Khan’s plan: conquer Malignaggi, then the world
Amir Khan is not content with being a household name in the UK. The British junior welterweight titleholder won’t be satisfied if he conquers the American market, either.
Khan (22-1, 16 knockouts) wants to be an international superstar.
That’s a rather ambitious goal for a 23-year-old fighter who is only four bouts removed from a first-round knockout loss, but some of the biggest players in the sport believe that Khan is a special enough talent and individual to achieve his lofty aspirations.
Those players include respected trainer Freddie Roach, who took Khan under his wing after the British wunderkind was stopped by unheralded Breidis Prescott; Golden Boy Promotions, which entered into a partnership with Khan’s own promotional company in January; and U.S. cable giant HBO, which has had an interest in televising the 2004 Olympic silver medalist for at least three years and will finally showcase him this Saturday against former beltholder Paul Malignaggi.
The Boxing After Dark main event, which takes place at the WaMu Theater in New York City’s famous Madison Square Garden, will be Khan’s American debut and the first time he appears on a non-pay-per-view broadcast in U.S.
Fans on both sides of the pond are curious about whether Roach and company are backing a bona fide winner and many are hoping to see Khan tested by Malignaggi(27-3, 5 KOs), THE RING’s No. 5-rated junior welterweight.
However, some doubt the fast-talking New Yorker has the power or talent to pose a legitimate threat. Most of those doubters reside in the UK, according to British sports writer Martin Rogers, who has followed Khan since the native of Bolton, England captured his country’s heart as a teen-aged Olympian.
“Whatever happens on Saturday, I don’t expect Khan to get much credit for it in the UK,” said Rogers, who covers boxing, soccer and tennis for Yahoo! Sports. “That’s got more to do with Malignaggi than it does Khan. Malignaggi’s reputation is pretty low among UK fans. That’s because they’ve only seen him fight twice, when he fought under Ricky Hatton in Manchester and when he lost to Hatton.
“Malingaggi fought Lovemore N'dou in Manchester and he came off as a clown. He had these ridiculous blue-colored hair extensions that kept getting in his face during the fight and they finally had to be cut off with a knife between rounds. He barely won that fight and he looked awful. Then he was stopped by Hatton in what I gather was one of his worst fights. He certainly didn’t emerge from it with much credibility among the British public. They don’t realize Malignaggi’s a decent fighter with some good wins under his belt.”
The folks at Golden Boy Promotions don’t mind if British fans still doubt Khan after Saturday’s fight. The bottom line is that UK sports fans know who he is. Rogers concurs, stating that along with brash heavyweight titleholder David Haye “Khan is the face of British boxing.”
Richard Schaefer wants Khan to be one of the faces of boxing in the U.S. and the CEO of Golden Boy Promotions believes a victory over Malignaggi on HBO is a significant step toward that goal.
“It’s a very important fight because it’s his first in the U.S,” Schaefer told RingTV.com. “The first impression always counts in anything you do and American fans are looking for Khan to do something spectacular on Saturday. He has to make a statement to the U.S. audience. He has to win in the same spectacular manner he won most of his fights in the UK, which is why he’s a star there.
“Khan isn’t famous in the UK just because he won the (Olympic) silver medal at age 17. It’s because of the talent he showed as an amateur and a young professional. He doesn’t just win. He shows speed, skills and combinations in his fights that make fans say, ‘Wow.'”
Khan’s talent is so considerable it even impresses Roach, who says the British fighter’s speed and power remind him of a young Manny Pacquiao.
“He’s a very good athlete,” Roach told RingTV.com. “I think he could be good at many other sports but he chose boxing. Me and (Khan's conditioning coach Alex) Ariza push him hard in the gym and on the track. We try to find his limits and make him quit, but we can’t. He’s a like a machine. He works hard and he performs and excels at everything he does.”
Roach respects Malignaggi, a ring-savvy vet who is coming off a dominating decision over former lightweight titleholder Juan Diaz, but he believes Khan will meet his expectations on Saturday.
“Paulie’s not the best guy in the division but he’s a tough, experienced fighter,” Roach said. “He’s gone the distance with everybody. His corner stopped the Hatton fight in the 11th round. I think he could have gone the distance with Ricky just like he did with Miguel Cotto.
“If Khan can get Paulie out of there, and I think he can, he’ll make the statement he needs to to American fans.”
A KO victory would certainly be the spectacular showing Schaefer is hoping for. It would also justify some of the comparisons that have been made between Khan and former featherweight champ Naseem Hamed, whose U.S. debut was also against a loquacious New York veteran in Madison Square Garden.
Hamed got up from three knockdowns to stop Kevin Kelley in the fourth round of a memorable slugfest that was televised on HBO in 1997. Like Khan, Hamed is a British-born Muslim of Middle Eastern descent. Comparisons are inevitable.
However, while Hamed was the same age as Khan when he made his U.S. debut, it should be noted that the power-punching featherweight was a far more seasoned fighter.
Khan has made one defense of the 140-pound title he won from Andreas Kotelnik last July (a first-round blowout of lightly regarded Dmitriy Salita). Hamed had made eight defenses of the featherweight belt he won from British vet Steve Robinson, including a title-unification KO of respected American beltholder Tom Johnson, going into the Kelley fight.
Schaefer says Khan’s willingness to test himself in the U.S. at this stage of his career is an indication of the young man’s character.
“Unlike Joe Calzaghe and Ricky Hatton, he’s a British star who is not waiting until later in his career to come to the U.S.,” Schaefer said. “And what struck me is that he didn’t want a tune-up bout for his American debut. He wanted a real contender.
“This shows us two things about Khan: A) He wants to become a global superstar, B) He’s got heart because he’s willing to fight Paul Malignaggi in his backyard. He’s going into the lion’s den to make a name for himself just like Hamed did with Kelley 13 years ago.”
If Khan emerges victorious in the lion’s den, Schaefer says fans can expect him to follow Hamed’s blueprint of staging big fights in both the UK and the U.S.
After beating Kelley, Hamed crossed the Atlantic between his next six HBO-televised fights — victories over Wilfredo Vazquez (in Manchester, England), Wayne McCullough (in Atlantic City. N.J.), Paul Ingle (in Manchester), Cesar Soto (in Detroit), Vuyani Bungu (in London) and Augie Sanchez (in Mashantucket, Conn.) — before he was outclassed by Marco Antonio Barrera in Las Vegas.
“Amir is not abandoning the UK,” Schaefer said. “Amir made this very clear when he signed with us. He wants to carry the British flag in the U.S. and continue to fight in the UK. We hope to have Khan back in the ring in July and that bout will likely take place in the UK, and then he will be back in the U.S. in the fall.
“This strategy is straight from Amir. It’s his desire, his plan. He really sees the big picture. He could have made more money in the short run by fighting only in the UK, but he’s looking at his career from a long-term perspective and he understands it’s about maximizing his exposure.
“The Malignaggi fight won’t be on (pay cable network) Sky Sports in the UK. It will be on ITV, a terrestrial commercial network that could have more than 15 million homes tuned into his fight. What he’s doing reminds me of how Oscar De La Hoya took control of his destiny with smart moves outside of the ring.”
However, De La Hoya and Hamed also made the right moves inside the ring. Both earned their stardom by fighting the best of their respective divisions.
Will Khan do the same if his gets by Malignaggi?
“Of course,” Schaefer said. “That’s what he wants. The co-main event on Saturday is another cross-roads match between a young up-and-comer and a proven vet, Victor Ortiz and Nate Campbell. The winner of that fight will be considered a top 140-pound contender and will be a prime candidate for Khan’s next fight.”
While a fight with Ortiz or Campbell is certainly not a bad option, most fans want to see Khan, THE RING’s No. 3-rated junior welterweight, take on fellow titleholders Timothy Bradley and Devon Alexander, undefeated talents the magazine ranks Nos. 1 and 2, respectively.
Fans won’t have to wait very long to get what they want, according to Roach.
“Paulie will be the first step,” he said. “After Paulie, I’d like him to fight Marcos Maidana or one of the other big three, the kid from St. Louis, Devon Alexander, and of course, Bradley.
“I prefer to take on Maidana next, but I’d like to see Bradley and Alexander fight and then we could fight the winner. We could put Khan vs. Maidana on the same card as Bradley-Alexander and build interest in the fight.”
That fight, especially if it’s against Bradley, who won his first title in England, would have significant interest in the UK, according to Rogers.
“It might take a few fights for the matchup to materialize, but I think Khan against Bradley could be held in a decent-sized stadium if it was held in the UK,” he said. “They could also stage it in Las Vegas and have Khan’s UK fans fly out. A lot of British fans have grown accustomed to their once-a-year trip to the U.S. to cheer on a British star and they haven’t had the opportunity to do so in a while.
“Whatever happens with Khan’s career, which may or may not turn out to be amazing, it will be interesting to see how it plays out because he’s got some fascinating fights ahead of him over the next few years.”
It all begins on Saturday.