Manchester, that large English city, Bolton is not. It is the provinces – a 15-minute train ride away; New Jersey rather than New York. Some say the people have six fingers. Others say they are richer, not drowned by polluting city air (carcinogens hiking up their nostrils) or too much sophistication.
Amir Khan was born here in December 1986. I only really became aware of him on his 21st birthday in what was his second defense of the Commonwealth Lightweight title against Graham Earl.
Earl (25-1) had crossed my path before. He was a gutsy fighter I just happened to tune into one Saturday night ten months earlier slugging it out with Australia’s Michael Katsidis (21-0). He seemed to be a jack-in-the-box performer regularly cranked from the depths of defeat.
“Look for some solace in the middle of the ring,” the commentator Duke McKenzie had desperately urged with eighteen seconds of the fifth (and ultimately final) round remaining.
I winced a little. I was watching a 2007 WBO lightweight title fight which was not just full of fortitude but represented something arcanely affluent. It appeared to be a bludgeoning master class. Not a great lesson in defense from Earl, but a rare, stinging battle which craved respect and approbation. Such was the raw ferocity in parts of this tussle that Earl’s corner threw the towel into the ring in the second round, only for it to be thrown out again by referee, Mickey Vann.
Earl lost – retired by his corner. And he would not win again with the exception of his last, somewhat ignominious, scrap against Karl “Plug” Taylor (16-125-7) at the Liquid Envy nightclub in his home town of Luton; a promising career over at the age of 30.
When he found himself in the ring with Amir Khan (14-0), the Bolton speed merchant, it was arguably only the latter’s second significant test since turning pro; the brave Glaswegian, Willie Limond being the other.
It took the silver-trunked Khan a mere 73 seconds to dispatch Earl. Looking at them side by side, you understood the physical threat of the Boltonian – his stature casting an almost Dracula-like shadow over the Luton man; Earl never great with his reach, but muffled, silenced and quelled – made to look like a circus midget.
And so Khan’s boxing road trip truly began – sixty years after Pakistan’s independence and decades after his paternal grandfather, Lal moved to England following his discharge from the Pakistan Army (formerly part of the British Indian Army).
Bolton – its motto Supera Moras (“overcome difficulties”) – was a mill town, a moor town, with no shortage of famous individuals: Samuel Crompton – inventor of the mule-jenny and pioneer of the cotton spinning industry; William Lassell – the astronomer who discovered Triton, Neptune’s largest moon; William Lever – soap monopoly king.
The sprawling Lancashire town was thus able to dress you, wash you and tell you about the night sky.
Into this heady industrial area – in the 1950s – came hundreds of workers from the Indian subcontinent. The textile industry was soon to fade though and by the 1980s was dead.
With an estimated 10,000 Pakistanis in Britain in 1951 and nearly 500,000 by 1991, the ensuing need for new professions became evident. Always more than the caricatured takeaway owners, taxi drivers and fabric shop proprietors, British Pakistanis began to further penetrate the ‘higher’ sectors of health care, accounting and computing. Khan, after strolling into a local gym at the age of eight, dismissed such dutiful avenues and chose the never-never land of boxing. His precocious skills were immediately evident to those around him. In many ways it was a subtle shift from the school playground and street corners to the thankfully padded floor of the ring.
The amateur highs we know about: 2003 AAU Junior Olympic Gold Medalist; 2004 European Student and World Junior Gold Medalist; 2004 Olympic Lightweight Silver Medalist; 2005 – revenge over his Olympic foe, Mario Kindelan.
Then came the 18-year-old pro – his first few fights (Bailey [3-4], Carey [9-13-3], Gethin [9-18-2], Thorpe [19-44-2], Martynau [10-1], Williams [12-3]) like a warden rounding up stray poodles; the usual fare of stiffs and inflated stats.
Khan’s lightning-rod jab was almost unnatural at this weight, his thudding rights deceptively hard. Such ability pushed him handsomely up the next rung of boxing’s evolutionary ladder past Komjathi (24-10-1), Bain (9-1-1), Barrett (12-2-1), Drilzane (10-3), Medjadji (17-3) and Bull (24-4-1); pee-wee fights but valuable ring time – the Hungarian, Komjathi his first respectable opponent.
Boxers enter arenas to surprising and unforeseen music at times. Khan’s choice ofAmarillo at his half-dozen fight point on 25th February 2006 perhaps lightened the mood, perhaps mitigated some of the pressure and expectation building.
“There’s a church bell ringing
Hear the song of joy that it’s singing
For the sweet Maria and the guy who’s coming to see her
Just beyond the highway, there’s an open plain
And it keeps me going through the wind and rain”
Five days later Khan felled a man outside the ring – Geoffrey Hatton – breaking his right leg on a Bolton highway while in his BMW. It was an incident with dire echoes of Chris Eubank (Feb. 1992) and Naseem Hamed (May 2005) and one which the 19-year-old was ill-equipped to handle.
Perfunctory remorse offers nothing to a family – it deepens the wounds more than silence. Khan’s inadvertent interview with The Wall Street Journal’s infotainment “reporter” Lee Hawkins on the matter was commensurate with inviting Beelzebub to afternoon tea. Goaded by Hawkins’s delinquent merriness and talk of fast cars, Khan’s words fell from his lips with the plentiful naivety of Candide.
I suppose a strange, moneyed language can seep into the best of us – its bruising necessity harnessing a man’s tongue, but churning over the subjects of death and the pitiful scrapings of one’s brand (however coerced) in the same moment is careless…quite unforgivable.
Perhaps we shouldn’t dig this particular hole though. Khan’s art is his boxing and it brims with superlatives cultivated by his hands. Watching him is a “thrill ride of the first order,” to quote Robert Ecksel. The great Flaubert, as Julian Barnes recently wrote in the London Review of Books, once said “…in reply to a journalistic inquiry about his life, ‘I have no biography.’ The art is everything; its creator nothing.”
Fight number 13 with those artistic hands for the Commonwealth Lightweight title meant running into William Wallace or rather the 5’7” Scot, Willie Limond (28-1). Not likely to give up his entrails easily, Limond showed us in the sixth round what we weren’t supposed to see so soon, if ever: that Khan is partially made of glass – a human decanter when on certain sideboards.
Limond’s hooks were a prelude to fights 19 and 29 against Breidis Prescott (19-0) and Danny Garcia (23-0) – the Prescott clash more startling due to its similarity with Tyson/Berbick (Nov. 1986); the same bewildered expression dancing across Khan’s face as with Berbick’s. Not quite the “Child in a play pen” (Reg Gutteridge epitaph) from Khan but nonetheless a staggering, wobbling Moet Champagne guzzler and wreck of a man.
Notice Khan’s mother in the seventh and eighth rounds against Limond – praying, short of breath, anxious, up and down; her whole being contorted and afraid. Seeing that makes you understand the wider implications of this sport – those that are affected, those that travel with the boxer into the deep caverns and gristle-laden areas of this dark trade.
“You’re trying too hard,” Khan’s trainer, Oliver Harrison had told him. He was. Indulging in rucks. Getting involved in a street fight with the steadfast Scot. The gnarled expression of Frank Warren’s face alone (in its usual ringside seat) was sufficient to inform us that Khan’s tactics were wrong, defective, counterpointed by Limond’s steel and willingness to hunt down a wounded opponent.
But for the broken jaw (Limond retired at the end of the eighth) this could have been a savage introduction to 12-rounders for Khan. As it was, he became a boxer for real, largely dishing it out even though worryingly vulnerable.
“You’ve still got the L-plates on,” was the rhetorical assertion from the happy-go-lucky sports presenter, Jim Rosenthal. And he was right. What could not be softened, however, were the twisted faces in the crowd – aghast at the spectacle they had just borne witness to. Somehow they had seen too much. Boxing had crossed the line between entertaining warfare and a form of thuggery.
It kills me to watch and re-watch all of a fighter’s fights – the endless mismatches, the pre-bell bullshit, parts of the crowd like babies having their first diaper changed, but I plough on. I do it because a man’s essence is often found. Usually near the end, usually in a split second sat on their stool or when off-balance clutching for God. Never during an interview. Never when posturing.
Khan was Bruno-esque after the Limond encounter – his words interspersed with the aching cypher “You know what I mean…you know what I mean.” But then he was still only 20 years old. Learning. Seeing things. Pounding the granite flesh put before him. The “lethargic legs” amply noticed by Barry McGuigan were rueful almost – yes. What we cannot expunge from his efforts though is the disquieting sense that here is a fighter who wishes to trade and overpower people.
Scott Lawton (20-3-1), Stoke’s answer to Elvis, came next. It was brief. Flurry, flurry and out in the fourth. Earl (25-2) – we know what happened there.
Then Gairy St Clair (39-5-2), the experienced Australian; Khan, now 21 – a man needing the longevity fighters, wishing to distil their staying power. It was a coming of age for the Bolton man, his first 36-minute walk. Very much part of a slow-mo fight, Khan filled the ring with feigns, flicking left jabs and daunting hooks. It was an assured night of graft and endeavor.
Seventeen (Kristjansen 19-1-3), eighteen (Gomez 35-8-0) – Khan progressed. He was guilty of dropping his left guard against the Dane and not cleverly picking his shots, but the Irishman he simply walked through in retaliation for damaging a rib in the fourth.
In between these bouts, trainer Oliver Harrison – with Khan since the start of his pro career – was sacked. His replacement, the Cuban Jorge Rubio lasted just two fights; the disastrous pairing up with rangy Prescott (19-0, 17 KOs with a 72” reach) hastening his downfall.
Enter Freddie Roach (Oct. 2008) who would ironically put Khan on a par with his own 26-1 record after seeing off Fagan (22-5), Barrera (65-6), Kotelnik (31-2-1), Salita (30-0-1), Malignaggi (27-3), Maidana (29-1), McCloskey (22-0) and Judah (41-6) in a bit of 8-ball pool.
Roach’s 1982 tormentor on a split decision (or UD depending on the source) was Pawtucket, Rhode Island resident, Rafael Lopez. Nearly thirty years later via his proxy, Khan he was ‘defeated’ again (SD) – Washington man, Lamont Peterson (29-1-1) the fortunate recipient of dubious refereeing by Virginia’s Joseph Cooper and glad eyed judging from Philadelphia’s George Hill and North Carolina’s Valerie Dorsett.
If history is anything to go by, Khan has two more wins in him before a Louis Burke blocks his path. He once claimed to love the smell of blood and sweat. Whether that applies to his own is doubtful.
Misadventure has tailed him in the manner of Prescott (Sept. 2008) and Garcia (July 2012); Garcia’s signature left hook having more lather than the political creed of Tony Blair and Francois Mitterrand.
In and around this time, growing into his mid-twenties, he has polished off the doleful and enervated Malignaggi (May 2010), got lucky against Maidana (Dec 2010) – running away in the last three rounds (Glenn Trowbridge calling it correctly at 113-112 nonetheless) – and staggered to victory over Julio Diaz (40-7-1 Apr 2013).
His performance versus Carlos Molina (Dec. 2012) was an encouraging show – the words of new trainer Virgil Hunter guiding him. But the gaps between fights have become too large. He is, in part, now an unknown finding a new style in his twilight years. He has never struck me as needing an apoplectic trainer of the other Hunter variety (Barry), yet perhaps those words from the opposite corner two days after his 25th birthday (Dec. 2011) are needed now:
“He’s just a man. He’s not a fighter. You understand? This is **! This is your home!….We worked too hard, son. We’ve come a long ass way to get here and not put mass on the game. Tomorrow we are hurt. Tomorrow we are pain. But right now ain’t none of that. Let’s go to work…This is **, man. There’ll be no partying on our floor tonight. How bad do you want this, man? How bad do you want this, son?”
Lamont Peterson’s possibly drug-induced ‘win’ was Khan’s blip. Danny Garcia’s ascent was Khan’s fall. Now, it is Luis Collazo (35-5) and Khan’s chance to get up – at least onto one knee from where he can realistically survey the welterweight division.
Collazo, the Brooklyn southpaw is most surely a step down from both Maidana and Garcia. He is a low-level, prosaic fighter . If this rendezvous is not a formality for Khan, then he needs to gracefully retire, learn about the masters that came before him, jockey a different world hopefully not full of weasels like Hawkins.
There just remain the questions over who to fight, how to fight and why to fight if he returns from the MGM Grand on May 3, 2014 with a fragment of restored kudos.
Khan needs Keith Thurman, Devon Alexander, Adrien Broner or even Timothy Bradley. Victory over any one of these will save the flickering candle that is his career.
The much underused hooks to the body are an essential part of Khan’s raids and incursions. If he can somehow replicate his first round demolition of Maidana and sustain it in waves then he may well finally ripen as a fighter.
Khan may not know about 1889 when Bolton was granted County Borough status, independent of Lancashire or 1974 when such independence was abolished and Bolton became part of the new county, Greater Manchester. Forty years on the locals still refuse to write ‘Greater Manchester’ on their postal envelopes – preferring instead the de facto grandness of ‘Lancashire.’
If Khan can for a second imagine the importance of this and throw each punch as if he is defending the old county lines, then Bolton may once more become a town much talked about – not simply full of comedians.