He’s the articulate, clean-living British Olympic hero who proves that you don’t need to be a thug to make £20 million out of the fight game…
The first thing you notice about Amir Khan is the size of his hands. The rest of him is lean and compact, but his hands by comparison are enormous.
Reputed to be the quickest in his sport, they are the means by which Khan has established himself as one of the world’s most exciting boxers and amassed a £20 million fortune.
His vice-like handshake hints at the brute strength that has brought him 26 wins, including 18 KOs, in 28 bouts, while his perfectly tailored suit and expensive watch are symbols of how far he has come in just seven years as a professional.
Polite, bright and speaking in a thick Bolton accent, the 5ft 10in pugilist is a throwback to the days of sporting heroes who remained faithful to their roots.
‘My life has changed an enormous amount in the past eight years,’ he says.
‘I’ve become successful, famous and rich. But I remain the same. What you see is what you get.’
‘Whoever I meet, whether it’s Muhammad Ali, Mickey Rourke or the Queen, I’m no different than when talking to strangers on the street.’
‘I’ll go out for the night with people like P Diddy and 50 Cent in LA but I’m the same person who goes back to Bolton and hangs out with his oldest friends.’
Khan, 25, greets me ringside at Repton Boxing Club in London’s East End.
‘I was always a cheeky, hyperactive kid and that got me into trouble at home and at school,’ he says.
‘If I hadn’t found boxing and learned to live my life with discipline, there’s every chance I could have ended up like any other kid hanging about on a street corner, getting on the wrong side of the law.’
Khan was eight years old when his father Shah, a scrapyard dealer, decided that the local boxing gym might be an appropriate outlet for his son’s unruly energies.
‘I loved it all – hitting the bag, the smell of sweat, even being punched. Believe it or not, I liked being hit really hard. It’s an adrenaline rush and that becomes very addictive.
‘But it wasn’t until I got to 11 that I thought boxing could be my life. That’s when I got into boxing competitively. I started meeting coaches who told me I could be a world champion if I stuck at it and worked hard enough. I had no trouble believing that. That self-belief has always been in me.’
He moved rapidly through the ranks, winning school titles, junior titles and then a gold medal at the 2003 Junior Olympics.
At the 2004 Olympics in Athens, he was Britain’s sole boxing representative, making it through to the final and narrowly losing on points in a bout watched by a British TV audience of more than eight million.
Returning home with a silver medal, he was unprepared for how much his life would change.
‘When I got back to Heathrow they held a press conference and I was put on the top table with Kelly Holmes, Matt Pinsent and Steve Redgrave,’ he says.
‘All these questions started coming at me and people were treating me as an equal to these gold medallists. Going through the airport that day, there were swarms of people wanting a photo with me. That had never happened before.
‘I went on to Guildford to stay with a cousin. I walked through the town centre and there were strangers handing me free sunglasses, free mobiles, you name it. I went out for a quick meal and I was in the restaurant for four hours signing autographs.’
Khan turned professional in the summer of 2005. He made his professional debut in the wake of the 7/7 London bombings and entered the arena waving a Union flag and with Land Of Hope And Glory blaring from the speakers.
‘After the bombings there was a lot of tension in the air. I wanted to show people I might be a Muslim but I’m also proud to be British. I’m a British Pakistani. I’ve got families in Britain and Pakistan.’
‘But I was born here, went to school here. I went to a school where there were kids of all colours and they were my friends. I never thought of myself as different. I never encountered racism directly.’
From the start of his pro career, Khan resolved to take on the best fighters available to him.
‘It’s not in my nature to take the easy route,’ he says.
‘I’m a warrior. My family comes from a warrior clan background, the Rajput tribe from the Punjab, and that might explain why I love boxing so much. It’s in my blood. I thrive on challenge and that’s why I’ve been in a hurry to get where I wanted to be. If anything, I wanted to achieve my goals too quickly.’
Proof of that came in September 2008 with his ill-fated bout with Breidis Prescott at Manchester’s MEN arena. Despite being the clear favourite, Khan was knocked out in just 54 seconds.
‘That was my first professional defeat and it was probably the best thing that could have happened to me. It taught me that things can go wrong in boxing, that nobody is indestructible, that one punch can change a fight and even change your life.’
‘It meant I had to go back to the drawing board and work out what had gone wrong for me. I had to reconsider my approach to a fight. I had to start being more strategic. I had to change my lifestyle. There were too many hangers-on in my life and some of them had to go.’
His most crucial decision was to recruit legendary trainer Freddie Roach and shift operations to Roach’s gym in Los Angeles where he would begin sparring with Manny Pacquiao, arguably the best pound-for-pound boxer alive.
‘When I spar with him it’s total war,’ says Khan. ‘It’s like a cock-fight, except with men. If I’m half-hearted when I spar, I’ll be going into the ring half-hearted. There’s no room for half-measures.’
‘Everything became more professional,’ he says of his new regime in the States.
‘My focus became absolute. I learned that sacrifices had to be made, including abstaining from sex.’
‘I cannot afford to lose my focus and that means going weeks and weeks without sex. In terms of preparing for a fight, the longer the better.’
The changes he made to his team and training schedule quickly began to pay off, with a scintillating victory over Marco Antonio Barrera in March 2009.
In 2010, his bout with Marcos Maidana drew one of biggest pay-per-view audiences in the U.S. in 2010. Not that all his experiences in the U.S. have been so enjoyable.
‘The first few times I travelled to America I ran into problems,’ he says.
‘The last thing you want when you step off a 12-hour flight is to be kept for four hours in a holding area in the airport, being quizzed on what you are doing in America.’
‘I’d point out that I was coming into their country for a professional fight, that I was bringing money into that country, giving jobs to people.’
‘But they’d ask me silly questions like, “Have you ever been to Iraq? When was the last time you fired a gun?” I’ve never fired a gun in my life. I’ve never even held a gun.’
‘But my religion and colour haven’t given me any other problems in the U.S. The only thing that causes me a problem is my Bolton accent. I’ve learnt to talk a bit slower so they can understand me.’
‘My fiancée Faryal is a New Yorker and she’s slowly getting the hang of it.’
‘When we first started going out I’d ask her a question and she’d nod, but I could see she didn’t have a clue what I was going on about.’
Khan now spends half the year in LA and the other half in Bolton, where he owns a house in the same street as his parents, occasionally helping out at the tables of his aunt’s local curry house.
‘It’s very important to me that I remain as normal as I can possibly be. I’ve seen how fame has got to people and spoiled them.’
‘Luckily I’ve got a family who are equally determined that I don’t become some kind of spoiled brat.’
‘I’ve been given this gift, it’s not something I take for granted. But I don’t see why I should be treated in a special way.’
He likes to spend his money on watches (‘one of my favourites is a £90,000 designer watch that’s encrusted with 3,000 diamonds’) and tropical fish (‘I bought a £3,200 Gem Tang but I went away and, by the time I’d returned, he’d passed away’).
Clothes are his other great passion, so much so he is now the face of Burton’s new mens range.
‘I’ve always been into fashion. Growing up we didn’t have much money to spend on clothes. Now I’m in a fortunate position where I can buy what I want. I like to dress like a champion and my preference is a good tailored suit that feels good to wear.’
‘When you dress well, you feel well. It’s surprising to me but not a lot of boxers get involved in fashion. Whatever the situation, I like to look my best so I’ll choose my wardrobe carefully. Image is vitally important in all sports now.’
‘People will judge you on how you look and how you carry yourself so it’s worth putting a bit of thought into your wardrobe.’
‘Brands like Burton will always want to work with me because they can see that I’m serious about clothes and I know how to behave outside of the ring. I’m lucky in that my size makes me easy to dress. Between bouts I hardly put any weight on.’
‘A lot of boxers tend to balloon between bouts so they need two wardrobes. I only need the one. When I’m chilling out at home, I’ll lounge around in a trackie, or a pair of jeans and a tee-shirt. When I leave the house, I’m a lot more selective because I need to look smart. Not only is that good for my image, it’s good for boxing’s image too.’
With the exception of two driving incidents in 2006, Khan’s rise to stardom has been remarkably free of scandal.
As a strict Muslim, he has neither smoked nor touched a drop of alcohol.
His charity work has included spending more than £1 million on establishing the Gloves Community Centre in a rundown area of Bolton.
Here, local boys pay between 50p and £1 to use the facilities as a way of keeping them off the streets and clear of trouble.
It quickly becomes apparent that Khan ranks this as his proudest achievement.
‘I can stand up and say that I’ve changed lives.’
‘Parents and teachers come up to me and say that, since certain kids have started coming to the gym, their attitudes have changed; that these kids have a new-found discipline, they’re behaving themselves.’
‘One day I hope someone will come out of that gym and they’ll go one better than me and win an Olympic gold.’
‘I figured that, if boxing could change my life, then it could change the lives of hundreds of kids just like me.’
‘One of the big problems with young kids is that they’ve got all this energy but they’re bored and frustrated. They’ve got nowhere to put their aggression.’
‘I had friends at school who I thought were really smart and they ended up on drugs or in prison.’
‘But a lot of them didn’t have families like mine telling them what to do, keeping an eye on them.’
‘Maybe kids aren’t listening to what politicians or teachers have to say, whereas I go into schools and they do listen to the advice I’ve got to give. I can offer them the benefit of my experience. I can talk about how my life might have ended up if I hadn’t found a focus with boxing.’
Khan’s focus now is a May 19 rematch against Lamont Peterson (the WBA ordered a rematch after Khan’s camp alleged there had been outside interference with the judges’ scoring). If successful he’ll be hoping to set up a long-awaited bout with current WBC welterweight champion Floyd Mayweather Jr later this year.
‘Maybe in two years I’ll be ready to hang up my gloves. Boxing is an addictive sport. The trick is to retire at the right time. When that career is finished I want to live a very comfortable life, not end up with money worries like Chris Eubank and Mike Tyson. Neither do I plan to fight on too long like Muhammad Ali.’
‘Ali is my greatest hero of all time, and one of the main reasons why I box. I met him once in Kentucky. It was sad because, though he could understand every word I said, he wasn’t able to speak. He took my hand, clasped it into a fist and put it on his face like I was punching him. I told him that didn’t feel right, that he was the greatest of all time and should be punching me. So he hit me instead!’
‘Whenever I think about meeting Ali, I remind myself that I walked into this sport with pride, dignity and respect, and that’s how I want to walk out of it. The last thing I want to do is stay in the sport too long and spoil my legacy.’