• Rewind to 2005

The pressure of being a professional

ESPN staff
April 25, 2013
Amir Khan endured one of the more pressurised professional debuts of recent boxing history © PA Photos

On Saturday in Manchester, Amir Khan will return to fight on British soil for the first time in over two years, as he looks to defeat the former titlist Julio Diaz at Sheffield's Motorpoint Arena.

Olympic bronze medallist Anthony Ogogo is also in action on the same card, making his professional debut. Ahead of both meetings, we look back to 2005 - when it was Khan who was the wet-behind-the-ears Olympic hero making his first foray into professional boxing:

It is not a significant exaggeration to say that the Olympics changed Amir Khan's life virtually overnight.

Before the Games in Athens, the 17-year-old from Bolton was considered a gifted amateur prospect, but the event was considered more of a learning experience for the lightweight, ahead of a medal tilt Beijing in four years' time, than a coming out party.

Yet after the event greats of the sport were falling over themselves to praise the new kid on the block. Evander Holyfield was perhaps the most effusive: "You don't see many 17-year-olds that good."

In Athens, Khan outwitted many and - aided by the European location of the event making it conducive to primetime coverage back home - became a bona fide star on the way to the gold medal match. There he was finally stopped by the experienced, and respected, Cuban Mario Kindelan - but not before winning the respect of many.

In the aftermath of his silver medal Khan had promised to go for gold in Beijing, but most saw that for the hollow promise it was destined to be. The pro game beckoned, and Khan soon answered the call (although not until after beating Kindelan, in his hometown, in the final match of his amateur career).

In 2005, Khan signed with Frank Warren - who immediately placed his prized prospect in a July 16 meeting with fellow Brit David Bailey to get his pro career up and running.

Whether he likes it or not he's a celebrity and he could become a world star.
Frank Warren talked up Amir Khan

"I was involved in the early careers of Naseem Hamed, Nigel Benn and Ricky Hatton and none of them crossed over to the news pages at this stage," was Warren's early verdict of his charge. "Whether he likes it or not he's a celebrity and he could become a world star.

"He's a sensible lad, he's not arrogant or rude, he's got a good family and advisors around him and it's going to be a great ride."

The expectations for Khan were high - and then, just over a week before the fight, terrorists bombed London buses in some of the worst incidents the capital had seen for decades.

Suddenly, Khan - a Muslim, like those who had attacked the capital - became more than a promising young boxer; he became a symbol, an icon, a lightning rod. "The single most important role model for a multinational British society", as one newspaper described him.

It was hardly the sort of pressure the 18-year-old needed.

With his fight - indeed, his whole persona - suddenly taking on an added political significance, Khan felt himself almost obliged to become a voice to things that, understandably, he was hardly old enough to comprehend himself.

Amir Khan dealt with David Bailey with little difficulty © Getty Images

"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," Khan said, wrestling with the issue of the time.

Ultimately, the fight would be better remembered for some of his pre-fight choices - opting to walk to the ring with 'Land of Hope and Glory' playing from the sound system, for example, while carrying a Union Jack with black ribbons and the word 'LONDON' stitched across it.

Of the fight itself, the way Khan remembers it, he knew he had it won just seconds after the opening bell rang.

"I was excited and nervous but as soon as the bell rang it went quiet in my head," Khan later recalled. "It was just me and him.

"I knew it was going to be easy as soon as I saw him charging at me. That made me totally relaxed and he just fell on to my shots. I blew him away."

In the event, the teenager actually needed 109 seconds to finally put Bailey on the canvas for good. The journeyman came straight out at Khan in an attempt to intimidate, but the debutant evaded that attack with ease and quickly put his opponent on the deck with a flurry of strikes.

Another knockdown followed soon after, with Bailey's corner quickly throwing in the towel. But, with the referee failing to immediately see that concession, it was not until another firm blow saw Bailey lose his legs again that the contest was called.

Afterwards, the spectre of societal unrest was still at the top of agenda.

"We need to bring the races together. It was upsetting and my friends and family were upset," Khan would say. "We need people to help stop things like the London bombs and hopefully I can be one of them. I'll do anything."

His potential as a boxer, however, was the talk of those closest to him.

"For a debut, you couldn't ask for anything better and you've got the best to come," Warren said. "By the time he's 21, they'll be strapping a [world title] belt round his waist. It's going to be a great journey for British boxing."

Khan, in the afterglow of his win, tentatively expressed similar ambitions.

"I was a bit nervous because it was my first fight - I'm going to go home and watch the video and see how it was," he said. "I want to be one of the youngest British world champions ever and hopefully it will happen."

What happened next?

Khan did not quite live up to his promoter's lofty expectations - being a positively aged 22 when he claimed the WBA light-welterweight title against Ukrainian Andreas Kotelnik in Manchester. That was his 21st professional victory (with his only loss coming nearly a year earlier against Breidis Prescott) - and four successful defences and a unification triumph, against Zab Judah, following.

Since then, however, the going has become tougher for Khan - whose intended ascension to the welterweight ranks was derailed by successive loses to Lamont Peterson (who later failed a drugs test) and Danny Garcia. Now looking to rebuild, a win against Diaz on Saturday will elevate him back towards title contention.

Ogogo, meanwhile, starts out on his professional path with his promoters, American behemoths Golden Boy, hoping to turn him into a world champion and major superstar. As Khan will likely tell the middleweight he shares many similarities with, however, it is rarely wise to look too far ahead in this sport.

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