If you came across him on a sidewalk in London, Amir Khan would seem like many other young British desis: shark fin hairstyle, fitted dark blue jeans, fresh white sneakers, and a roar in his eye that tells you he's trouble if you're looking for it. But come a little closer and you'll notice the idiosyncrasies that make him the King: a discerning eye -- not judgmental, per se, but aware -- a hometown loyalty, and a determination to let his talents be known.
It takes an extraordinary character to achieve what Amir "King" Khan has: an Olympic boxing champion at 17, a 4-time world boxing champion now -- at 26 -- and the most famous Muslim boxer since Muhammad Ali himself.
"It's not greed but it's just like you wanna achieve everything that's out there," he tells me one fine spring day in California. Besides, "people like to watch an exciting fighter," Khan says, "and I'm an exciting fighter."
I met him recently at his new training camp in a place far removed from the Bolton Upon the Sea he calls home in England: in Union City, California, smack dab in the middle of American suburbia, not far from a busy strip mall and a Taco Bell. It's a long way, culturally, from his previous training camp in Los Angeles. And even further from his home in England. Khan tells me that the luggage for his trip to the US was almost completely filled with Heinz breakfast beans and Cadbury chocolates from England -- "the necessities," he says.
He didn't need to tell me he's out of place in Union City -- even the big little city of nearby San Francisco wasn't quite up to snuff for his playtime needs, it seems. But the fact that he's made the move from his training camp in Lalaland tells me quite a lot: he will do what it takes to win and what it takes right now is his new coach Virgil Hunter who is from nearby Oakland and has set up Khan's camp a few minutes' drive from Union City.
"We had to move here because like I said we have to be in a place where there's going to be no distractions and we're going to stay focused." That hasn't been a problem in Union City.
Khan teamed up with Hunter late last year, after leaving his longtime coach Freddie Roach -- Manny Pacquiao's coach -- in what was initially a tense breakup. "We're good now, Freddie said 'hi' to me at my last match". Hunter is going to teach Khan to channel his offensive anger into defensive control. It's the one thing Freddie said Khan would never be able to do because "his personality will always be in the way."
Khan disagrees and, with Hunter's help, is determined to prove Roach wrong again and again. He already has once: his first match with Hunter as coach was in December 2012, against Carlos Molina. Khan won.
"It's in my blood to be a fighter, to be an aggressive fighter. What Virgil's teaching me now is to kind of calm down a little bit because at times I do get too excited and I do get into a fight when I don't need to get in to a fight."
For Khan, anger has long been the weapon of choice alongside fierce footwork and calculated jabs. It's what has given him the fire to compete and it's the reason his father enrolled him in boxing lessons as a boy. But at 26, Khan, who exudes an air of wisdom about career boxing, wants to balance the defense with the offense in his game. He wants his title back and believes -- as does Hunter -- that pulling the punches needs to be balanced out with blocking them. The new Amir Khan wants to channel his anger into power, not let it get the best of him. "When you get angry in a fight, that's where you make mistakes," he tells me. With Hunter's help and his own determination to "stay nice and calm" in the match, Khan plans to prove his fans right about their "King", as he's called. The December match against Molina crucially demonstrated the possibilities of a Hunter/Khan partnership. But his upcoming match against 33-year-old Julio Diaz could solidify it, even though it's not a title match.
Each match counts -- Khan tends to fight only twice a year. What's interesting about him is that he seems to know exactly where he's headed and exactly where he wants to go. "I want to be in the sport probably till I'm like 29 or 30, achieve as much as I can achieve and then I've got businesses outside of boxing which I've started on."
His business plans are a reaction to seeing previous champions' mistakes. He's seen enough from his famed predecessors to know what he doesn't want to become: champions like Ali, who he says "was in the sport a lot longer than he should have been", and Mike Tyson who went bankrupt after he stopped fighting.
"Tyson is a role model. I mean, in the ring he was the best. But it's a shame how his career went. Hopefully I'll never make them mistakes. You learn from people like him," Khan tells me. Though he adds that "it's easier said than done."
Career-wise, so far he seems to have everything in place and he credits his fans and family for the support they've given him that other champions never had. His fans might be pleased to hear that he pays attention to what they say. Khan, who is quite active on social media, says his fans are "a big help because they tell me the rights and wrongs."
And his family is his rock. "They've been supporting me from day one. Being on my side. Being in the corner with me from day one." His parents are from Pakistan and though he was born and raised in Bolton and has a famous penchant for his hometown, Khan values his dual nationality: Pakistan means a lot to him, too.
"My parents were born there so I think I've got a root there," he tells me. "You can never forget your parents' hometown. In a way it's a hometown for me as well." When we first began our conversation, Khan told me about how he'd just returned from a trip to Pakistan, where he has a house.
"I thought it was crazy walking the streets in England and getting recognized by non-boxing fans and boxing fans but in Pakistan it was twice as crazy." Khan visits at least once a year and says he tries to give back every time, especially by visiting schools in Pakistan and letting the kids know that part of his own success is the effort he put into getting a good education. He says he wants to "inspire them in sport" but also in education: "even though I made it as a boxer, education helped me, I still was smart in school and got good grades."
On the personal front, he's got plans, too, but he has found -- and the world now knows -- that the private lives of public figures aren't quite as easy to plan out. The April 27 match isn't the only spring fling on Khan's calendar: in May he and his sweetheart, Faryal Makhdoom, are set to tie the knot at New York's famed Waldorf Astoria. They met in 2011 during one of his stateside stays.
"I was in New York doing a photo shoot for Prada and I bumped into her then," he says, casually. They met at a dinner with friends and parted after "exchanging details". Not long after, she came to London with her parents ("I think they had some work there," Khan tells me) where they met again and "from there it just happened."
"You know, I grew up a lot quicker than most guys my age would. I was in the limelight when I was 17, coming back from the Olympic games. I've done everything, now I feel like an old man so I think it's best to settle down."
As fast paced as his life is, Khan clearly values the moments where he can step back and reflect. He's excited about the wedding and looking forward to opening this huge chapter in his life. "It's so crazy how things happened because I always said I never want to marry a girl from America because it's too far." Too far from Bolton, that is. Khan's feet are firmly planted in Bolton soil and one of the big conditions he set for his bride-to-be was that she had to move to Bolton after the wedding. And the fight.
"It's good to get this fight out of the way first and win this fight so at least I can go into the way happy," he tells me. Win or loss, though, from what I've seen of Amir "King" Khan, very little can keep him down for long.