Commentary

Socially conscious Khan giving back to local youth in community

Amir Khan is giving his community more than just thrills in the ring: The promising English youngster is helping put kids on the straight path with his boxing club, Gloves Gym.

Originally Published: June 17, 2008
By Glyn Leach | Special to ESPN.com

Amir KhanJohn Gichigi/Getty ImagesGloves Gym is one way Amir Khan is giving back to the community.
Fighters are different -- from each other as well as the rest of mankind.

When Ricky Hatton wanted to give something back to his hometown, he charged almost the same amount for a bottom-price ticket to his May fight with Juan Lazcano as one of his fellow Manchester City FC fans would pay for a top-priced seat to watch the city's less successful soccer team play at the Eastlands stadium.

Unbeaten Commonwealth lightweight champ Amir Khan, meanwhile, paid 700,000 of his own money to build a gym-cum-community center in the city where he was raised and still lives in Bolton, England.

2004 Olympic silver medalist Khan is just one of life's givers, it seems.

[+] EnlargeChristopher Furlong
Christopher Furlong/Getty ImagesThe fighting philanthropist: Khan feels obligated to give back to the sport that's given so much to him.
Khan's Olympic success galvanized Britain. Almost 7 million people watched the likable British-born Asian lose the lightweight final to Cuban legend Mario Kindelan on terrestrial television. To put that figure in perspective, Hatton's combined satellite and cable TV viewing figures up to the point he challenged Kostya Tszyu in June 2005 might just have equaled Khan's Olympic final total.

Ricky Hatton is probably the most popular fighter in Britain, but there's a very strong argument that says Khan is the most well-known. And he is determined to use his fame well.

Aside from a couple of unfortunate driving incidents, one of which involved a man suffering a broken leg, the young Muslim of Pakistani heritage has proved himself to be the perfect cross-cultural role model.

He is an ambassador for the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, and his charity work -- as well as his high-profile Olympic campaign -- earned him the MBE (Member of the British Empire) award from Queen Elizabeth II herself.

Khan has the trappings one might expect of a successful sportsman -- a 90,000 designer watch from New York's Jacob and Co. that is encrusted with an incredible 3,000 diamonds, an 87,000 customized BMW M6 convertible.

But he gives the impression that he truly appreciates his success and genuinely wants to show others how life can work out well for them, too.

I've always said I wanted to give something back to the community; what boxing's done for me, I want to share with everyone else. I want to give them the chance that boxing gave me.

-- Amir Khan, on giving back to boxing and the community

"It's been that way from Day 1," said the 21-year-old, "ever since the Olympic Games, aged 17. I've always said I wanted to give something back to the community; what boxing's done for me, I want to share with everyone else. I want to give them the chance that boxing gave me."

His commercial manager, Asif Vali, says that Khan realized the positive impact boxing could have early in life.

"My own background is in community work, which I did for almost 20 years, and which was how I met Amir in the first place, when he was about 9-and-a-half," said Vali. "By the time he was 14 he was working with the local youth, just like I was, so it came as no surprise to me that Amir should have wanted to open this center -- and make no mistake, Gloves Gym was 120 percent his idea.

"We wanted to help the kids in the run-down part of town, not make a profit, and what they pay to use the gym is really only a nominal amount, in the region of one pound a time. We're all immensely proud of what we're doing and the effect we're having on the local community."

Khan returns to the ring in Birmingham on Saturday to defend his title against Michael Gomez. This is the first time that he will have prepared for a fight exclusively in his own gym, having split with former trainer, Oliver Harrison, following his last fight, the victory over Martin Kristjansen in April. And the experience is to his liking.

[+] EnlargeAmir Khan
AP Photo/Jon SuperKhan enjoys the conveniences of training in his own facility.
"It's only five minutes round the corner," he said. "I used to travel to Manchester to train with Oliver, which is 25, 30 minutes down the motorway. But here I can train when I like, open the gym when it's closed, come in any time I feel like it … it's working out really well. I feel strong and ready to fight."

Dean Powell has been handling boxing training duties since the departure of Harrison but, as is the case with any world class athlete these days, Khan has specialist input on strength and conditioning, which he also works on at Gloves. "I've got all the facilities there, the different machines I need for my strength work, and a sauna; everything can be done in house," he said.

But given his fame and popularity, does he get the privacy he needs while preparing in a premise that is open to the public?

" Oh yeah," he said. "The good thing is, to get to where I do my training, anybody would have to get through the offices, where they handle my press and fan mail. Nobody could get through to my gym without going through the offices first, and they don't let anyone through when I'm doing my strength training or boxing training.

"But two or three times a week, after I have finished my training session, I go into the next room and help out the lads. It gives them that boost, makes them try that bit harder as well. If they're feeling tired while they're hitting the bag and they see me watching them, they're gonna put that extra 10 percent in just to impress me. It's good to see that they respect you that much and that they are willing to give it 100 percent because of you."

However, Khan's popularity is not universal. In March, exiled "hate cleric" Omar Bakri, who was thrown out of Britain for infamously referring to the 9/11 bombers as "the Magnificent 19" and telling British children they must '"kill and be killed" for Islam, blasted from Beirut: "Amir Khan is not a good example for Muslims. He wears shorts with the Union Jack. That is a sin." He went on to term Khan a "deviant" and "jahil" [ignorant in Arabic].

[+] EnlargeAmir Khan
Alex Livesey/Getty ImagesAn unapologetic Khan has been scrutinized by extremists for expressing his British identity.
Bakri's outburst was labeled "bizarre" by Inayat Bunglawala, assistant general secretary of the British Muslim Council, who went on to call Khan "a wonderful role model."

And Yaseer Ahmed, manager of the Bolton Council of Mosques retorted: "Amir Khan is entitled to wear what he wants. There's nothing wrong with expressing a British identity. The Muslim religion doesn't stop you from being British."

"There's definitely no need for what he [Bakri] said," said Khan, with a rare hint of frustration in his voice. "I'm doing this for everyone. It's not only for the Muslim kids, not only for the white kids. This is for all different races and religions. We've got so many different sizes, colors and religions coming through that door. And the good thing about boxing is that it's a team sport and they're all training together, holding the pads for each other and just motivating each other.

"We get no trouble at the moment, none at all. We get about 400 kids coming in per week and they all get along with each other. They respect each other and they work alongside each other.

"If I can put other kids on the straight path with my boxing club, I can make a difference to my community. And it's not just the local area because we get kids coming in from all over, from a 40- or 50-mile radius, all coming to the gym to train.

The fighter's father, Shah Khan, continued: "At the beginning of the month we had our first nine guys pass their ABA [Amateur Boxing Association] medicals. None of these guys have ever fought competitively before but, fingers crossed, maybe three or four of these guys will be competing come September at the Bolton Town Hall on a show that's organized by Bolton and Manchester development officers, between youngsters from both towns who have never fought before, all newcomers."

The Gloves Gym boxing club is evidently a source of genuine pride for Khan. "It's brilliant," he said. "We hope to have a competition for the novice lads in Bolton around September time, which will give the kids a chance to do a little bit, get their confidence up and give them a feel of what boxing's really like."

The ultra successful Amir Khan's experience of boxing's realities will almost certainly be different than those of the youngsters he encourages to follow his example. But if even a couple of them turn out to be as socially aware and culturally conscious as the Commonwealth lightweight champion, the world will be a better place.

As his father said: "If you have decent people around you, you can become a decent person yourself. It's all to do with the company, the environment … Everybody who uses the gym enjoys the environment and whether they realize it yet or not, they are growing in it."

Glyn Leach is the editor of Boxing Monthly.