Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Amir Khan: Not quite on the ropes yet

The British boxing champion speaks to Forbes India about proving critics wrong and the fight that's still left in him

Rajiv Singh
Published: Jun 22, 2019 10:00:00 AM IST
Updated: Jun 21, 2019 02:18:11 PM IST

Amir Khan: Not quite on the ropes yetAmir Khan poses with Neeraj Goyat during a press conference in London in June. The British boxer will fight his Indian opponent in Saudi Arabia next month
Image: Nathan Stirk/Getty Images

It takes a punch to get knocked out in the ring. But what hurts more are the jeers that follow.

“You are finished. You are rubbish. You retire. You are no good…,” says Amir Khan (32), as he recounts the caustic taunts hurled at him after his loss to American boxer Terence Crawford at Madison Square Garden this April. As a controversial ‘low punch’ in the sixth round incapacitated Khan, his trainer Virgil Hunter had to step in and call off the contest. Khan’s abrupt exit triggered vicious reactions, with some calling him a quitter. ESPN commentator Stephen A Smith tweeted: “I am done with Amir Khan. Don’t even want to see him fight anymore. He wanted Hunter to rescue him from an imminent knockout.”

For a boxer who won silver at the 2004 Olympics, when he was just 17, and two World Championships, the clamour to paint him as a loser was hurtful. “I am not a quitter. I am a fighter,” says Khan. “I don’t want to leave boxing when critics want me to leave,” he adds. “I will leave when it is the right time to leave.” As he gesticulates to his cheering fans who are packed into the auditorium of a hotel in Delhi, where Khan arrived in May to announce his fight with Neeraj Goyat in Saudi Arabia in July, he says, “I am not finished yet.”

For a former world champion—he has an enviable record of 38 wins, five losses and 20 knockouts—taking on an unheralded Indian opponent might not be the best way to reclaim the crown he first won in 2009, when he defeated Ukrainian Andreas Kotelnik for the WBA light-welterweight title. Khan, however, thinks otherwise. “I can reclaim the crown,” he says, as he poses for selfies with fans who jostle with his bodyguards. “I don’t let critics get into my head.”

The fight is often more than what takes place within the ring. Back in 1973, Muhammad Ali was trounced by Ken Norton at the age of 32, a factor that Ali’s manager Herbert Muhammad had reminded him of before the bout. “You are thirty two years old. That’s old for a fighter,” he had said.

The press, Ali wrote in his autobiography The Greatest: My Own Story, “will crowd the sports pages with the headline that will remind me: Muhammad Ali is finished; end of an era; big mouth shut for all time.” But determined not to let age or critics hit him, Ali refused to lie low. “They say I am finished… but I will come back, I can win my title back,” he wrote. The San Diego Sports Arena, Ali recalls in his book, was filled with hateful jeers, which Ali called the “the reaction of most of White America”.

Khan opens up about his ‘hatred’ story, which, interestingly, didn’t have any shade of racism or Islamophobia when he penned his book A Boy from Bolton in 2006. “What makes my story unique,” he wrote, “is my background. I am British, Bolton-born and bred. But my ancestry is Asian, Pakistani, I am a Muslim. That makes all the difference.” In spite of the fact that just a few days before his professional debut in July 2005, London witnessed a series of terrorist bombings, Khan wrote that he “never felt victimised because of his background”.

Much, though, seems to have changed since then. “Even though I won medals for the country, I was still getting hate,” Khan recounts. A handful of terrorists, he rues, have given Muslims a bad name. “People still see me as a Muslim, and those who see Muslims as terrorists also say, ‘Look, Amir is a Muslim.’” Khan has been involved in charity work, such as building schools and hospitals, and feeding homeless people through his foundation set up in 2014. “I have done so much. Maybe they will realise the day I am gone.”

“Racism and Islamophobia are at work among his most virulent critics on social media,” says Donald McRae, an author and sports writer with The Guardian. “The treatment of him has often been shameful. It offers an insight into the prejudice that, sadly, remains in Britain towards Muslims and people of South Asian origin.”

Amir’s grandfather, Lal Khan, moved to England in the 1960s, and reportedly worked in a cotton mill in Bolton. Born and brought up in the UK, Khan took to boxing at a very young age. “I was 8 years old when I started training,” he says, recalling how it instilled discipline in him. “It took me away from being naughty, arguing and fighting.”

However, there was a flip side. “When my friends, and children of my age were away on vacations or enjoying themselves, I was staying focussed and spending my time in the gym,” he says. Growing up and training as a boxer was not easy, but Khan doesn’t have any regrets. “You have to give up something to gain something. I gave up my childhood and my youth to be where I am.”

But starting young helped. Khan clinched a silver medal at the Athens Olympics in 2004, when he was just 17, and became a national hero overnight. The burst of stardom brought in its wake its share of pressures. It was not easy, he confesses, to manage early success, and practise relentlessly. “At times, I would wake up in the morning and my body would aching badly,” he recalls. “I kept pushing myself.”

Admitting that he was not always the best guy in the gym or the training centre, he says what helped him was the ‘extra’ that he always put in. “When the others stopped, I continued with my training,” he says. God, Khan says, always takes care of those who work hard. “Believe in God, and God will help you. I have absolute faith in Him.”

Khan’s idol, Ali, too rooted his life in religion. After his unexpected loss to Norton, Ali tried to come up with a spiritual rationale. “I have not been beaten… Allah gave me a little chastising for not obeying the rules… I didn’t train right. I didn’t rest. I played all night,” Ali wrote in his book. Fighting, he explained, is a serious, dangerous business, and I took it lightly.

Khan, for his part, is not taking lightly his Indian challenger. “Neeraj is a fighter,” he says, adding that although boxers from South Asia are strong physically and hard-working, they are mentally brittle. “Boxing is very much a mental game.” One can lose a fight even before it begins. “A strong mind can support a strong body,” he adds, pointing out that his bout with Goyat would “be the first time that a British Pakistani will fight an Indian boxer.”

Goyat defeated Mexico’s Carlos Lopez Marmolejo this April, and is the WBC Asia welterweight title-holder. He also has a record of 11 wins, including two knockouts, three losses and two draws. And yet, not many are impressed with Khan’s choice of opponent. “His [Khan’s] next fight in Saudi Arabia is regarded widely as a sham within hardcore boxing circles,” writes McRae. “He is also 32, and so time is against him.”

Like Ali, who fought and thrashed Norton in a subsequent grudge match, Khan too needs to reclaim his ground, and a win against Goyat might give Khan the opportunity he is looking for. “I have always got recognition in Britain,” he says. “What I miss, though, is appreciation.”