by Garry Cook (published in Lancashire Today magazine, 2004)
Bad news for Amir Kahn’s opponents. He’s started weight training. To make himself stronger. It’s not enough that the 17-year-old is already battering opponents twice his age with raw power married to lightening speed. He says he wants to improve his strength to stop getting bullied in the ring by the seniors – but he adds that it hasn’t actually happened yet. They can’t get near him, that’s why.
Young Bolton boxer Khan is the most exciting fighter to emerge from a British boxing ring. Ever. He is so good he has scared the UK selectors into picking him for this summer’s Olympics in Athens. Despite being too young to fight senior matches in Britain, he is the first home country fighter to qualify for the Olympics after some sensational boxing abroad.
For safety reasons, Britain has a minimum age of 18 for senior boxing. But not so abroad, hence Khan was reluctantly allowed to take part in Olympic qualifying events.
With Pakistan, and even America, desperate to have Khan fight under their flag, the Amateur Boxing Association faced a stark choice of picking the kid, or losing him to another nation. They wanted to make him wait four years. In the end they had no choice. Boxing is a sport over-flowing with politics to its detriment, and Khan played his cards perfectly to win himself a dream trip to the Olympics.
That’s not to say that there wasn’t work to do in order to qualify. His target was to get to the semi-finals of the Strandja Cup in Bulgaria in April and gain automatic qualification to Athens. The big problem was Georgian fighter Avtandil Kashia who he was drawn against in the opening bout. Kashia had beaten Khan in a disputed 29-20 points victory in the European Championships in Pula, Croatia, a month earlier.
Privately, Khan and coach Mike Jelley believe there were political reasons why he was not awarded a win for that fight. But this time in Bulgaria there were no such problems. A convincing 40-18 victory set Khan on his way to Olympic qualification. He won the tournament to boot. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he was named best technical boxer. It should be underlined that he faced hardened fighters, men twice his age – Europe’s best fighters, some world-rated.
It was in January when jaws started dropping. Khan travelled to his first senior competition, the Adidas Box Gala in Germany. There, German champion Enrico Wagner and World Championships bronze medallist Martin Dressen were bish-bash-boshed out of the competition.
“I was a bit nervous,” recalls Khan of his first senior match, “but I boxed three times in Germany and I was the only lad to win three fights on the trot.
“I enter every fight with confidence, never think I’m going to lose it. When I go in the ring I feel dead strong. I have that self-esteem that I can do it when I go in there. My footwork is too quick for them, my speed, strength, it just happens. It all works for me when I’m in the ring. Now I’m a senior the technique has to be correct for me.”
“I got that extra confidence after I won. I realised I could do it against the seniors just like I could do it at junior level. People, I think, didn’t want me to go to the seniors too early because I was 17 and they thought I might not be mature enough, or strong enough or not good enough. Once I went to Germany and I proved them wrong, a lot of people thought, yeah, I can do it.”
It is worth pointing out that Khan, compared to both Naseem Hamed and his hero Muhammad Ali, is no Big Time Charlie.
There is no Prince Naz flash with him. He is as pleasant a young men as you could meet. He talks about maturing in boxing terms; socially he’s there already. His one concession, though, is that “I’m very good on my footwork and I’m fast but I can be a bit flashy sometimes.”
Last year, Khan took gold at the European Cadets and European Student Championships. He won the Junior ABAs (Class 5) and the International Junior Olympics. If his dad Shajaad wasn’t busy watching every fight, he’d be spending all his time building trophy cabinets.
Khan stared off boxing at a club near his home in Heaton because “I was a bit hyper- active’. He moved on to Bolton Lads Club and then, aged 12, Bury Boxing Club at the Seedfield Centre, linking up with coach Jelley. One or two locals, like David McDonald, had begun to notice his talent at Bolton and were blunt in telling the Khan family that Jelley was the only man who Khan-do. They weren’t wrong.
Jelley looks like a throwback to the seventies, all moustache and retro tracksuit. But he is an incredibly hard-working coach and mentor who has done it for Khan. And, frighteningly, there is another. Twelve-year-old brother Haroon has made a similar splash in the sport as his brother did at the same age.
Dad Shajaad, who will be in Greece with his two brothers, son Haroon and daughter Tabinda, said: “Mick’s been great with him.
He’s been to virtually every fight. The fight in Croatia when he didn’t get through, Mick wasn’t there. The next qualifiers in Bulgaria, Mick was there and he talked to him until he was going into the ring, telling him what to do. All his coaches, when they tell him what to do, he takes it all in.”
Jelley, whose father Joe founded Bury’s Boxing Club 69 years ago, agrees: “Yes, all the way down the line he does what he’s told. I told his dad three years ago he would be a world champion in ten years. He does as his told and he’s not afraid. He wants to be world champion. His strength is that he says he’s going get there.”
He adds: “He stands a reasonable chance of getting a medal. It all depends on the draw and the five judges say round that ring.
He’ll be walking out on that pitch with his shirt and tie on feeling a million dollars – that’s the first gold medal. The next aim is to get him on that podium. Let’s hope he can get there. It’ll shock a lot of people.”
Khan says of Jelley: “He has helped me a lot. Given me extra skills, confidence. He motivates me before I go into a fight. He gives me tactics before I go in the ring, which I always listen to.”
Studying a sports development diploma at Bolton College has made Khan aware of the science and ethics of the sport, too. “I have learned what muscles you use in sports,” he says. “In boxing, it helps me a lot, because I know what muscles I am using in the ring and how I should build them.”
He adds: “There is art in boxing. There is a lot of technique in boxing and people don’t see that, people just think we are hitting each other. The opponent is going to come to me – you must show how much you want to win the competition. That guy is going to want to win the match as much as you. It’s just an automatic reaction. I just switch on and do the job.”
“Europe is the hardest route to qualify for the Olympics in the world. If I’d gone to Pakistan it would have been a lot easier to qualify there. Asia is not as strong as Europe. In Europe you’ve got the Russia states which is divided into so many countries which makes it hard. It was just representing the country. I’ve gone to school in England, I live in England, I was born In England. My main priority is to represent my country.”
But for the elder Khan, the next step is the Olympics.
Preparations are already underway. And what of the pressure? “I ain’t really bothered. The pressure was mainly on me before when I had to qualify for the Olympics because people had high hopes for me to go to the Olympics but now I have made it, it has taken the pressure off me. That was my main aim.”
Khan’s career plan was only ever to make the 2008 Olympics and despite the pace of his current progress, he could still travel to Beijing rather than turn professional.
He said: “I don’t want to turn professional at a young age. I want to be a lot maturer when I turn professional because it might just wear me out or do me in if I go in early. I will be twenty-one in 2008. I still won’t be that old. If I get the chance to go to the Olympics again, I will take that chance.”
It is almost too much to ask for Khan to bring back gold. It shouldn’t happen, should it? Not in a million years. But it could.