Khan-Salita about more than religion
The fight was announced and there it was, just like that. No sooner had the battle-lines been drawn for Amir Khan vs. Dmitriy Salita than religion became the primary sub-plot to this Saturday's clash for the WBA junior welterweight title.
For what is believed to be the first time in boxing history, a Muslim will take on a Jew in a world title fight, and as much as they try to play down this element, Khan and Salita know that their faith adds an intriguing and unique element to the bout at the Metro Radio Arena in Newcastle, England.
Khan is one of the most famous figures in the British Muslim community, having been born in the northern city of Bolton to Pakistani parents, and being hailed as a national hero after winning a silver medal as a 17-year-old at the 2004 Athens Olympics.
Salita has become a figurehead of Jewish culture in the New York area, rising through the ranks and accumulating a 30-0-1 record after enduring a tough Brooklyn upbringing once his parents emigrated from the Ukraine when he was 9.
Both men want the match-up to be about their fighting skills and ultimately it will. While the fight game loves to use any angle to drum up hype, in this instance it must take care not to trivialize an age-old ideological conflict.
“We don't want this fight to be hijacked by religion,” said Khan. “People have been bringing it up but it is not about that.
“He respects my religion and I respect his. This is about fighting the best fight, trying to beat the man, not his religion.”
However, there is a sense that this unique marketing hook could actually be used to positive end.
The Muslim community in Britain has faced extreme challenges in recent times, especially after the bombing attacks on London in 2005 — carried out by British-born Islamic terrorists.
That Khan is a successful British Muslim role model does the ongoing effort for positive relations no harm and he is a standard bearer for his community.
“We are good role models,” said Khan. “He sets a good example for his people and that is what I try to do for mine.
“I find my religion helps me. In the ring you are on your own and it is good to know your God is there helping you. It is a lonely place to be otherwise.”
Khan has not always been seen in such positive light though. When he was involved in a motor accident in which his BMW struck a pedestrian in 2007 and then recorded his only career loss — a 54-second KO against Breidis Prescott — the public sheen had come off the boy who could do no wrong.
It was that defeat that prompted him to move to California, exchanging the comforts — and distractions — of home for a lonely apartment in West Hollywood.
It is there that he can team up with Freddie Roach, honing his skills, physique and pugilistic nous, in the Wild Card Boxing Club that often also hosts the world's most electrifying fighter, Manny Pacquiao.
Roach has high hopes for his No.2 client and sees him as a work in progress, just like he did with Pacquiao at the start of their union.
“Amir has speed and power, qualities similar to Manny,” said Roach. “Amir’s probably technically a little better at the same stage. In eight years, we’ll know just how good he can be. That’s how long it took me with Pacquiao.”
Khan is said to be able to match up well with Pacquiao in sparring and will target a fight with one of the Pacman’s former foes, Ricky Hatton, if he gets past Salita.
Hatton looked drastically overweight on his last public appearance, but if he can shed the blubber once more, then an all-British showdown would be a financial and ratings blockbuster.
Khan's revival following the Prescott embarrassment seems complete after victories over Marco Antonio Barrera and Andreas Kotelnik, the latter being for the WBA title. Salita, it seems, is merely the latest hurdle.
Yet the boy from Brooklyn understandably sees it differently and plans to return to his adopted homeland with the strap.
Salita is irked that he was previously denied the chance to fight Kotelnik and insists that the WBA has made too many concessions to Khan.
“I was the No. 1 official contender for the WBA and was supposed to fight Kotelnik before Amir got his chance,” said Salita. “I am upset about it, I was at the time.
“The business side of boxing can be very tough, but thank God I got this opportunity. I'm very excited, and happy I'm fighting a guy who is one of the top, young prospects, who is well respected in the sport.”
So there you have it, a title fight with plenty of intrigue and what promises to be an entertaining encounter in a fast-moving division.
The religion? Part of the hype, but with a big upside for the winner this is a fight that stands on its own two feet.
Follow Martin Rogers on Twitter at @mrogersyahoo