It was the summer of 2004 and the GB amateur boxing team was in Athens with its sole participant for the Olympic Games, Amir Khan. Khan was a phenom. Born in Bolton, into a Punjabi Rajputs family, he had started fighting competitively at eleven years of age. In his junior amateur days, he had won English school and junior AIBA titles, and in 2003 won gold at the Junior Olympics in Detroit, Michigan. By the time the Athens games rolled around, he was firmly positioned to explode into the senior amateur ranks and the national consciousness.
Khan captured the imagination of Great Britain and the wider world during those games as he demonstrated his blazing hand speed on route to an Olympic final against Cuban great Mario Kindelán at just seventeen. Although Khan lost the fight, his unique blend of youth, charisma, good looks and fan friendly fighting style had promoters on both sides of the Atlantic salivating at the prospect of adding him to their professional stables. Khan didn’t turn pro immediately and instead, returned home and setup a rematch with Kindelán at the Reebok Stadium, the home ground of his beloved Bolton Wanderers. Khan won and soon after signed with Frank Warren, who was then Britain’s premier boxing promoter. A lucrative sponsorship deal was agreed with Reebok and broadcasting rights of his fights were secured by ITV. Oliver Harrison was employed as his coach and the first phase of Khan’s professional career kicked into gear.
Khan won his first seventeen fights, 13 of them within the distance, before parting ways with Harrison. Khan and his management team felt it important to bring in a more experienced coach who could better prepare him for a world title shot, which was believed to be only around the corner. After dismantling Michael Gomez in his 18th pro fight to retain his Lightweight Commonwealth Title, Khan joined forces with Cuban trainer Jorge Rubio for his September 2008 fight against Breidis Prescott. Prescott was seen as a significant jump in terms of quality of opponent for Khan, as he was an undefeated fighter himself, who was known for his heavy hands. For all Khan’s dazzling speed and movement, signs of a less than stellar chin had been visible in his early professional career. Nevertheless Khan entered the fight at the MEN Arena in Manchester as the favorite, with the expectation being that once Prescott had been dispatched, Khan, Warren and Rubio would move onto the world title fight they had been working toward.
Unfortunately for Khan, his team and supporters, the fight proved to be an unmitigated disaster, with Khan being knocked down three times on route to a first round stoppage. In the immediate aftermath, it was clear for all to see that Khan had being undone by his suspect chin, overconfidence and lack of a plan b in the face of the oncoming barrage. Warren quickly moved to resurrect his prized prospect and quickly dispatched Rubio, enlisting the services of renowned American trainer Freddie Roach. Knowing their fighter’s limitations, Roach and Warren expertly positioned Khan for his first world title shot within two fights of the Prescott loss. Khan made quick work of over-matched Irish fighter Oisin Fagan in his comeback fight before beating a faded and shot Marco Antonio Barrera in March 2009, back at the scene of the Prescott fight, the MEN Arena. Khan then produced a superb performance to beat Andreas Kotelnik by unanimous decision for the WBA Light-Welterweight Title. Less than a year after suffering the first defeat of his career and being written off by many pundits as an over-hyped prospect not suited to the rigors of the pro game, Khan had become a champion and reminded everyone of the vast potential he had showcased in Athens. It seemed as though the boxing world was witnessing the birth of its next star and Britain seemed to have a champion fighter who could raise the profile of the sport across the Home Nations.
In order to avoid Khan being thrown in against heavy hitters, Roach who had now become central to his pupil’s matchmaking, selected Dmitry Salita, a highly ranked fighter by the WBA, who in actual terms was a number of levels below world championship material. Khan easily dispatched Salita by first round KO and soon after bolted from Frank Warren’s management for the warm embrace of Golden Boy Promotions, led by former fighter Oscar De La Hoya. Khan believed that Golden Boy held the key to making him a star Stateside and with major American promotional backing behind him, made his US debut at Madison Square Garden against Paulie Malignaggi. Khan put on an offensive clinic, and the feather-fisted Malignaggi, once a heralded contender himself was saved by the mercy of the referee in the eleventh round. Khan was now firmly on the global boxing map and would next fight the fearsome Argentinian fighter, Marcos Maidana. Maidana himself had lost to previous Khan victim Kotelnik, however had since recovered to become the WBA Light-Welterweight Interim Champion and number one contender for Khan’s belt. He was a ferocious puncher who had won twenty-eight of his twenty-nine victories inside the distance. It was a huge risk for Khan, Roach and Golden Boy to place their rising star into a match against a fighter who could so clearly attack Khan’s greatest weakness, his chin. Concerns grew after the fight was announced over the similarities between Maidana’s punching power and Khan’s former opponent, Breidis Prescott.
Roach with the aid of his then strength and conditioning assistant Alex Ariza, set about preparing Khan for the battle at their famed Wildcard Gym in Hollywood, California. The fight was Khan’s Las Vegas debut and on the 11th of December 2010, he delivered what many still consider to be his greatest performance, defeating Maidana by unanimous decision. Khan’s use of speed, precision punching and heart announced his progression from emerging star to pound-for-pound contender. At that moment, the future possibilities seemed endless. Would Khan emerge as the heir to global superstar Floyd Mayweather’s throne and cement himself as an all-time great? Could he clear out the light-welterweight division before moving up in search of ‘money fights’ and increased exposure?
In truth, Khan’s career arc has been a slow burning disappointment ever since. After Maidana, Khan beat domestic rival Paul McCloskey in controversial circumstances in his homecoming fight before unifying half of the light-welterweight division by stopping an ageing Zab Judah back in Vegas. He then lost in controversial circumstances to Lamont Peterson, who subsequently failed a drug test, before being knocked out by Danny Garcia in his attempts to cement himself as the ruler of the division. Many of the cracks that appeared against Prescott began to manifest again, particularly against Garcia. Khan was brutally knocked out in the fourth round and demanded talks with Roach and Golden Boy. He wanted things to change, he was concerned at the amount of time Roach was giving to his other star fighter, Manny Pacquiao and wanted Roach to switch focus onto him and in particular his defensive development. The assurances that Khan wanted could not be delivered and so just like Harrison and Rubio before him, Roach was discarded for highly regarded and defensively orientated trainer Virgil Hunter.
Paired with Hunter, Khan went on a 5 – 0 run which saw him take on aging fighters, none of whom were at that stage world championship level. He also moved up to welterweight, as the demands of boiling down to one-hundred and forty pounds began to become too much to bear. Long periods of inactivity began to become commonplace and Hunter often wondered aloud how dangerous a fighter Khan could become if he only dedicated himself more fully to his craft. Before fighting Chris Algieri in May 2015, Khan left Golden Boy to sign up with advisor Al Haymon. Khan believed that Haymon was the man best positioned to secure Khan legacy defining and financially lucrative fights against the biggest names in the sport. In the two years since, Khan has fought once, at middleweight against Mexican superstar Canelo Alvarez, losing by a brutal sixth round knockout. Personal family disputes have become tabloid news and the promise of Britain’s once Olympic boxing phenom has all but died.
Khan has made good money from the sport, been a world champion and a known quantity on both sides of the Atlantic, his faculties are still intact and he is a relatively young man with many other business interests to sustain himself beyond his boxing career. He has a wife and kids and seems to have positioned himself to become part of the Sky Sports boxing broadcast team on a more permanent basis going into the future, however it is difficult to look at his career’s body of work and be anywhere near satisfied. He had all the capabilities to become, like Anthony Joshua now, a crossover athlete who would be remembered as one of the all-time greats of British boxing. Instead as he chases after unrealistic fights and prepares himself for the inevitable and underwhelming match-up against fellow fading star Kell Brook, it is worth remembering a time when Amir Khan was the man who we all thought would become king.