HAYWARD, Calif. — On Saturday night, Faryal Makhdoom — of Bolton, England, by way of Staten Island, New York, a 27-year-old mother of two with 868,000 Instagram followers — will kneel on a prayer mat in her hotel room. She will remain in that position — sujud, head bowed, praising Allah — until she gets a call informing her that her husband, Amir Khan, has survived his trial by combat.
Survival is a relative term in boxing, especially when you face Terence Crawford. But either way — in victory, or if you believe the oddsmakers, in defeat — Khan should leave Madison Square Garden with great satisfaction. Just getting there constitutes a victory over foes even more ruthless than the pound-for-pound king: fame, fractured self-confidence and the parabolic cycle of glory and ridicule.
After almost a decade, Amir Khan finally gets what he wants: a fair fight against the best in the world.
Almost eight million Brits were watching on the BBC when Khan, the first-born son of Pakistani immigrants, became the youngest Englishman to win an Olympic medal. That was 2004. He was 17.
Upon his return after winning silver, Khan found his world irrevocably changed. Autographs. Photographs.
“I could not even walk to the corner shop where I lived,” he recalls. “I’d have kids following me wherever I go. … I’d go for a jog, people would beep their horn, follow me in their cars.”
He’d accommodate most any request with a signature and a smile. Blessed with hand speed, skill and movie-star looks, Khan found fame something to embrace. He turned pro the following year, and by 2009 had beaten his first legend in Marco Antonio Barrera. His first world title, at junior welterweight, came later that year with a victory over Andriy Kotelnik. Soon enough, there would be wins over Paulie Malignaggi, Marcos Maidana and Zab Judah. By then, Khan was already calling out Floyd Mayweather.
Looking back, Khan’s weakness was his chin — not glass, but vulnerable against big punchers. A then-undefeated Breidis Prescott took him out in a matter of seconds. Danny Garcia had him gone in four rounds. They were upsets, of course, but each, in its way, a thrilling one. Khan never did anything small. And through it all, he kept calling out Mayweather, his great, if unrequited, preoccupation.
None of it diminished his fame in the U.K. By the time he met his wife, Makhdoom, Khan saw fit to have two weddings. The first took place at the Waldorf Astoria in New York. The second, back home in Bolton, a suburb of Manchester, made the cover of Hello! magazine.
“I woke up to millions of Facebook requests,” Makhdoom recalls of getting married at 22. “Overnight, I just became, like, a celebrity.”
It was a form of culture shock. From a strict Muslim family on Staten Island to an even stricter one in Bolton. But Makhdoom made it work, offering beauty advice and her own cosmetics line on YouTube and Instagram. In a year’s time, she was also a mother.
Lamaisah, their first child, celebrated her second birthday at a soccer stadium. There were Disney princesses and ballerinas, and a price tag of $130,000. Still, neither wealth nor family fully satisfied Khan. His career kept him in a perpetual state of yearning.
Unable to get Mayweather, Khan turned his attentions to Manny Pacquiao. When that failed, he moved up two divisions to fight a middleweight champion, the great Canelo Alvarez.
“I tried and tried and tried,” Khan says. “I always wanted the opportunity to fight for that pound-for-pound title. … There’s a lot of fighters out there who are scared of taking the big fights. I’m not one of them.”
Perhaps, given the size disparity with Alvarez, a little scared would’ve gone a long way. Instead, ego got the better of Khan. “I was totally against it,” says Virgil Hunter, his trainer. “There was no margin for error. … The size differential was enormous.”
As it happened, Kahn outboxed Alvarez in the early part of the fight. Then, in the sixth round came a right hand that left Khan on his back, limbs frozen, eyes glazed and blinking into the lights. Referee Kenny Bayless didn’t bother to count.
“A lot of fighters never come back from a loss like that,” says Khan, who required postfight surgery on his right hand. “It knocks your confidence. It knocks you as a person. … I had so many friends around me. And as soon as I lost that fight with Canelo, I saw a lot of doors close. I saw a lot of people leave. People just kind of left me and said, basically, ‘You’re done now. You’re not going to be a champion.'”
If victory obscures the fissures in every family, defeat reveals them.
By December 2016 — seven months after Alvarez, Khan’s confidence still shaken, his hand just free of its cast — long-simmering differences between Faryal and her in-laws became news.
“It was just a lack of understanding,” Khan says. “Faryal comes from a city. She’s a young girl. She likes to dress differently. Bolton’s a little town. The dress code’s a little bit different, being a Muslim …
“I was stuck in the middle. I kept it cool with Faryal. I kept it cool with my family. And I tried to resolve the situation.”
In fact, he didn’t keep it that cool. The next nine months would be the darkest period of his life, full of leaks and tips and slanted confessions, even a “sex tape” that predated his marriage. If Khan once represented the hope of a nation, now he symbolized the perils of fame. The Khans became lurid everyday fare for those most voracious of beasts — the British tabloids.
Then again, Khan himself — lost in isolation, pity and doubt — proved his own worst enemy.
“I wasn’t husband of the year,” he recalls. “I was a bit naughty at times. I used to get caught misbehaving, going out, partying, clubs, going out with other girls and stuff. … Fame is a b—- at times. Everything is printed in the tabloids.”
His undoing, however, wasn’t tabloid media, but social media. The affable, handsome Khan found his inner Raging Bull on Twitter, which is not a great forum for a cheating husband to air his jealous, make-believe grievances. This one, though, was a doozy, accusing Faryal of “moving on” with none other than heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua, whom, in fact, she’d never met, on the internet or in real life.
“It was a made-up message,” Khan says. “A lot of people were making all these fake messages saying that ‘Joshua messaged your wife and she messaged him back.’ Then I posted it on social media and said, ‘This has happened and it’s true. And I’m calling it over. She’s no longer my wife.'”
The causes of Khan’s downfall were clear: the aftermath of a devastating knockout, a good man behaving badly.
But the cure was less evident, and arrived in increments.
“I remember I went to see Faryal,” he says. “I apologized. I said, ‘Look, I don’t know what went through my head.’ And I totally changed my ways, changed the way I am.”
He begged. He pleaded.
He got back in the ring, won a couple of fights.
A year ago — just eight months after his fateful tweet — Faryal gave birth to their second daughter.
They went to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, as a couple.
Then, late last year, as he was negotiating to fight Kell Brook, Khan got a call from Billy Keane, an old friend from Los Angeles, asking if he was interested in fighting Terence Crawford.
Crawford has today what Mayweather and Pacquiao once had: recognition as the world’s best fighter. Of course Khan wanted Crawford.
He’ll make a guaranteed $5 million, plus a percentage of the British broadcasting rights — about $3 million less than he’d make for fighting Brook, a former champion from Sheffield, England, who’s on nobody’s pound-for-pound list.
“I’m not giving up size this time,” Khan says of facing Crawford. “I’m the bigger guy … the faster guy … the more experienced guy. If you look at my résumé, I’ve fought bigger and better opponents than he has.”
Crawford will have something to say about that, of course. Still, Amir Khan finally has what he wants: a fair fight against the very best. It’s an affirmation of who he was supposed to be, and perhaps therein lies the cure. Win or lose, he’ll know. Amir Khan doesn’t have to chase it anymore.
Someone must have been praying for him.