'I’m one of those fighters with a lot of heart'
AMIR KHAN is home again, back in gritty old Bolton, and his relief and happiness is obvious. He arrives early and flings open the door to his Gloves Community Centre with a big smile. All the pain of the past year seems to have gone as he strides through the local boxing centre which he built with £700,000 of his own money. Khan knows that he is not loved like more cherished fighters in Britain, and he has grown used to the abuse he receives on Twitter and various boxing websites where a small army of dumb trolls ridicule his ethnicity, faith and ability from the safe side of the ropes, but he is in a good mood tonight.
A couple of hours before he begins one of his final sessions of sparring, in preparation for possibly his last fight in Britain, against Julio Diaz in Sheffield on Saturday, Khan is exuberant as he details the changes in his training regime. His parting from Freddie Roach, a good man and a great trainer, was bruising. But Khan was entitled to make a switch after the shock consecutive losses he suffered against Lamont Peterson and, even more crushingly, Danny Garcia, who stopped him in four rounds last July.
“Virgil Hunter is a teacher,” Khan says, opening his dark eyes wide in appreciation of his new trainer, “and I love being able to learn from him. Freddie is also a teacher but with him it’s pure offence. That’s why Freddie is the best offensive trainer around. But the focus is less on defence. This is the big difference between him and Virgil. I’ve become a much calmer and more thinking fighter under Virgil.”
Khan boxed beautifully for two rounds against Garcia, his speed and accuracy bewildering the young fighter from Philadelphia, but he then got caught by a withering left hook. Some informed writers, like Kevin Mitchell of The Guardian, pointed out that Roach had reminded Khan constantly in the last week of training that he needed to stay clear of Garcia’s hook. Yet Khan now makes a compelling case for a radical rethink of his entire fight preparation.
“I’m one of those fighters with a lot of heart,” he says, in an easily acceptable observation, for Khan has always displayed courage when the frailties of his chin have been revealed. “At times, when I get caught, I’m too macho for my own good. In a way that worked well for a long time with Freddie’s style of aggressive offence. But the sparring I had with Freddie was flat-out fighting. I think he could’ve told me I should sometimes step back and box more.
“The training camp for the Garcia fight was me sparring with some tough Russians who kept coming forward and hitting me with big shots. So I’d try and nail them back. I took that attitude into the Garcia fight. This camp, with Virgil, has been totally different. Early on I hit my sparring partner with
a good shot and he landed one back. So I stood there and started trading. Virgil stopped it. He said: ‘Why are you doing that? You’ve just given him an opportunity to hit you because, after nailing him, you stayed in the pocket.’ Virgil would rather stop sparring so that he can teach me something.”
Khan, like every good fighter, would be utterly lost if he kept doubting himself. He has to find a reason for his brutal collapse against Garcia and so he also believes now that the outcome would have been different if Hunter had been in his corner. Defenders of Roach, and anyone who cites the tendency of fighters to find a truth that suits them, might raise a cynical brow. But his sincerity feels palpable.
“I honestly believe this,” he says earnestly, “and this is not meant badly against Freddie because I know I was the one who made the mistakes. But Virgil has made me watch the fight a lot. It’s hard to do but it’s also good because I see my mistakes so clearly. Virgil explained what I did wrong when, in the third, I threw the uppercut and got caught with a left hook. It happened because I was so far away from Garcia. I should’ve stepped in because the uppercut is a punch that should never be thrown from distance. That’s why got caught. His hook beat my uppercut.
“If I’d had Virgil in my corner I would’ve won. He’s told me that he would have sent me out in a defensive mode, just relying on my jab at first while I kept moving. It wouldn’t have mattered if I didn’t win the first two rounds so easily. I had another ten rounds to control the fight. Virgil has taught me that, if I’m not at close range, I need to throw straight punches rather than hooks and uppercuts. That’s why I’m going to take this smarter style into all my future fights.”
Khan’s natural instincts are to attack but two conclusive knockouts have underlined the need for him to weld caution to his slick speed. That first damaging stoppage, against Breidis Prescott in 2008, led to his decision to head for Los Angeles and Roach’s hard- edged gym. The change worked well but it’s hard to argue with Khan when he insists that his whole boxing philosophy had to be realigned again last year.
“The night of the Garcia defeat was far worse than Prescott,” Khan says quietly, his face etched in poignant concentration. His disputed points loss to Peterson in the preceding bout, seven months earlier, had been softened further by the revelation that the American had taken testosterone and failed a drugs test before their cancelled rematch. Peterson was stripped of the WBA belt he had won from Khan. The Bolton fighter, however, felt terribly exposed by Garcia.
“I did lose confidence,” he admits, “and I was much more upset after Garcia than Prescott because there was so much riding on that fight. Apart from two world titles, the winner also won the undisputed Ring title, and that would have been my last fight at light- welter. I could have moved from 140 to 147 pounds then because Garcia was the last guy out there for me to beat. Tim Bradley had already moved up. But losing to Garcia meant I needed to stay at 140 this year. I want to win this fight against Diaz and then have a final decider in November against the winner of this Golden Boy tournament.”
Garcia fights Judah in New York on Saturday and he is meant to meet the winner of Peterson’s clash with Lucas Matthysee in May. Khan, who has already beaten Judah, indicates that the other three fighters all preferred to avoid him. “Garcia is getting much less money fighting Judah than we offered him for a rematch – but he didn’t want to make the fight. Same with Peterson. But Golden Boy have promised me that I’ll meet the winner at the end of the year in a big unification battle at 140.”
Who would Khan expect to face? “Matthysee is a big banger,” he says, “but I don’t think he’ll be able to land cleanly against Peterson. Speed beats Peterson and I think he’ll see all Matthysee’s shots. Peterson is also a pressure fighter who is very tight in his guard. He’ll have too much for Matthysee. I see Garcia beating Judah but then it’s going to be tough for him against Peterson. Styles make fights and Peterson is very good defensively. I can see Peterson winning that.”
The drugs-smear against Peterson lingers and Khan would clearly prefer to exact revenge against Garcia. “If the choice was mine that would be the fight I’d love in November. Garcia surprised me because I didn’t expect him to have that power and pressure. So next time my defence will be tight. That last fight against Garcia actually changed my life both in and outside the ring. I honestly think it turned me from a boy into a man. It made me change my whole lifestyle. I moved from LA and my preparation is now much more professional.”
Khan has been criticised for accepting a 33-year-old veteran as his next opponent – even if Khan stresses that he cannot underestimate the Mexican. “He’s tough with a good knockout percentage,” Khan says of Diaz, who has stopped 29 of his rivals in a 40-7-1 ring record. “His last fight was against [the unbeaten] Shawn Porter and I thought he won. They scored it a draw. But Diaz showed he’s definitely dangerous because I’ve seen Porter spar with Manny Pacquiao and do really well.”
It will be a homecoming, as well as a likely farewell, in a British ring for Khan. He has taken a pay-cut to make the fight in the UK and he looks briefly pensive. “I think this is the last time I’ll fight at home. After this I just want to be in world-title contests and none of those guys [in America] would ever dare fight me in Britain.”
There is a stain of prejudice against young Muslim men in certain bigoted corners of British sport. Yet Khan tries, diplomatically, to find boxing- related reasons for his comparative lack of popularity at home. “People think it’s been easy for me. I’m still young [at 26] but I’ve achieved a lot. I’ve had a tough career.
“Some people expected me to fight Floyd Mayweather or Manny Pacquiao years ago but boxing doesn’t work like that. It’s hard to make those fights. And if I’d beaten Garcia I’d have been told he was nothing anyway. But I’ve beaten a lot of good fighters and hopefully some really big fights are coming soon. Hopefully people will warm to me more. But, while I get some criticism, it just helps me mature.”
Personally, I’ve always warmed to Khan. He’s friendly and interesting and he does love boxing. Khan discusses a couple of truly memorable fights from 2013 with the relish of a fan – while showing an understanding that he can no longer allow himself to be drawn into such fierce struggles. “I watched Bradley’s fight against [Ruslan] Provodnikov and it was all-out war. Provodnikov is another very aggressive fighter with little defence. He’s another Freddie Roach-trained fighter. He’s a tough guy. While we all love to watch those fights they take so much out of the guys in the ring. It was the same in the Brandon Rios-Mike Alvarado rematch. Another war. Not too many of those fighters rely on their brains. They don’t have a Virgil Hunter in their corner. Look at Bradley. He won that war against Provodnikov but took so much punishment. I don’t think he’ll be the same fighter after that. Against Garcia I only took two rounds of punishment. Bradley went through 12 rounds. Each round was up and down. He was winning a lot of them but he was also getting hurt. That takes a lot out of you. Garcia and Prescott beat me but they didn’t take too much out of me. If I can box smart from now on I’ve got the freshness these other guys have lost.” His mother, Falak, might disagree. Khan smiles wryly when I remind him of a story he once told me. After Khan lost to Prescott, his mother hid her younger son’s boxing kit. “Yeah,” Khan says. “She really didn’t want Haroon to box. She said: “We’ve already got a fighter in the family – one is enough.’ She was upset at seeing me knocked down and she knew Haroon wasn’t really dedicated to boxing then. If you don’t do the hard work then you can get badly hurt. But my dad convinced her that we couldn’t stop Haroon. And now he’s doing the training he needs.”
Haroon Khan makes his professional debut on the Sheffield bill and his more battle-worn big brother knows how vital it is that he protects himself. “The first few fights will tell us a lot. If Haroon starts taking some silly shots we’ll tell him his health must come first. But as long as he trains hard, like he’s been doing for this fight, I think he’ll do great. As my boxing career winds down in a couple of years his could really get going.”
It’s ironic, considering all the different trainers Amir has used, that Haroon should be setting out with Oliver Harrison. Harrison, who looked after Khan for his first 18 fights, was dropped just before the Prescott humiliation. “Yeah,” Khan nods, “me and Oliver had a 100 per cent record. Oliver is one of the best trainers in the UK. I needed to go to another level and so switched to the Cuban [Jorge Rubio] but that never worked. Oliver allows a fighter to keep his basic style but he improves it by adding little bits. Haroon is a good aggressive fighter but Oliver is teaching him to use the angles and be more defensive-minded.”
Falak Khan will, again, stay away from the ring. Ever since she saw the Prescott fight she has refused to watch any boxing. “Of course she finds it hard,” Khan says, “and so does my fiancée. Faryal is always asking me when I’m going to call it a day. But I’ve got a good two to three years left in me. So for my mum and fiancée it’s difficult. On the night of the Garcia fight they stayed in the hotel room and just prayed for me. They’re not bothered by me winning or losing. They just want me to stay healthy. And now the fights are getting tougher and bloodier it’s not nice for them. But they accept I must keep on boxing a few more years.”
Next month the two families will be consumed by a happier occasion as Amir marries Faryal. “It’s four weeks from now and they’re doing all the preparations. Today they even did some of the food tasting for the UK event and I obviously couldn’t be there because of my diet. But they’ve taken care of all the arrangements and I’ve not had to think about anything besides fighting.
“The wedding in New York will be over two days. We’ll have it at the Waldorf Hotel, which is really nice, and there’ll be about 700 people the first day and on the day of the wedding it’ll be about 350. A week later we’re having the UK event. I’d have liked to have had it in Bolton but there’s not a big enough venue so we’re having it in Manchester. I’m catering for 4,000 people.”
Khan laughs when I show my surprise. “We’ve got such an extended family and so many friends. There might only be 3,000 but I’m ready to give a feast for 4,000 if the guests bring along some friends.”
The mix of two disparate backgrounds, from New York and Bolton, should make for an intriguing contrast. Khan laughs. “Sometimes we’re in New York and, surrounded by all the lights and fast life, I just look around and say; ‘Wow – New York City!’ And then I ask Faryal again if she thinks she’s going to be okay moving to little old Bolton. But she’s happy to come live here. We’ll go back and forth to the States but I’ll always have Bolton as my base. That’s why we’ve built the gym here. People say to me, ‘Why don’t you move to London or Manchester?’ But Bolton is home. I love the people. They’ll give me a wave or a beep but they leave me to it. They’re used to me in Bolton. I’m part of the furniture.” He’s a very rich piece of fistic furniture and Khan is smart enough to have invested in property as a way of keeping his income flowing even when his days as a fighter end. His current plan is to remain in boxing, as a commentator and a mentor to young fighters, and he might dabble in promotion. But he insists that “it won’t be full-scale promotion like Oscar [De La Hoya] has done with Golden Boy. I want to do other things outside of boxing.”
Before then, he aches for a skilled kind of revenge against Garcia, or Peterson, before securing “the superfight” he craves. “Floyd Mayweather would be the dream. I think it would be a really technical fight. That would suit me. We’re the only two guys out there who have a multi-fight deal with Showtime. I’ve got a three-fight deal, starting with this one on Saturday, and Floyd has a six-fight contract. So we could make it happen. But there’s no point looking ahead. One more loss and I can forget the superfight. It will be gone. So my focus is on being home in Bolton, training hard, and then going down to Sheffield, to put on a show against Diaz. But you’ll see how much I’ve improved as a fighter since switching
to Virgil Hunter. You’ll see the reason why I feel so happy.”
Khan’s natural instincts are to attack but two conclusive knockouts have underlined the need for him to weld caution to his slick speed