Amir Khan: Britain’s Muslim king of the ring

Amir Khan is a boxing superstar, fighting his way to the ultimate crown while combatting child cruelty and Islamophobia.

Amir Khan boxing
Amir Khan (L) and Zab Judah ahead of the Super Lightweight World Championship Unification match [GALLO/GETTY]

When you get stars from two of the biggest football clubs in the English Premier League in one room, attention usually gravitates towards them. But in Hollywoods’ historic Wild Card Boxing Club, Chelsea’s Ashley Cole and Manchester City’s Shaun Wright-Phillips played the googly eyed spectators in front of fellow Englishman, Amir Khan.

Cole and Phillips, who stand up to the best footballers in the world on a weekly basis, stared in awe as Khan berated a speed bag with such power, control and precision that only the boom of the bag hitting the wood base proved that the bag was even moving. Once Khan finished the five minute drill, Cole, Phillips and an entourage of five Pakistani-American men snapped out of their hypnosis, looked at each other and exchanged amazed smiles like moviegoers in moment of theatrical genius.

They were witnessing firsthand the speed and skill that have drawn comparison to the talents of Manny Pacquiao. In fact, the legendary Freddie Roach, who coincidentally trains both fighters, has said that Khan is the only fighter he has seen who can keep up with the Philippine sensation.

Khan (25-1, 17 KO), who next takes on Zab Judah in a unification title fight at the super lightweight level at Mandalay Bay on Saturday night, is the sports next superstar.

‘Anytime you have vocal Muslim athletes it raises the issue of fighting Islamophobia in the best possible way because all these “isms” – sexism, racism, etc – are rooted in ignorance. Anytime you have someone who is public with whatever is stigmatised, it forces people to confront their bigotry.’

Dave Zirin, political sports writer

Many talented and successful boxers come and go, but only a few carry the masses with them. Boxers are notorious for being outspoken and proud of their roots. However, no one since Muhammad Ali has made a global, political, and cultural impact that challenges and shakes us to our senses. “King” Khan, a self-identified British-Pakistani Muslim boxer, already has one Western nation in love with him, and he’s now flirting with the rest.

Britain fell in love with Khan in Athens, Greece, in 2004. At the age of 17, he won the silver Olympic medal as the country’s sole boxing representative. The whole nation watched, as he became the youngest British boxing medalist in history. At a time when Muslims only made the news when explosions and radicalisation were involved, England got a new perspective when it saw one of “them” winning for “us”.

Recognising the divide and misunderstandings floating around in societal politics, Khan took it upon himself to become a figure of unity.

The Muslim community got a prominent positive voice, a sports hero, and someone who could show that being Muslim and being British were compatible.

“Anytime you have vocal Muslim athletes it raises the issue of fighting Islamophobia in the best possible way because all these “isms” – sexism, racism, et cetera – are rooted in ignorance. Anytime you have someone who is public with whatever is stigmatised, it forces people to confront their bigotry,” said Dave Zirin, a heralded political sports writer for The Nation Magazine and author of several books including “Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics, and Promise of Sport.”

“What’s unique about [Khan] is the angle at which he is coming from. Muslims athletes such as Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Mahmoud Abdur Rauf had to confront certain realities that forced them to speak. Amir is somebody who has decided early on that he doesn’t want to wait for the weight to fall on him. He is ready to say something now and start to define his faith before somebody does it for him. That’s what the great political athletes have in common; they are not reactive. They are active.”

He doesn’t consider himself a perfect Muslim or some authority on Islam. But he is passionate about the fact that Muslims have been misunderstood, and he is going to use his fame as an opportunity to dispel those falsities.

“I want to point my finger straight at people and tell them that there are only very few Muslims who are bad; the rest are very, very good. I want to send that message across the world. I want young Muslims to follow in my footsteps,” said Khan.

Khan says he wants to be ‘the people’s champion’ [GALLO/GETTY]

It is ironic that a man who is so talented at such a violent sport is so adamant about stressing the importance of peace in his religion. However, it is his charisma and charm that has made him the perfect messenger. His appeal spans all ages, backgrounds and socioeconomic groups. He mingles with celebrities as well as he does with the children for whom he built a boxing gym in his hometown of Bolton – where he charges a meagre fee of one pound for annual membership. Better yet, he trains there himself.

He is an avid tweeter, with more than 200,000 followers, and has a multi-million dollar endorsement deal from Reebok. He is an avid Bolton Wanderers fan and is the youngest ambassador for the NSPCC, an anti-child cruelty charity. He is the British-Pakistani Oscar De La Hoya, which is most likely the reason why Golden Boy Promotions signed him and brought him to the US.

“I want to be the people’s champion,” says Khan.

He credits his family for his success. Coming from a Pakistani culture where education is stressed and sports are an afterthought, Khan was lucky to have parents who were accepting of his dream – which is especially rare for immigrant parents who move to the West. 

“It’s important to get an education to make your life easier down the line. But at the same time to let the kids do what they are good at, and what they want to do,’ said Shah Khan, Amir’s father who worked in the motor industry. “Be there for them. I was there for Amir from a very young age. I never thought he would be where he is today at that young age, but I wanted to be there for him for what he wanted to do. He proved that because he has the family support he has everything now.”

Khan has set his sights on following the boxing greats’ footsteps and becoming the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world. With a win against the tricky veteran Judah on Saturday night, Khan plans to move up a weight class and taking on Floyd Mayweather Jr to become the king with the ultimate crown. He recognises that boxing is what put him in the position he is in today, and that winning will only help further his causes.

“There are very few people out there who are like Muhammad Ali and I think Manny Pacquiao is like him with regards to what he has done for his people. I’d like to be on the same page with those guys at the end of the day.” Khan said.

“When people talk down the road I want my name to be up there as well.”

Umar Hussain is a California-based sports journalist who will be live Tweeting throughout tonight’s bout. Follow his updates online: @umarhussain36

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.