My way: Amir Khan interview
Now the end is near, Amir Khan tells Danny Flexen why he must get the final chapter of his career exactly right...
A few more lines are visible around his eyes. The tone is increasingly world-weary. The questions are contemplated for longer, their corresponding answers more thoughtful, but the exuberance of youth remains.
To label this as just another comeback by Amir Khan would do a disservice to the twists and turns of a roller-coaster career typified by excitement.
There was the Olympic silver medal at 17, two world titles, three dramatic inside-schedule defeats, various head trainers and the controversy inherent in any life played out in the public eye.
Khan is only 31 but acknowledges his boxing career is drawing to a close. But he sees further success ahead and he is doing things his way as, in the Frank Sinatra song, he nears the final curtain.
He has adapted his style in recent years under American trainer Virgil Hunter (after starting his career with Britain’s Oliver Harrison and moving on to Cuban Jorge Rubio and Freddie Roach before teaming up with Hunter in 2012). He is a little less gung-ho. There is a little more movement and strategy.
Khan has fought just seven times in the last six years, leading to criticism he has wasted his physical prime, but, ahead of his first contest in the UK since 2013, on 21 April in Liverpool, the Bolton welterweight insists the inactivity represents more blessing than curse.
“I think it’s a bonus because I am fresh,” Khan told Boxing Monthly. “Normally guys at 31 are a bit worn out, their bodies have taken a lot of beating. Maybe it’s because I’ve not put my body through so much stress, but I feel better now than at 27. That helps, definitely, and now, at 31, I’m a little more experienced, I understand what to do in the ring and what not to do.”
This commitment to a more sensible approach is admirable but Khan’s enduring vulnerability has long been a blessing of sorts. His frailty was first exposed against Craig Watson, who dropped the fast-rising Khan in the regional ABAs, and later underlined by Breidis Prescott, Danny Garcia and the far larger Canelo Alvarez — Khan’s last opponent, in May 2016.
Khan has been a polarising figure but even his sternest critics would likely concede he has rarely been risk-averse, a quality that’s all the more impressive given the brutal nature of his setbacks. It is perhaps logical, then, that Khan’s recent tenure in the I’m a Celebrity Australian jungle, and the relatable fears the reality-TV show highlighted, have propelled his popularity to a level not seen since the Athens Olympics.
“Normally people know you from boxing, but a lot of non-boxing fans now want to meet me and are taking pictures of me,” Khan — whose wife Faryal is expecting their second child — says. “I never tried to be a celebrity, I just get caught up doing silly things. The reason I did I’m a Celebrity, I had a lot going on in my personal life and I wanted to get away from everything, I wanted to focus on myself, get away from everyone. It was like a detox for me. I wanted to have some time, to work out where I want to be in life and what I want to do.
“I never knew it would have so much impact and that people would start to like how I am as a person. “They probably thought: ‘OK, fine, he’s a boxer going in the jungle…’ but they didn’t know that I’m still scared of spiders, snakes etc. It shows we’re still normal people.
“Viewers see strong, young men but realise we are still scared of things. Even to have won world titles and still be scared of things normal people are scared of. Maybe my vulnerability is what they like about me. If I’m scared of stuff or when I’ve made mistakes in my life, I admit to that. There’s no: ‘It was a lucky punch.’”
To coincide with this renewed celebrity in his homeland, Khan has signed with Matchroom Boxing. The agreement with Eddie Hearn’s outfit is essentially only a one-year deal, as it calls for Khan to compete three times in a calendar year for the first time since 2011.
The brevity of the arrangement is a clear indication that Khan does not intend to carry on for too much longer.
When active athletes talk of retirement, alarm bells tend to ring, the concern being that they have one foot already through the exit door. The realisation from Khan that he has entered the autumn of his career has, however, instilled an urgency and desire to get everything right that may have been previously lacking. He no longer has all the time in the world and this latest, crucial stage begins at the Echo Arena against tough Canadian Phil Lo Greco.
“I remember telling my dad, before I went into the jungle, to have a chat with all the promoters,” the former unified super lightweight champion recalls. “A lot were interested, from the UK, the US, all round the world really.
“I wasn’t looking for the best money, but the best fights and a deal that would put me where I need to be towards the end of my career. I went with the best option for me.
“Other promoters probably offered better money, better guarantees, but I wanted to finish my career off in the UK. I had my experience in America, a lot of fights there, what I dreamt of I kind of achieved. The Matchroom offer stood out because I see the promotion they do for their fighters, they really back their fighters and the Matchroom stable on its own motivates you.
“Also, the Sky Sports [television] platform is definitely where I belong. They give all their fighters a big-name value.
“This is the last chapter so I want to do everything right. I can’t afford to make any mistakes. My dad said: ‘I’ll give you the options when you’re out of the jungle,’ and that gave me time to think about life, whether I really wanted to box still.
“I don’t do it for the money, I love the sport, I know I’ve got a little bit left in me, that I don’t want to leave and think I gave up too early. I want to look back having made the right choices. This part is very crucial, to end it on my terms. I’m not chasing the money, I’m making sure I leave a legacy behind.”
In joining Matchroom, Khan severed his ties with hugely influential American advisor Al Haymon. His decision, therefore, to retain the services of Oakland-based trainer Virgil Hunter may have come as a minor surprise, but also a testament to a close and mostly successful relationship that began in 2012.*
They have only lost once together and that was the leap of faith to challenge Canelo Alvarez at 155lbs, a decision with which Hunter publicly disagreed long before the showdown was announced. Khan took the match anyway and, while he concedes, in hindsight, that his mentor was right, Amir remains glad he scratched the Canelo itch, starting brightly before suffering a sixth-round, highlight-reel KO.
“Virgil didn’t really want the fight, I can put my hands up and say that’s true,” Khan admits. “We were looking at other names, but when the deal was put to me by [Golden Boy Promotions boss] Oscar [De La Hoya] I said: ‘I’m going to take it. I think it’s a good fight for me.’
“I thought my speed would beat him, and that I was technically a better fighter than him. Obviously power was a big factor, I had to make sure I didn’t get caught with a big shot — but I did get caught. Canelo is an amazing fighter, he caught me with a punch, the right hand, he’s probably caught a lot of people with. He caught GGG with it but he’s a much bigger guy and took it better.
“Anyone at 147, even 154lbs, would have been knocked out by that shot. I don’t regret it, in a way. If I never did the Canelo fight, I’d never have realised how I would have done. I’d have always wondered if I could have beaten him. Now I know that he would always have been the bigger, better fighter. I tried and fell short.
“As for training with Virgil, it’s a little bit difficult training in the UK. I’m a very friendly guy, I love to have friends round, and it can be a bit of bother — even they realise it’s better for me to go away. One thing about San Francisco [where Khan stays while in camp], I know once I get off that aeroplane I’m in work mode, it’s time to work, I’m not there for a holiday. Everything is set up in my apartment — including a hyperbaric chamber — for me to train. To change all that would be so much of a headache.”
At time of writing, Khan was due to fly conditioning coach Tony Brady to the UK for initial preparations, then work with Hunter on America’s West Coast from early February. All the familiar pieces are in place, then, and the welterweight division, in which Khan has never lost, is positively bursting with talent.
During his extended hiatus and previous spells of inactivity, a younger, hungry pack of wolves have invaded Khan’s territory. IBF champion Errol Spence is obviously formidable, as is WBC and WBA Super champion Keith Thurman, while former undisputed 140lbs king Terence Crawford is joining the party with a WBO title challenge against Jeff Horn. The more experienced Khan — an older head on still-young, broad shoulders — relishes the challenge fights against these boxers would represent.
“Style-wise Thurman is a brilliant fight,” he says, with considerable enthusiasm. “Like with a lot of these guys, speed is my advantage. I still feel quick. It’s not like I lost it.
“Experience has made me wiser. So, instead of throwing shots and leaving myself open, I can keep it long at times, and be in the right position after throwing shots. Thurman punches hard, but you can see his shots coming, and his power makes you go in knowing: ‘This guy can bang,’ so you can’t make any mistakes.
“Spence is a great champion but I think [his recent stoppage victim] Lamont Peterson may not have been the same fighter as when he fought me [beating Khan by contentious decision in 2011]. For one thing, he was on testosterone then [for which Peterson had a medical prescription, although the WBA stripped him of one of the belts he took from Khan after a failed drug test] and he had more youth and energy in him. Age is maybe one of the factors, but Spence picked his shots really well, put them together well, and hurt Peterson. He is definitely going places.
“I want to fight another three-four times, hopefully win another world title, then finish off, maybe a rematch with Garcia. I can’t see a Peterson rematch happening now. I also want to finish my career off in Britain.”
It’s all a long way from the silver he won in Greece some 13 and a half years ago and it could be argued Khan has yet to fulfil the potential suggested by a starry-eyed teen with the world at his feet. But there is life in the (not-so) old dog yet and the sense of purpose that defined him as a young Olympian remains evident in his words and, particularly, their emphasis.
The key difference is that for an Amir Khan now entering his career’s final act, only gold will suffice.
*This article was originally published before it was announced that Hunter was suffering health issues - Khan is now being trained by Joe Goossen.