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The Unsolicited Symbolism of Amir Khan

British, Pakistani, Muslim — how fans from Islamabad to London to New York process the champion boxer.

Since the very beginning of his career, Amir Khan has been more than just a boxer. He has been a symbol — well, more like symbols. One fighter, whose ethnic background, birthplace, and blinding hand speed mean very different things to different groups of fans. Khan himself has little control over how the people watching him choose to interpret his success.

It started early, when Khan was 17 years old and won a silver medal in the 2004 Athens Olympics. He became not only the “pride of Bolton,” his hometown, but also “the great young hope of British Boxing.” Khan decided to turn professional soon after, but days before his debut, the mood around Khan’s celebrity changed. The coordinated bombings on London’s transport system in July 2005 were the largest terrorist attack in British history. Three of the four bombers were, like Khan, of Pakistani origin, and all of them hailed from within a hundred miles of Khan’s home in Northern England. Khan, whose Olympic run established him as the country’s most prominent homegrown Muslim athlete, had no choice but to speak up. “I hope, by stepping into a ring, I can show all young kids in Britain, whether they are white, Muslims, or whatever, that there are better things to do than sitting around on street corners getting into trouble and mixing with bad people.” Ten days after the attacks, Khan proudly held the Union Flag when he walked to the ring. It was embroidered with the word “London” in black ribbons to mourn the victims. Moments after Khan wrapped up a first-round TKO victory, the police issued a red alert for a bomb scare and evacuated the arena.

At the ripe age of 18, Khan was not only a professional fighter, but also an unofficial spokesperson for Muslims and Asians in the U.K. Like it or not, he was a role model for underprivileged children caught at the crossroads of drugs, poverty, and now international terrorism. He also became “the best thing to happen for race relations in Britain.” All this translated into tremendous box office appeal. Before his London debut, for example, Khan visited Brick Lane, a large South Asian neighborhood on London’s East End, to promote the fight. “We brought him to the heart of the Asian community and we hope they will turn out and support him,” promoter Frank Warren said. They did. His next fight, against Belarussian Vitali Martynov, sold 10,000 tickets. It was Khan’s fifth professional fight.

Seven years later, it’s more of the same. Wherever Khan goes, he seems to carry the aspirations and insecurities of fans from all over the world. At the time of his last fight, on December 10, 2011, I was in Pakistan, a few miles away from Khan’s ancestral home, near Rawalpindi. Pakistanis aren’t die-hard boxing fans, but the sport isn’t completely unknown on the national scene. Of the two Olympic medals Pakistan has won in individual events, one is in boxing. Before every Khan fight, highlights from his previous bouts and flashy promos amped with heavy metal soundtracks start running on a loop on Pakistani television. Local governments set up big screens in public markets, and dense crowds arrive to cheer for Khan. Everything from his ring entrance to his punches to his post-match interviews are parsed and analyzed for how they reflect on Pakistan and its people.

In Pakistan, the buildup to Khan’s December bout with Lamont Peterson was feverish even by the local media’s distorted standards. Exactly two Saturdays before the fight, a swarm of American jet fighters and attack helicopters swooped into Pakistani territory from bases in neighboring Afghanistan and let loose a barrage of missiles targeting two Pakistani military posts. When the smoke cleared, 24 Pakistani soldiers were dead. The reaction was something like what it might have been if a Pakistani helicopter had flown into American territory and killed two dozen American soldiers: People cried bloody murder. America refused to apologize for the attack and instead blamed Pakistan for provoking it. In response, Pakistan cut off the American military supply routes that run through its territory to deprive U.S. forces in Afghanistan of equipment and food. The resulting standoff was the closest the two countries had come to all-out war after a decade of complex military rivalry.

While the world watched the diplomatic stare-down between two nuclear states, Pakistanis looked to Khan’s fight for a taste of vengeance. Khan’s opponent wasn’t just a real-life American — he was a real-life American from Washington, D.C. And in Pakistan, Washington is not just the name of another American city (never mind that the Washington from which Peterson hails bears little resemblance to the government monoliths that most Pakistanis associate with the city). Vashing-tone is the dark lair from which Obama orders the drone strikes that hit Pakistani villages every week. Vashing-tone is the Pentagon that drops American Special Forces into Pakistan in the dark of night to take out Osama. It’s akin to what the Kremlin meant to Americans during the Cold War. Actually, it’s not unlike what the word “PACK-istan” conjures up in many Americans’ minds today.

The Peterson fight would be Khan’s fourth in the United States, and this time he would enter the ring accompanied not only by the Union Jack, but also by the green flag of Pakistan with its white crescent. Unlike the battlefield, the American was the underdog in this fight, which ended up being one of 2011’s best. At the end, two questionable point deductions by the referee cost Khan the bout, and he lost on the scorecards. Khan let the alarm bells ring before he’d even left the ring. “It was like I was against two people in there, Lamont and the ref himself,” he said. Golden Boy Promotions appealed the decision a week later and the IBF began an investigation into the scoring of the fight.

Two weeks later, Khan flew to Pakistan. He travels there every so often to visit his parents’ homeland, but this time he visited to lend some star power to a Pakistani boxing tournament. When Khan arrived in the country, this is what you might have found while flipping through the dozen-odd local news channels: a steaming-mad middle-aged man calling for war against America; a montage from the Khan-Peterson fight showing Khan’s best combinations and Peterson hitting the mat again and again and again; an elaborate computer-generated graphic re-creating the American attack on the border posts; a field of caskets draped in Pakistani flags; Khan at a press conference calling the judges’ decision “disgusting” or saying something like “let’s take the fight somewhere neutral and I’ll see if he’s the same man.” The TV channels almost didn’t need different talking heads to discuss the two conflicts. The narrative was essentially the same: Americans play dirty, and when they feel like they’re losing, they cheat.

It was in the middle of such channel flipping that I found Amir Khan on my screen, being interviewed on Khyber News, a regional outfit that telecasts in the Pashto language to the Pashtuns, most of whom live along Pakistan’s western border with Afghanistan, including in the troubled tribal areas. Khan was seated on a plush, bright orange-and-yellow sofa, watching the tournament at ringside. The interviewer threw questions at him in Urdu and Khan answered in English, but that was no problem — Khan demonstrated a solid understanding of the questions in Urdu. It was the substance of the questions, which were less interested in Khan’s boxing career than in exploring the prospects of an interviewer, a TV channel, an ethnic group, and a nation’s hopes for itself on the global stage. Here are excerpts:

["Khyber" is what Pakistanis call the northwest Afghan border regions. Inshallah means, "If Allah wills it."]

INTERVIEWER: Does Amir Khan like the international popularity more or the love he gets from Pakistanis?
KHAN: Ummmm … it’s the same, you know. It’s the same in England. And in Pakistan, very same. You know? I’d say it’s the same everywhere we go. The two places where we get a lot of love is in England and also in Pakistan …

INTERVIEWER: Khyber News wants to show your fights live. I just talked to your father about this as well, but in the future do you think you will have a relationship with Khyber News?
KHAN: Yeah, definitely, I think it’s a good idea. We’re happy to work with anybody. To work with Khyber News will be, maybe good, you know. Let me speak to my team and inshallah the next fight for me will be in April or May against Lamont Peterson — I want a rematch — so maybe it can be on Khyber News. Let’s see what happens. I will try and speak to my team also …
INTERVIEWER: Wouldn’t it be nice if there were a ‘Khyber’ logo next to the ‘Khan’?
KHAN: Khyber Khan? Yeah, you know, maybe … [Laughs uncomfortably.]

INTERVIEWER: One more question, we’ve heard you have found your life partner and she lives in USA, I think. Is she Pakistani or is she from there?
KHAN: No, no. She’s Pakistani.
INTERVIEWER: Where from in Pakistan?
KHAN: Her father’s from Multan and her mother’s from Lahore.
INTERVIEWER: So she’s Punjabi?
KHAN: Yeah, I think so.
INTERVIEWER: When are you going to get married?
KHAN: Oh, not for a long time. I’m getting engaged next month so inshallah I’ll let the engagement happen first. Step at a time, brother.
INTERVIEWER: Will you keep fighting after the marriage?
KHAN: Yeah, yeah, it’s my job. It’s my job. I love boxing.

Any final thoughts? “To everybody in Pakistan, I want to say I hope they watch my next fight. Inshallah I’ll win for them. I’ll do it for my people in Pakistan.”

Khan seems to have understood what’s expected of him.

Where is Amir Khan from? The question follows Khan wherever he goes. Without a doubt that same question was asked when he arrived in New York to defend his WBA light welterweight title against Paulie Malignaggi in 2010. At the weigh-in, a group of 40 or so Pakistani-British fans who call themselves “Khan’s Army” caused pandemonium. Their fervent support for Khan was reminiscent of British football supporters, but with a Muslim twist. “If anyone can, Khan can,” they bellowed. “Amir, Amir, Amir.” This was punctuated several times with the loudest call of all: “Allah-o-Akbar.” While Khan and Malignaggi engaged in a stare-down for the flashing cameras, their supporters were in the throes of a full-fledged brawl.

Khan’s Army is no jihadi outfit. This is just how they show love for their fighter. But America was understandably tone-deaf to Khan’s Army when the latter first arrived in the country. How many times in the previous decade had a large group of brown men chanted “Allah-o-Akbar” with such confrontational zeal in New York City? You could probably ask any Pakistani immigrant — a taxi driver in New York or a heart surgeon in Chicago — or even a Pakistani in Pakistan and they would all tell you with equal certainty: It is not a good idea to gather in large groups with other men who look like you and scream “Allah-o-Akbar” for any reason whatsoever, especially in New York. But then, Khan’s Army is not Pakistani; nor is it Pakistani American. They are British Pakistanis and they are part of a different culture, one in which “Allah-o-Akbar” often has more to do with ethnic pride than with Allah.

Khan was born in a town called Bolton, on the outskirts of Manchester in northern England, a fact he demonstrates by failing to pronounce the letter t when it comes in the middle of a word. Long before Manchester became famous for its football clubs, the city was an engine of the industrial revolution. The region’s textile mills attracted thousands of immigrants from the former British colonies in South Asia. Khan’s family arrived in the 1970s from the northern Punjab region of Pakistan.

Today, “Asians” — that’s what the British call South Asian immigrants from Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh — make up about 5 percent of the population of England, and together they are the country’s largest minority group. A large majority of British Asians are Muslim, and a vast majority of Muslims are Pakistani immigrants. Khan’s father did well as a scrap metal merchant, and although Khan grew up in a comfortable home, his family still lived in a depressed part of Bolton. In general, Pakistani immigrants are some of the poorest people in Britain, living in some of the more violent and drug-ridden neighborhoods in London and the big cities of the North.

Amir “King” Khan was arguably the best thing that ever happened to this community. So when Khan left his English promoter to join Oscar de la Hoya’s Golden Boy Promotions in 2010, some in Britain saw the move as more than just a desire for big money. Maybe Amir was trying to get away, to base his career in a country where every business decision he makes and every punch he throws is not fraught with ethnic, religious, and class symbolism. And how did that reflect on Britain itself? Kevin Mitchell, the Guardian‘s boxing correspondent, blamed “the small crew of British bigots who have taken against Khan” and driven him out of the country. “Over there, living quietly and comfortably in the Californian sunshine,” Mitchell lamented, “he is accepted without question by the fans — black and white Americans, Filipinos, Mexicans, all of them.”

Khan’s other British fans didn’t seem to mind the move as much. They just started traveling en masse to the United States for his fights. Khan’s Army remains as die-hard as ever, but it seems that they’ve toned down the “Allah-o-Akbar” — at least in America.

Amir Khan will step into the ring Saturday night with undefeated light welterweight champion Danny Garcia. The bout has been a long time coming for Khan — the seven-month layoff since his December loss to Peterson is as long an inactive period as he has had in his career. He was scheduled to fight Peterson in a May rematch that was canceled after Peterson tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs. Peterson also admitted to having the banned substance in his system before the first Khan fight, and that led the WBA to reinstate Khan as its 140-pound champion earlier this week. The Pakistani press had a ball with the news about Peterson’s failed drug test, but it sent Khan scrambling to find a new opponent. The Islamic holy month of Ramadan was coming up in mid-July, and Khan, as always, planned to fast. After that, he probably wouldn’t be in fighting shape until winter. Khan has already fought almost every credible opponent in the 140-pound weight class and so Garcia, the current WBC champion, seemed like the best option, even if Khan would be a heavy favorite in the fight.

Ever since the match was set up, Angel Garcia, Danny’s father and trainer, has been calling Khan an “overrated” fighter. But that’s not all he’s saying. He proclaimed that he has “never, ever, ever in my lifetime, that I’ve been living 49 years, I ain’t never met a Pakistani that could fight.” Then, somewhat nonsensically, he dismissed Khan as a “European fighter from Europe.” Finally, for good measure, he went after Khan’s religion: “I know Khan’s god already. His god is a punishing god. And my god is a loving god.” At the press conference in Los Angeles to announce the fight, Garcia senior cut off everyone from team Khan and began ranting about “magic carpets” and a “genie.” Boxers and their camps always play up their mutual dislike to promote fights, but Angel Garcia seems genuinely perturbed by Khan. It was at the end of the presser, when Angel was practically spitting with rage, that the elder Garcia yelled what he was really getting at this whole time: “Where you from, man? Europe? America? Where you from?”

California has been good to Khan. Since relocating to Los Angeles to train at Freddie Roach’s Wild Card gym, he’s been spotted sitting courtside at Laker games, he’s been featured in a GQ fashion spread, and he’s been photographed on the red carpet for the L.A. Spider-Man premiere. He even got to throw the first pitch at a Dodgers game this month, and it reportedly zipped right over home plate. With the exception of Angel Garcia, America and Amir Khan seem to be getting along just fine.

Islam, Pakistani, Muslim, European — none of those are necessarily flattering descriptions in America these days, but Khan continues to hold together the various strands of his identity and carry the dreams of people halfway across the world, and perhaps that’s what’s most appealing about him. Which flag is he going to carry into the ring this weekend? Will he someday add the Stars and Stripes to his collection? At the end of the day it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that there will be people spread across a dozen time zones, all of whom will root for Khan, all for their very own personal and selfish reasons. And as long as he keeps delivering, Khan’s Army will be there, too, in ever-growing numbers. Khan said once about his fans that “they might not be boxing fans, but they might be Amir Khan fans, y’ge’ me?” It’s a figure like this who can transcend boxing’s current status as a niche sport and grow from a prizefighter to a global sports figure.

Shahan Mufti is a freelance journalist whose work has been published in Harper’s Magazine, Wired, The New York Times Magazine, Bloomberg Businessweek, and The Atlantic, among other places. He is at work on a book about Muslim identity in Pakistan that comes out next year. This is his first piece in Grantland.

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