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A Test For The King

On a Thursday night in Hollywood, trainer Freddie Roach was about to bite into a bun-less burger wrapped in lettuce. "The real test for Amir is next week," he said, looking a lot like a kid anticipating a schoolyard brawl. Roach then sunk his teeth into the bloody burger and grinned: "Monday. Could be good."

Khan Malignaggi press conference

For the past few weeks, the WBA Junior Welterweight Champion Amir Khan (22-1) has been preparing for his American debut in New York May 15 against Brooklyn's own Paulie Malignaggi (27-3). Roach's imminent test for Khan was a sparring match withVernon Paris, a 20-0 fighter with a style like the Brooklynite's but carrying a stronger punch from his hometown of Detroit.

Khan, 23, is in Los Angeles by way of Bolton, England, by way of his parents' trek from Pakistan preceding his birth. It was back in the Middle East decades ago that two sisters gave birth to two children, one a boy and one a girl. The arranged marriage between these cousins would produce a hyper child with discipline issues. When it got to the point that the boy's grandmother had to start attending elementary school with him to keep him in line, Amir's father took him to box. About ten years later, he became the United Kingdom's sole medalist in boxing during the 2004 Olympic Games. A star was born, and his rise continued through 18 professional victories before a precipitous fall. In 2008, Khan left his chin exposed to a Colombian named Breidis Prescott, who in turn exposed that jaw's fragility when faced with a heavy right hand. Khan was knocked out in 54 seconds.

The road to recovery began with a pilgrimage so many fighters have made: to the Wild Card Boxing Club in hopes of training under gray eminence Freddie Roach. "Freddie sees everything," says Khan, 23, who also did a test run with both Roger and Floyd Mayweather to unsuccessful result. While getting a massage after a workout in his Hollywood apartment (a complex in which Snoop Dogg also resides), Khan remembers the exercise with the Mayweather elders as less physical than linguistic: "To be honest, I couldn't really understand anything they were saying." Despite the constant presence of Khan's father Shah, a trainer is the patriarch of whatever corner his fighter inhabits. Consequently, Khan has come to feel as so many others champions before him that Roach is "like a father for me. You want to do everything he asks and he's impossible to impress."

Since beginning his training under Roach, Khan has demolished his last four opponents, the third for a world title. He knocked out his most recent adversary as swiftly and brutally as Khan himself once fell. Before the first of those fights, Roach recalls giving Khan his first test, "I put Amir in to spar with Pacquiao. I said to myself, 'Today, this kid will either fight or be sent home.' Amir gave Manny some trouble that day."

In addition to Roach's training, Khan has begun work with strength coach Alex Ariza. Early on a Saturday morning, Khan slipped on a white pair of Rawlings batting gloves, took hold of a baseball bat and then stepped into the ring to beat a heavy bag propped against a turnbuckle. Khan may be new to his country's former colonies and their national pastime, but presumably he understands that this is not how the game is played. "The purpose is focused explosive movement," explains Ariza.

Like most strength coaches, Ariza's regimen is built on five cardinal food groups: eggs, fish, chicken, beef and the protein shake. In college, Khan himself briefly studied sports medicine, so it was with reasoned science that the champ recently added a sixth component to Ariza's quintet: a bag of Skittles. The coach laments, "I hate the Skittles, but he works so hard. What can you do?"


The Briton may now be known as King Khan, but divine right in England has never quite recovered since Charles I was beheaded. And after getting knocked out, this junior welterweight has had a long quest to winning back his fans. He's graced the cover the UK edition of Esquire and been pursued by British paparazzi, but Khan has yet to achieve the superstardom he hopes for on this side of the pond (though the Twitter feud that spawned his Malignaggi fight seems to be in line with the American imagination). Looking past Malignaggi, Khan seeks "to unify the titles at 140-lb - you know, Tim Bradley and Devon Alexander." But first, Khan would have to contend with the challenge Roach had shipped in from Detroit.

Two days later, the long-awaited test began. For three rounds, Khan masterfully jabbed with Paris, overpowered him with counterpunches and prevented attempted retreats from his angled combinations with darting footwork. Roach was skeptical, saying, "I'm not sure Amir passed the test, so much as the other guy failed it." By Wednesday, Khan further improved on his success, knocking Paris down with a liver shot off the jab. Afterwards, Roach nodded while speaking of his pupil, noting with reluctance, "Today, I was impressed."

 

Freddie Roach: "I put Amir in to spar with Pacquiao. I said to myself, 'Today, this kid will either fight or be sent home.' Amir gave Manny some trouble that day."

Posted 12:00 AM | May 4, 2010

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