The Times September 23, 2006
Boxing: Bolton wanderer on pilgrimage from Mecca to Muhammad
By Matthew Syed
Our correspondent finds precociousness without pretence in Amir Khan as the teenager looks ahead to his meeting with Muhammad Ali
AMIR KHAN will fly to Louisville, Kentucky, tomorrow for a meeting with Muhammad Ali that will be rich in sporting and political symbolism.
Ali: the former heavyweight champion of the world, who sought to strike fear into the heart of the conservative establishment with his radical brand of Islam. Khan: a similarly quick-talking pugilist who finds himself with the very different role of reassuring an apprehensive nation with his more conciliatory interpretation of the Koran.
The similarities and contrasts between the two men are almost endless, making for a kind of patchwork tapestry of the sporting and religious upheavals of the past four decades. Ali: a draft-dodging anti-patriot whose legitimate outrage at the racist orthodoxy of 1960s America caused him to toss his Olympic gold medal into a river. Khan: a proud Englishman who draped himself in the Union Jack after winning silver at the Athens Games and who has come to symbolise modern British multiculturalism.
Surprisingly, the 19-year-old from Bolton is unfazed by his sporting career taking on a wider significance. “I think it is great that people see me as a role model for how people from different religions can live together in harmony,” he said when we met in a hotel near the Reebok Stadium, home of Bolton Wanderers, his brown eyes bulging with earnestness. “I just can’t understand those people who think that Islam is about blowing up their fellow countrymen.”
Khan’s outspokenness on sensitive political issues — which was unexpected — is evocative of the young Ali. “The suicide bombers are completely bonkers because Islam is a peace-loving religion,” Khan said. “I am a strong believer in the teachings of the Holy Book, but I don’t mind if others take a different view. They can think what they like and I can do the same. That does not mean that we need to have a fight about it.”
It is one of the ironies of modern society that superstars wield an influence well beyond their area of celebrity. Ali, for example, became a pivotal figure in the civil rights and anti-Vietnam movements largely by virtue of his status as heavyweight champion of the world.
But Khan — like Ali before him — is oblivious to the paradox because he regards his sporting talents as part of a larger, divine plan. “God gave me the ability to box so that I could become an icon for the Muslim people,” he said. “Whatever I do, people copy me and try to follow in my footsteps, which means that I have a lot of responsibilities.
“I do not want people to read the wrong headlines about me. God is guiding my boxing career for a reason.”
This belief in providence — something central to the youngster’s worldview — provides Khan with supreme confidence within the brutal confines of the ring. When, for example, I asked whether he ever doubts his ability to triumph, he replied: “No, because God is on my side when I fight.”
As Ali would doubtless concur, no sports psychologist could teach such palpable self-certainty.
The forthcoming meeting with Ali could hardly be more timely. Khan has just returned from a 14-day pilgrimage to Mecca, something that will form a significant strand of the conversation with a man whose theology may have evolved since he was first captivated by the teachings of Malcolm X, but whose faith has never wavered.
“I am really looking forward to talking to Ali about my trip to Saudi Arabia,” Khan said. “It was an amazing experience that has brought me much closer to God.”
Khan’s breezy self-assurance could easily be mistaken for arrogance were it not for his considerable charm. He bounded into the room without any hint of affectation, his eyes lighting up as we engaged in banter about everything from Tupac Shakur (the late rapper admired by Khan) to the relative talents of Sugar Ray Leonard and Thomas Hearns.
The only unnerving aspect of the conversation was Khan’s unconscious tendency to shift from archetypal Bolton teenager to self-proclaimed superstar and back again. In one breath, for example, he talked about his fondness for Coronation Street, in the next he had moved on to his belief that he will soon be regarded as “a legend”. His sense of destiny is so ingrained that he is blissfully unaware that it can sound incongruous.
Whereas Ali was famously unable to resist the charms of the opposite sex, Khan claimed that he will save himself until he gets married. “I have had the best-looking birds come up to me, but I turn them all away. My mates say, ‘What are you doing?’ But I don’t need it, man. I’ve got all that stuff coming up, but I am only 19. What’s the point of doing it now? I’ll get bored of it by the time I am 30.”
I disputed this last assertion, but Khan dismissed it with a wave of the hand. “I will wait until I am 25 or 26 and then get married,” he said, with such conviction that I dared not suggest that love is rarely so predictable. “It will probably be an arranged marriage, but not in the way that you might think. My parents will pick someone out for me, but they would not want me to marry someone I was uncomfortable with. Until that time I will continue to live at home.”
This involves doing the chores and enduring the occasional gentle cuff around the ear if he misbehaves. “Sometimes I get into a fight with Haroon [his younger brother, a talented amateur, who is widely tipped to become as accomplished a boxer as Amir] and my Mum will lose her temper,” he said. “But I like it at home. It gives me a chance to chill out and it means I do not have to worry about bills and stuff. Besides, I can’t iron.”
The crucial question yet to be answered about Khan’s boxing development is whether he can take a punch. To judge from his early bouts, the signs are good, but it is impossible to know for sure until he finds himself in a war. Durability is the one attribute common to all great boxers, although no one had it in greater abundance than Ali, who took on, and conquered, some of the hardest-hitting heavyweights in history.
Some will argue that it is premature to compare an inexperienced teenager with the greatest sportsman who has lived — and, in a sense, they are right. But I defy anyone to spend a few hours in the company of the Bolton youngster, observing at close quarters his brazen self-confidence, natural talent and sense of religious destiny, without it evoking memories of a callow teenager who burst forth from Louisville and shook up the world.
AMIR KHAN IN HIS OWN WORDS
...on going to Mecca
GOING to Mecca was magic. I had been going to a mosque in Bolton since I was 6 or 7, but my attitude changed when I got out to Saudi Arabia and saw all of those mosques and the thousands of people going to prayer. It was all so big and so holy. It is hard to explain in words, but it strengthened my outlook.
When you are at the mosque in Mecca, your mind forgets about everything back home and just focuses on the single purpose of learning more about God and the Koran. You don’t think about friends or family at all. It’s like you have a special connection with God.
Everything revolves around prayer. Five times a day everyone is walking in the same direction towards the mosques. It is just amazing to see so many people with the same devotion. The shops are left open — that is how much trust people have for each other over there. There is no stealing or nothing. Then after prayer people go back home and get on with normal life.
But even when I was not praying I spent a lot of extra time in the mosque, getting to grips with the Koran. It is a big book — probably around 700 pages — and it took me over 3½ years to read when I was back home. But out there I managed to read it from cover to cover in Arabic in just ten days. I learnt tons of new things about Islam. I also had my head shaved, as is the custom.
A lot of people come back from Saudi Arabia and forget about what they have learnt, but that will not happen to me. I am a guy who is dedicated when I want to achieve something. It’s like wanting to be world champion. When my mates go out on Saturday night I stay home because I have my training to do in the morning. Now I am going to have the same focus when it comes to Islam.
Spending time in Saudi Arabia made me realise how easy I have had everything despite the fact that I have not been praying as much as I should have. There are so many people around the world who have not got what I have, but they still pray. The least I can do is pray five times a day. God has been so good to me. Everything that I have wished for, I have been given.
...on Muhammad Ali
MUHAMMAD ALI has always been my hero. Nobody has done more for the sport or done more outside the sport. I have a poster hanging on my bedroom wall with Ali looking down at Sonny Liston on the canvas, beckoning him to get up. It has given me inspiration for years.
I watched the “Rumble in the Jungle” on video recently and it was amazing how Ali adapted so fast to the conditions. After the first few rounds it did not look possible that he could win.
George Foreman had been knocking everyone out and was incredibly powerful. But Ali found a way to win by leaning on the ropes and taking shots to the body to wear his opponent out. He had incredible boxing intelligence.
...on Amir Khan
WHEN I was as young as 10, I would tell people that I would win an Olympic medal and go on to become world champion, but they would laugh and think that I was crazy.
But I always knew that it would happen because I am the best around. Who else has achieved what I have at such a young age? I am certain that I will become world champion before the age of 21, but I do not want it to stop there. I want to win world titles at four different weights. That might involve going down to super-featherweight to win my first world title before coming back up to lightweight.
I have spent a lot of time watching videos of the great fighters of the past, like Sugar Ray Leonard, Thomas Hearns and Roberto Duran, and I want to become a legend like them. I know I can do it. I have never doubted my abilities, not even when I was just a kid competing against grown men at the Olympic Games in Athens. Look what I did to Mario Kindelán [to whom Khan lost in the Olympic final] in the rematch and this is someone who destroyed fighters like Félix Trinidad when they fought in the amateur ranks.
My commitment and focus is incredibly strong and I don’t allow anything to distract me. Even when I was just a kid I would go out running on my own. I often make myself train so hard that it hurts — that way I know that I have been really pushing myself.
So long as I prepare properly and maintain my focus, I do not believe there is anyone out there who can touch me.