Over the last few years, and perhaps since network TV drew the curtains on boxing, HBO has proactively attempted to manufacture stars via careful matchmaking and PR blitzes before, during, and after a bout. Usually the beneficiaries of this treatment were picked because of potential, background story, personality, or because of ties with ubiquitous managers, but they were always picked, for better or worse, by HBO suits.
Now, with the help–or is it with the hindrance?–of an exclusive output contract with Golden Boy Promotions, HBO finds itself in the position of manufacturing stars for a specific promoter. In this case, it is Amir Khan, who will face Paulie Malignaggi over 12 rounds tomorrow night at The Theater in Madison Square Garden. Somehow, Khan is being puffed up and given the star treatment despite the fact that he is nearly anonymous to the American sporting public and despite the fact that Khan had his share of backlash even in England, from where he has been imported to play prodigal son across the Atlantic.
Khan began to lose popularity in England for several reasons. Because of some of his brash statements, for example, and because of a driving record that a Zimbabwean would be ashamed of. Khan has hit two pedestrians with his car and was once stopped for going over 140 mph on the M62. In addition, even in the UK, Khan was considered, to an extent, protected. Bypassing shots at the British and European titles also gave critics the ammunition they needed to say that Khan was being moved carefully. “It also didn’t help when the hype surrounding him at the start of his career far outweighs his talent,” says Dave Oakes, who covers the U.K. scene for The Boxing Bulletin. “Don’t get me wrong, he’s a very talented fighter, but he has one major weakness – his chin. The boxing fans in this country aren’t stupid, they know when a fighter’s being protected and they don’t like it. He’s fought one puncher in his career and got knocked out by him; I doubt he’ll be in with anyone who can punch any time soon.” When Khan was blasted out in 54 seconds by ESPN2 veteran Breideis Prescott in 2008, the cat seemed out of the bag, as far as some were concerned.
“Comeback” wins have included a strangely refereed fight against former bantamweight Marco Antonio Barrera, a decision over Andriy Kotelnik, and a first round mugging of limited Dimity Salita. It takes less energy these days to be a star in boxing than ever before, but this is almost slapstick material. “I’d say the boxing public are split down the middle on him,” Oakes says. “The negative opinions on him are more down to his perceived arrogant attitude and the way he was rushed onto PPV so quickly despite not being a world class fighter or taking part in world class fights.”
Still, Khan is popular enough to keep the turnstiles moving and keep the staff of the Daily Mirror employed, but the recoil against him is evident. Among the thousands who have paid to see Khan fight at the MEN Arena are a significant amount of boobirds, and Khan has suffered from the masochistic habit of reading message boards, a pastime not nearly as satisfying, one presumes, as hammering nails through one’s nostrils. Little can be gained from reading boxing forums, and Khan, perhaps, has gained less than most. The racist spewings and coarse personal insults–the very stuff of most boxing discourse in cyberspace–affected Khan and he might have made the mistake of judging all by the actions of few. A bitter Khan soon announced, “I know for a fact if I were a white English fighter maybe I would have been a superstar in Britain, and the world.” This did not help his cause, nor did threatening to sue Facebook for its “I Hate Amir Khan” groups seem like the wisest move in retrospect.
This is an awful lot of baggage to lug onto a Virgin Airlines flight, but Khan has continued to raise a ruckus ever since he landed in California to train under the eye of Freddie Roach. Indeed, at the rate Khan is going, he may soon need a containment dome to control the public relations disaster he seems intent on spilling across the dicey seas of boxing.
It began with the revelation that Golden Boy Promotions reportedly guaranteed Kahn a minimum of $1.25 million per fight, an absurd sum for a boxer with no track record whatsoever in America and who has a weak pay-per-view history in the U.K. This madness was quickly followed by news of a bizarre contract GBP offered to Marcos Maidana: stay away from Amir Khan for three fights or a calendar year and we will pay you fat purses to fight on HBO. “Maidana agreeing to fight Cayo,” wrote Dan Rafael at ESPN.com, “is part of a plan in which he’s agreed to delay his mandatory fight with full titleholder Amir Khan…”
GBP then took the unusual step of matching one its fighters, in this case Maidana, tough, with fights against Victor Cayo and a signed matchup with the best junior welterweight in the world, Timothy Bradley. This sudden reversal in matchmaking policy for a company that loves to throw lightweights in with welterweights and insists on generation gaps between contestants has some people thinking GBP is trying to get Maidana knocked off before he has a chance to lay a glove on Khan in the ring.
Since then, Khan has posted ridiculous Tweets concerning Marcos Maidana, was alleged to have sent nude–or “saucy,” as Barry McGuigan put it–texts to, umm, model Leanne Crow, and engaged in a weigh-in riot, instigated by his own belligerent cronies, with Paulie Malignaggi. Khan also gave an interview to GQ in which he stated his intention to fight opponents when they are over the hill: “You have to know the best time to have these big fights in your career. If you look at Oscar De La Hoya, he fought all the best fighters when they were on the way downhill, and not at their best. I want to catch these guys when they have come off their peak. But I have to be careful because there might be a younger version of me coming up who wants to do exactly the same to me.” Given how Golden Boy operates–and the first match they proposed for Khan was a bout with former featherweight champion Juan Manuel Marquez, who smelled the aroma of “patsy” and wisely turned it down– Kahn will no doubt get his wish.
Khan is talented–he has fast hands, power, and a good work ethic, but he has accomplished little to be suddenly put into the position of HBO headliner earning over a million dollars, and his PR foibles make it harder to see just how, exactly, his prefab superstardom will play out.
And Malignaggi? It is Malignaggi who draws decent ratings on HBO; it is Malignaggi who has stepped through the ropes with solid competition; it is Malignaggi, with appearances on Showtime, Versus, ESPN2, HBO, MSG, and pay-per-view, who has the higher profile. And Malignaggi has never been wiped out by a journeyman fighter in less than a minute. Marketing in the fight game has always had its surreal aspects, and the strange case of Amir Khan is no different. At this point, his curious ascension resembles a cross between a Duchamp readymade and an Yves Tanguy painting. Throw in a hint of the Marx brothers and you have all the ingredients necessary to develop a star in boxing.
Ultimately, it will be what he accomplishes in the ring that will either make or break Khan on this side of the Atlantic. But he has already stumbled in America, and if he thinks the message boards in England are vicious, wait until he gets a load of what happens here.