Respect matters: Amir Khan interview
Photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images
In a wide-ranging interview, Amir Khan talks to Shaun Brown about career highs and lows, preparing for Terence Crawford, reuniting with Virgil Hunter and much more!
At 32 years old, having had 37 fights, won world titles at two weights, dazzled in victory, been unforgettable in defeat, you would think that the 2004 Olympic Silver Medallist Amir Khan would feel assured that he has the respect of the boxing community worldwide, regardless of how many supporters he has.
However, a conversation with Khan, as he prepares with trainer Virgil Hunter in America for his 20 April date at Madison Square Garden with pound-for-pound star Terence Crawford, left a lingering feeling that Khan is still searching for the 'R-word' despite having had a career that many a fighter would trade their work tools for.
Next month at the Mecca of boxing the man from Bolton will attempt to become a two-weight world champion that would place him in amongst the pantheon of the British boxing greats. Then, and perhaps only then, will Khan believe he has the respect that he is still looking for.
“I tried to do as much as I can in the game,” Khan told Boxing Monthly. “I think maybe I’ll get a lot more respect when I retire from the game.
"I’ve seen that happen to a lot of fighters when people look at their résumé afterwards and say, ‘Wait a minute. He fought this guy, this guy, this guy and half of them were against big names.’
"I think that’s when people will realise that I belong up there as one of the top fighters to have come out of Britain. You’re always going to get people talking shit and putting you down, but I don’t let it get to me. I’ll always keep working hard and keep training hard and trying to prove everyone wrong.
“I want to be a people’s champion,” he continued “but I want to be remembered as a great fighter. As time has gone on and when I was young, I made mistakes and as I’m getting older, I’m [more] grown up, I’m more respectful, I respect people more and I’m just enjoying everything I do, honestly. I’m very thankful to be in this position.”
The position where Khan and his career find themselves is looking into boxing’s treacherous deep waters wondering whether they will sink or swim. A shattering defeat against the WBO welterweight champion next month could leave his time at the top falling over the edge into an abyss only to be followed by another R-word: retirement.
Let’s make no bones about it, the task that Khan faces against Crawford is seismic and is only outdone, in weight, by what the Brit took on against Canelo Alvarez nearly three years ago. That night ended in a defeat where many gasped in horror, such was the devastation of the knockout, hoping that Khan recovered to carry on in life never mind boxing.
If Khan were a gambler you can’t help but think he would tackle the roulette wheel and go all in. His thirst for greatness, for acclaim and for the biggest reward is infectious. In boxing he doesn’t appear to know any other way. Khan has full respect for his opponent next month, he knows how good he is and perhaps how great the American could become but whether it’s down to the thousands of interviews he’s done over the years, he knows how to give answers that are draped in belief and positivity.
But maybe the mindset also has a lot to do with the fact that he has Virgil Hunter back in his corner. A man whose voice could be used on hypnosis tapes but one who understands Khan and knows how to get through to him.
“I think with Virgil he knows me better than anyone,” said Khan. “I’ve been with him for almost six-and-a-half coming on to seven years and he knows me better than any other trainer. He knows how to talk to me and sometimes by speaking to a fighter and making them understand what he needs to do it brings the best out in me.
“It’s not just all about working hard and just training hard but it’s about learning what the game plan is for the fight, how to win a fight, what to do and what not to do. The guy I’m facing is a very dangerous opponent.
"I have to make sure that I’m not making any mistakes and doing everything that has been asked, and Virgil is very good at that. He makes sure that I’m not going to be dissing and I’m not going to go on… like times in fights you see me go a little bit off the rails… I literally go off the game plan and I make mistakes and do what my mind tells me. Virgil helps me to stay focussed throughout my fights and stay disciplined more than anything.”
Khan told BM that Crawford is a “very, very good fighter” but the desire to be the best, to be remembered as one of the best remains a lure. Something he would get with a win against Crawford. Something he would not have had he went in an opposite direction and fought Kell Brook in an all-British showdown that would have satisfied most of the U.K. boxing fans but might not have had the greatest of impacts on Khan’s career in the long run.
“I need to fight the best out there,” said Khan. “It’s about not being afraid of these challenges because there are a lot of fighters out there who would not take the challenge I’ve taken. I’m not one of them guys. I want to fight the best out there. I never want to leave the sport not fighting the best and this is a great opportunity for me, and I have a style which will give anyone and everyone problems as long as I stick to my game plan and stick to using my speed and using my boxing skills.”
Khan believed that he didn’t need speed and skill to beat Samuel Vargas in his last fight in September 2018. He thought showing up would be enough on the night. The preparation wasn’t ideal. Some time spent with Hunter before he was struck down by illness. Khan’s hand was forced and placed his career, albeit briefly, in the hands of Joe Goossen.
Regardless, Khan admits that complacency played its part in a showing that saw him go the distance and be put down in the second round with Vargas taking a count in the same round as well as the third.
“If you look at the last fight which everyone is judging me for against Vargas… yeah, I won the fight, was put down, but it wasn’t really a good performance from me, and it wasn’t what people were expecting from me after the knockout win over [Phil] Lo Greco.
"They thought I was going to come and do the same again. I was going into these fights knowing I was going to win. I knew that Vargas never had a chance in a million years to beat me. Sometimes you start believing in your own hype knowing that when you read articles like, ‘Vargas isn’t going to stand a chance’.
"You start believing that and I kinda did believe that. That all I had to do was turn up and win that fight. I’ve fought better opponents than Vargas, beat better opponents than Vargas but because I was so confident, I never really had that fear in me.
“Training camp was easy. It was a big change, my first training camp with Joe Goossen so my skill set changed, my style was a little bit different from what I normally do under Virgil so I’m glad in a way that I got this big fight after a performance like that because people might think it’s going to be an easier fight. ‘Let’s take Amir now, he’s a big name, take him now’ but I think it’s the biggest mistake a lot of these fighters could make, especially Crawford because he’s picked me after a bad performance.
"I know it was a bad performance, but I know I’m a million times better than that. It got me the big fight and that’s what I wanted.”
Khan has been one of boxing’s most talked about fighters ever since he came home from Athens with silver around his neck. A few months before he made his professional debut revenge was served up against Mario Kindelan, who defeated him in the lightweight Olympic final. An appetiser that was shown on ITV and had Don King calling him the “new Sugar Ray Robinson”.
Such flattery is no stranger to the theatrical vocabulary of Mr King, but Khan had already been catapulted into stardom. Young, confident, box office hand speed, a likeable lad… he was the complete package.
At times the private life of Khan has been documented just as much as the day job. His recollections of beating Andriy Kotelnik to win his first world title, to going toe-to-toe with the likes of Marcos Maidana are a period in his career that feel like a lifetime ago to him. But in equal measure he remembers the mistakes that have cost him career losses and more. It has been a rollercoaster.
“I’ve made mistakes, but I’ve learned from them mistakes and now it’s all about being smart, using my experience. The four fights I’ve lost I’ve learned from them more than anything in my career. I think I needed them losses to make me the fighter I am now. If I was always winning, I don’t think I would have had that same hunger so I’m glad I had these little stumbling times in some fights where it’s made me go back to the drawing board and brought the best out of me.
“I’ve had a brilliant career. I’ve been happy with the way things have gone for me. Topping bills in America; New York, Vegas numerous times and to England topping bills there. Even before I was a professional, if someone said to me this is going to be your career and this is how it’s going to go it would have been very hard to believe because it’s very difficult to have a good career like this.
"But guess what? I made it and I made sure I had a good career and worked very hard for it and I have to say it’s been difficult, it’s been hard, but I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. I’ve had a great experience. I wouldn’t change it for anything.”
If you are a viewer whenever Khan fights, either in attendance or in front of your TV, you will have grown accustomed to the risks he takes in fights. Sometimes the chin is hanging out there with a bullseye on it, sometimes his speed of punch and combinations drag him into spots where someone is going to be on the wrong part of a highlight reel.
It’s thrilling to watch. It has been his downfall, it has been his greatest weapon and at 32 chances are there is no time left to change the fighter he has developed into.
“It’s who I am. That’s just me. I can’t change that,” says Khan. “If a time comes in a fight when I have to throw bombs or get into a war then I’m going to do that. There’s a lot of fighters who would probably take the easier route and box and try to not get hit. With me I like a little war at times.
"I’ll go and have a fight. I’ll push myself. I’ll make it hard for myself just to make it exciting. That’s just the fighter I am and that’s why I’ve always loved these big opportunities people know I’m a very exciting fighter. When I come to fight everyone knows they’re going to get their money’s worth.”
Khan’s soundbites about his preparation so far are a familiar tune played by every fighter 99 times out of 100. He told BM that he is beating the young guns in sparring too, out running them and beating any personal bests they set in the gym. He sounds like a youngster all over again.
There’s a buzz about him. Perhaps it’s the opponent or the three words Madison Square Garden or the fact he is part of one of the biggest fights of the year so far.
This is another defining night in the career of Amir ‘King’ Khan. We’ll grab the beers, the snacks and those who say they won’t tune in will. And if Khan starts throwing those blurring combinations then slowly but surely, we will all move to the edge of our seat.
“I believe in myself and this is a fight that is a big turning point in my career,” said Khan. “A fight that will plant my legacy. I know how much it means to me. What will win this fight will be heart which I know I’ve got more heart than anyone out there. And what will win this is skill and using your brains and being disciplined as well.
"I think I’ve got everything that it takes to win this fight and become the best again. That’s what I want to be. I want to be remembered as the best or at least be remembered. I’ve been all over, and I’ve enjoyed every bit of it and I just love it.”