Interview with Amir Khan, by Sean Nam. See more Hannibal Boxing interviews >>
Amir Khan was in a funk. Months had gone by since he faced a game but limited Samuel Vargas in September, and now the time had come to contemplate his next move. But he found it hard to think about his future when there was that nagging sensation again in the pit of his stomach. Khan had defeated Vargas, of course, by a wide, if pedestrian, decision. It irked him, however, to discover that all anyone cared to talk about after the fight were his foibles: knocked down in the second round by a right hand, Khan absorbed another right in the tenth that sent him into a spasm. The Vargas fight was in some ways reminiscent of the Julio Diaz fight in 2013, in which Khan was decked early on and eked out a split decision. Khan beat Vargas, yes, but the story was once again about his erratic ways.
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The Greeks had a word for such vulnerability: hamartia, or tragic flaw, and Khan’s chin, brittle like newsprint from the nineteenth century, was his. But if it was one thing to get blown out by a bigger (and better) man—Saul Alvarez in 2016—there was at least, the logic went, some sliver of nobility to be gleaned from such brazenness, however misguided. It was a completely different thing altogether to get knocked down and hobbled by a journeyman like Vargas, whom he was favored to beat at odds of 25-1. In short, the Vargas episode was an embarrassment for Khan, a fighter whose pride is not without a certain degree of superciliousness. “At the end of the day, I’m a fighter,” Khan said in a recent phone call, “and it’s hard (to stomach) when people say ‘Oh, you did so bad against Vargas.’”
So, as his promoter Eddie Hearn began setting his sights on making the long overdue domestic dustup between him and Kell Brook, Khan was feeling less keen than ever about that matchup. Although Brook–Khan had been relegated to the backburner for years, it was still a potential gold mine. But privately, Khan was contemptuous of Brook. He was never convinced the Sheffield native was on his level. It was Khan, after all, who had gone overseas and tested himself against better fighters, had been on the glitzier stages, had the bigger name. All Brook did was bring him up in interviews to boost his own flagging status. And if that was not enough, Khan, with the Vargas fight hanging over his head, felt that there was little upside now to fighting Brook, at least not this version, whose face had been broken in recent years. Brook had become passé, like greenbacks or doubloons. “If I go into the Brook fight and I beat Brook, people would’ve said, ‘Oh, but you were the better fighter,’” Khan said. “‘You were supposed to beat him.’” The fact was that Khan missed hearing his name among the top welterweights in the world and getting involved with Brook—the very association was upsetting—at this point in his career seemed like a step backward. “It does put me a little down when I hear Errol Spence, Keith Thurman, Danny Garcia, Shawn Porter, and my name is not mentioned in that as a top-level fighter,” Khan admitted, almost ruefully. “I’m thinking, ‘Wait a minute.’”
Then one day, as he was mulling his options, a downcast Khan got a call from Billy Keane.
Keane was an old friend from Khan’s Wild Card days when he trained with Freddie Roach. A Hollywood careerist who acted in bit television roles over the years, Keane had made some inroads in the barrier-less world of boxing. He helped negotiate fights for Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. and most recently was caught trying to lure super-middleweight David Benavidez away from his promoter Sampson Lewkcowicz over to Top Rank. Keane, in other words, was your typical boxing middleman.
Keane called to commiserate. “‘I know exactly how you feel,’” Khan recalled Keane telling him. “To be up against these ‘Vargases’—for them, it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity. . . . For you, you’re just going in there and you know you’re going to beat Vargas. . . . For you, all it takes is one little slip-up and people are going to start putting you down.” Keane was speaking Khan’s mind.
A few weeks later, Keane called again, this time with a simple question: “Would you ever take a fight against Terence Crawford?”
“In a heartbeat,” Khan replied. Against Crawford, Khan knew he would be the clear underdog and, hence, all the more motivated. Then there was also this psychological safety net: there was no shame to be had in a loss to one of the best fighters in the world.
“Let me see what I can do,” Keane said.
Shortly after that, Keane reeled in Top Rank boss Bob Arum and the parties negotiated. Crawford, for his part, balked at his initial opponent for his next date, Luis Collazo, and was unwilling to sign a contract. Aware that his last two opponents—Jeff Horn and Jose Benavidez—were underwhelming, Crawford wanted someone with more heft and credibility, in name, at least, if not necessarily in talent. Khan fit the bill. Eventually, both sides struck a deal to have Khan face Crawford on April 20 at Madison Square Garden on ESPN PPV.
“I think coming back and having two more or less easy fights—people started thinking that I was trying to make some money and then leave (the sport) but nah, I’m still up there,” Khan said. “I really believe I’m up there as one of the top welterweights of the world, just like I left it after Canelo fight. I want to be back in it, and this is one of what I’m going to do now. This is my big entrance back in. Like, ‘Look, I’m back.’ Especially with all those dreams I had at one time being one day a world champion again.”
With Hearn’s full support, Khan explained that although he knew “Kell Brook would have been an easier fight and a fight with a little bit more money,” he believed the Brook fight would “always be there,” while the Crawford fight was now or never. “I’m beating the gun here to defend my opportunity to fight a world champion,” Khan stated. “Terence Crawford is one of the best fighters in the world, and I want to be in that mix. That’s the reason I took this fight.”
Moreover, Khan, thirty-two, was not so confident that he could put himself through another grueling training camp without an alluring incentive. “At this age, it’s hard to motivate yourself when you’re fighting lower-caliber guys,” Khan said. “You know the Vargases and fighters like that, guys who I’m supposed to go and beat. Vargas came to win that fight. I had nothing to gain from it.”
Yet the reality is that since turning professional in Bolton almost fourteen years ago, Khan still lacks a definitive win against an elite fighter. He has had several good ones, to be sure, against Paulie Malignaggi, Marcos Maidana, Zab Judah, Devon Alexander, to name a few bygone names, but none against truly world-class opposition. Khan thought he would have his chance some five-odd years ago against either Manny Pacquiao or Floyd Mayweather, when he was tailing both with the mindset of a jilted lover. But neither fight materialized, much to Khan’s eternal dismay. “It was very frustrating,” he recalled. “I was in pitching distance for [the Mayweather fight] because I was literally there, and it never happened. Yeah, it did upset me, but it is what it is.”
This is where Khan, the consummate idealist, has always viewed himself, in the ring against the era’s best, even if such self-assurance would often make him an object of ridicule. For some, Khan was a modern-day Lear carping from a lame-duck throne, his outsized aspirations nothing more than delusions of grandeur. But what else, it might be noted, did one expect from a blood-sport participant? “The Crawford fight replaces a lot of fights that didn’t happen for me, be it the Manny Pacquiao, be it the Floyd Mayweather,” Khan continued. “This is the kind of fight that will win me respect and everything I’ve wanted from this sport. Winning it will get me right where I need to be. This is something I gotta prove now to get back to that level again and I thought Crawford is the guy I’m going to hit on—and beat.”
Khan’s ambition, however admirable, does not change the fact that few pundits give him much of a chance of leaving Manhattan on April 20 with a title belt. Crawford is regarded as no worse than the second-best welterweight in the world and who, above all, seems to take particular pleasure in punishing his opponents. The expectation is not so much that Khan will lose, but that he will be mauled. Khan, after all, had been in this position before, against Alvarez, a bold and foolhardy venture precipitated, in part, by having lost out on the Mayweather sweepstakes. Khan was mowed down in the sixth round. Many foresee Crawford delivering a similar ending. To such a dim forecast, Khan replied, “Critics will always say that I’m not good enough, but I am the best fighter (Crawford) has ever faced. I mean what have we seen from him? Most of the guys Crawford has fought are beat now. And he’s coming up to the welterweight division, which is not new to me. There are a few things in his style that I can capitalize on. I don’t think he has ever fought anyone who has fought a style similar to mine, with the speed, the power, the explosiveness. There’s a lot of hype off of the Terence Crawford name. If people break it down, they might realize that I have a big chance.”
Somewhere along the way in his rickety career, Khan went from quick-fisted upstart—the leading light of British boxing—to embattled meme. After the Alvarez boondoggle, Khan was inactive for almost two years, nursing a hand injury. When he returned in tune-ups versus Phil Lo Greco and Vargas, he had accumulated considerable PR baggage, not the least of which included hilarious gaffes involving, in separate instances, Caitlyn Jenner and Anthony Joshua. Nevertheless, Khan always felt that his most impervious quality was his heart. People could jeer at his so-called glass jaw and tear him down for his TMZ blunders all they want, but nobody could, in good faith, question his resolve. In a time in which the sport appears more carved up than colonial Africa at the turn of the twentieth century and its top competitors hopelessly isolated from each other, Khan believes he is, in this regard, unique. “If the fighters have enough balls and say ‘Yeah, we want to fight,’ then the fight will happen, trust me,” Khan stressed. “At the end of the day there are a lot of fighters out there who are hiding behind their promoters and saying that they want to fight this guy, but they don’t actually want to fight him. There are not a lot of fighters like me who would take that big challenge and take that big step.”
Those last words might ring hollow had they been spoken by anyone else, but Khan has the old scars to back them up. “When they mention Amir Khan, I want people to say, ‘Well, he fought numerous world champions and good fighters and he was looked at as one of the top fighters in the world.’ I just want to be remembered for that, really.”
Pragmatism has never been a strong suit of Khan—and unless fate has decided to impose a gentler outcome for the British thrill-seeker, he is in store for a world of hurt on April 20—but only the most miserable schlubs would claim that fighters who play it safe are the reason why we tune into a prizefight.