relayed a well-known anecdote that, at age 11, Amir came across then-budding British boxing star Ricky Hatton and told him he should get Amir Khan's autograph now because many will want it later. Years into his career, Khan still exudes that natural confidence, which also serves to counterbalance the humbling lifestyle of a boxer: tedious work followed by moments in which fighters walk the line between glory and abject failure.

"Devon's coming to fight and he's going to want to win because we're both probably in a position, where you want to go to a super-fight," said Khan. "To the likes of Mayweather, Pacquiao, and them guys."

Photo by Stephanie Trapp

Khan nearly had his super-fight with Mayweather this past May, and even dropped out of an earlier agreement to fight Alexander, but the card never came together. Instead, Mayweather fought a rematch with Marcos Maidana, who Khan defeated in 2010, and Khan took on former champ Luis Collazo on the undercard. That win, and a potential victory over Alexander, would make a match against Mayweather in 2015 that much more likely.

"We don't want to take an easy route," Khan said. "We want the hard route."

When Khan decided to leave the UK to train in America six years ago, he worked out with Floyd Mayweather Sr., Roger Mayweather, and Buddy McGirt, before deciding on Hall of Fame trainer Freddie Roach's Wildcard Gym in Los Angeles. The Khan-Roach combo accounted for wins against Mexican legend Marco Antonio Barrera, Maidana, and Zab Judah.

However, camp Khan deemed a split from Roach necessary two years ago after Khan was knocked out by underdog Danny Garcia in the fourth round of their light welterweight title bout. Khan went back on the circuit looking for a trainer; the search stopped at Hunter.

Their goal has been to improve and refine Khan's defense. A naturally offensive fighter, Khan realized this was the missing link in his game—the one that could lift him from fallen star at lighter weights to superstar at 147 pounds.

"Moving to Virgil Hunter has only made me a smarter fighter—a fighter who probably thinks before he makes a move," said Khan. "Whereas before, I just did what I wanted to. I would go in there and throw a thousand shots because I had the speed […] I'm picking the right shots now."

Hunter described Khan as a first-level athlete with no cap on his potential. He appreciates teaching "a respectful kid" who is "a joy to train." Physically, he had all the attributes when he arrived, but "boxing is mental also."

"When to defend, when to move, when to not throw a shot, as soon as I overcome that, that's when I'll be a complete fighter," added Khan. "…I still make mistakes, but I'm still learning. It's when I finish it all and I'm a complete fighter, then I can walk away from the sport. I did everything I can. That was 100 percent me."

Khan's camp notes no animosity toward Roach. Recent claims by Roach that Khan was knocked out by Pacquiao in sparring are dismissed. Khan guesses that Roach and company are just trying to lay the foundations for promoting a future fight. But first, Khan has to get through Saturday.

Fighting Alexander is a hazardous proposition for the same reason it is to fight Khan. "He's been to the mountain top and he knows how to get back there," said Hunter.

Another commonality between Khan and Alexander is they are not cut from the "Money" Mayweather made-for-TV character cloth. They are young fighters in their prime who haven't had the fortune—both in money made and unblemished ledgers—that the 47-0 Mayweather has enjoyed. Khan believes the Alexander bout is a make-or-break proposition for each of them because they are not divisive, love-me-or-hate-me figures. They are just professionals trying to leave their mark.

"Sometimes you have to do things that are loud and stuff, but I let my skills take me far," said Khan. "For me, it's probably my exciting style. I'm not one to talk trash and stuff. I let my fists do the talking. At the moment, they have been doing all the talking. That's why I'm in a position like this."

Still, the mega-fight opportunity looms and Khan balances striving for that important milestone while knowing it can flutter away if he gets distracted.

"Stylistically, the Alexander fight will be tougher than the Mayweather fight," he said. "I think I'm a better boxer than Mayweather, but Mayweather is just very smart and very experienced. I think he has that edge on me, but sometimes the young lion comes and takes that crown from the old lion, and that's what we want to do."

Khan hopes that he can show boxing and boxers in a different light than Mayweather's neon glow. He wants his core message out there: hope begins in oneself and intertwines with others. Peace for one and all through the paradox of participating in a violent sport.

"I want to bring different cultures together and enjoy the sport of boxing," said Khan. "That's the reason I stand there and speak to people, all this stuff about war should not be happening. We should all be getting on with each other."

Khan, a devout Muslim, actually relishes his potential to be an influential role model. His decision to stick to boxing nearly two decades ago came at the cost of his youth, but has paid off in adulthood by placing him on a platform to preach his message. That he has the opportunity to do so is still shocking to him.

"That's what motivates me to keep on going," he said, "I want those big fights so the people I've met and told 'I'm gonna do big things.' I can back my words up.

"At least then I can say when I finish, I can say I fought at the MGM. I fought at the Mandalay Bay. I fought at Madison Square Garden. And I've already done it, but that hunger's still there. I want to achieve more and I want to do more."