FOR those who still see the 17-year-old in Amir Khan’s face, his recent decision to retire from boxing will come as a pinch-me moment and perhaps even be a little hard to believe. Yet for those who see the 27 years of competition in Amir Khan’s legs, the decision will be viewed the way his combinations were in his fighting prime: well-picked and perfectly timed.
No longer 17, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, Khan is now 35, with 40 professional fights to his name and nothing left to prove. He has, through the course of those 40 pro fights, managed to win titles at lightweight and super-lightweight and, more importantly, become the poster child for rebounding from adversity.
We have, with Khan, seen it all; every success and every failure. We have seen it all because Khan has lived his entire adult life in public, having become a household name when only a teenager.
Back then, Khan, as Great Britain’s sole boxing representative at the 2004 Olympic Games, was unwittingly entering the world of celebrity, a world he still frequents, and would fall prey to its rules. At 17, he was, when winning Olympic silver, a national hero. Then, by the age of 21, when knocked out by Breidis Prescott in 54 seconds, he was a national disaster.
Such was his career path, we saw the boy from Bolton grow up and, inevitably, mess up, and never was he protected from the inevitable. Like any human, Khan was full of mistakes, both inside and outside the ring, but rarely have a man’s mistakes been as harshly scrutinised or judged.
In his 13th pro fight, he beat Willie Limond to win the Commonwealth lightweight title, but found himself knocked down in the process, a cause for alarm in the opinion of some. This scepticism increased when he had difficulty getting past Michael Gomez five fights later before it was considered prophetic when Prescott handed Khan his first loss in the fight after that.
A seminal moment, Khan lasted just 54 seconds that night and exhibited all the flaws many were saying would prevent him ever fulfilling his potential. Some called him fragile. Others called him ignorant. Yet, crucially, what Khan also showed against Prescott was one attribute invaluable for any fighter with aspirations of winning a world title: heart. He showed heart to trade with the Colombian when badly hurt and he showed heart to try rising from the final knockdown when his legs, and those around the ring, thought better of it. It was Khan’s heart that helped get past that defeat, a career-ender for lesser men. Moreover, it was his heart most will remember him for.
The following year, just 10 months after losing against Prescott, Khan outpointed Andriy Kotelnik and took the Ukrainian’s WBA super-lightweight title, a belt Khan would go on to defend five times. Quite the run, among those defences were stoppages of Americans Paulie Malignaggi and Zab Judah, from whom he also took the IBF title, and a bona fide classic against Marcos Maidana in 2010.
Indeed, if a single fight encapsulated what made Khan such a compelling fighter it was that night in Las Vegas when, having dropped Maidana with a body shot in the opener, Khan, unable to finish, obliged Maidana’s desire to have an all-out war for 12 rounds. At times, this seemed foolish, if not downright crazy. But never did he doubt himself and never was it boring.
That was just typical of Khan. Historically, a Khan fight possessed all the peril of a game of Jenga on a plane, and even in fights you expected him to win, or fights he was winning, it was impossible to back him with any real conviction. He simply liked fighting too much and had too much pride to box sensibly or cruise to a decision.
This did of course backfire on occasion, most notably against Danny Garcia, with whom Khan traded viciously in 2012 before being dispatched in four rounds. It also misled Khan in his hare-brained jump to middleweight in 2016 when, despite moving intelligently for five and a half rounds, he was eventually left unconscious by a Saúl ‘Canelo’ Álvarez right hand in the sixth.
Again, though, that was Khan, 34-6 (21), in a nutshell: fearless, daring, forever riding that fine line between genius and crazy. With Álvarez, alas, he got it wrong, and to a frankly worrying degree, but most nights Amir found the right balance, particularly when, before that, gliding to excellent wins against the likes of Devon Alexander and Luis Collazo.
On reflection, those were probably the last examples of Khan at his best. For if not obvious at the time, it’s clear now something deserted him after succumbing to Álvarez. Maybe his fearlessness. Maybe his drive. Or maybe his love for the sport was on the wane.
Whatever it was, the final stretch of Khan’s career saw wins over men not in his league and then two defeats, the first against a man too good in Terence Crawford, and the second against a man he should have fought years earlier in Kell Brook.
Sure enough, his career would end in defeat, yet, in keeping with tradition, Khan’s performance against Brook in February remained impressively on-brand, with him refusing to surrender even when it dawned on him, probably early, that his time was up.
And now it is, officially. Now we can say, with his final fight in the books, there was arguably no more exciting British boxer than Amir Khan during his era. And if anyone wants to argue that, we can say with far greater certainty that there was no more influential British boxer during his era, a fact highlighted by the wave of British Muslims currently thriving in the sport, all of whom, without exception, namecheck Amir Khan as both trailblazer and inspiration.