Star takes on toughest challenge in new TV series
Amir Khan is no stranger to tough situations. At the tender age of 17, he fought one of the all-time Olympic greats in the 60kg boxing final for the gold medal.
He turned professional at just 18, since when he’s fought – and defeated – a succession of ever-more impressive and high-profile boxers. And he’s done it all in the unrelenting gaze of the public eye.
But nothing prepared him for his latest task: Taking six volatile youths with discipline problems and violent, often criminal histories, and trying to turn their lives around in a month. Even the normally unflappable Khan admits that he was unaware how tough an experience it would prove. The result is a three-part series for Channel 4, Amir Khan’s Angry Young Men, documenting Khan’s efforts to instil the discipline of boxing into these troubled youths.
It is a powerful, at times troubling series, but the efforts of Khan and his carefully appointed mentors are unstinting, and the results are astonishing. Here, Khan reveals why he cared so much about the project, what effect it had on him, and what’s next in the rollercoaster ride for this remarkable young man.
Why did you want to make this series?
I just wanted to giver them a chance, in a way; those six angry young men. They’ve had a tough life, and they wanted to change their lives around. Boxing is the toughest sport out there, and it’s going to give them discipline and help them to control their lives better.
Why are you so bothered about whether or not their lives get better?
I suppose because if I hadn’t taken up boxing I would’ve been a naughty kid. I would’ve been on the streets if I had nothing to do. I was a hyperactive kid when I was younger, and boxing helped me to keep my aggression in the gym and off the street. It stopped me messing around and kept me out of trouble with the police. It kept me going to school as well. And if boxing can do that for me, I wanted to pass it on to other youngsters, let them know that it can do it for them as well. It’s helped me so much, I just want to pass it on. I was like a mentor to them, you know? I was explaining to them about my life and what’s happened to me.
Did it seem to make a difference to them?
I can definitely say that the experience raised their self-respect and taught them discipline. They were dedicated guys at the end of it, who wanted to achieve something out of it all.
It wasn’t all plain sailing, though, was it?
We had one lad who walked out in the first week, so I thought after that it would be too hard for all of them. I thought that if one had left, the others would decide they just wanted to walk away too, because it’s really tough. But the other guys stuck to it, the other five, and they went on with the programme and finished up in a positive way.
You talk about how tough it was for them. It looked pretty tough for you as well.
It was very tough. It was the first time I’d done something like this, it was new to me. I think the only thing that made it easier was that they were similar ages to me, so I could speak to them on that level where I’m not just going to drum in stuff that they don’t want to listen to. I could make it interesting for them, and enjoyable as well.
Did you get on with them all pretty well?
Yeah, we all had a good relationship. They respected me and I respected them. We got on as friends, and they could come and say anything to me, tell me anything, and I could say anything to them as well.
Have you heard from any of them since filming?
The good thing about it is that I’ve heard from their parents more than anything. They’ve sent messages, we’ve had letters saying “Look, you’ve changed our lives,” they’ve done so well. They’ve changed as people. They’ve got jobs, whereas before when they went for jobs they used to get turned away because of their history. A couple have been in prison, they had tough backgrounds, but the message we gave them was not to give up, and they didn’t. They never gave up, they kept trying, and now they’ve got jobs, they’re earning money in a decent way, their families say that they’ve changed, and things are going really well for them.
Will they come and see you fight?
Oh definitely, yeah. They said they were going to come to the fight, and we’d love to have them there. We’ll sort them out with tickets and whatever, and definitely, if they want to come, they’d be most welcome.
In one of the programmes, you mention that sometimes when you go out, you’ll get idiots who challenge you to fights. Does that really happen?
Yeah, you get the odd few who might challenge you. They’ll say: “Look, you think you’re a boxer, but I can take you on.” And I’ll just turn around and walk away. I’ve got better things to do than fight on the streets with my bare hands. I’m a sportsman. I can walk away from that. But the lads on the programme have always found it difficult to walk away from that. They’ll stand there and have a scrap with someone. But I taught them to walk away. You don’t just stand there and fight someone. It takes more of a man to walk away, and that’s what they’ve done.
How did you get into boxing in the first place?
I was a young, hyperactive eight-year-old, I’d get into trouble with my little cousins, messing around with them. Back then there was a boxing gym round the corner from where we lived. My dad took me down there, and since then I’ve just stuck at it. My family and everyone supported me, and it’s taken me so far. Now it’s a job for me. I wake up, go to the gym, I fight, and it’s a well-paid job.
When you went to the Olympics at just 17, did you have any idea you’d do so well?
Yeah, I always had it in my head that I could become a champion. I knew I could be a world champion, and I’m going to be a world champion. It’s always been in me. I think that’s one of the reasons I’ve got this far. I always had ambitions, and I’ve still got them.
Were you prepared for how your life changed when you got back from the Olympics?
Yeah. That just comes naturally, really. I knew people would want to see me because of what I’d done in the Olympic Games. That just comes with the package. But having the support of my family backing me up and keeping my feet on the ground has helped a lot. It never went to my head or anything.
Your faith is very important to you as well, isn’t it?
That’s right. It’s a really big part of my life. It even helps me in my boxing. It tells me the rights and wrongs in life. My faith also helps me to focus, and gives me that strength in what I do. We tried to pass that on to the lads. They took it on board. A couple of them went to church, a couple went to mosque, and they experienced it and enjoyed it.
Do you think it’s particularly important for you to be a role model because you’re a British Muslim?
I think so, yeah. I think they need more role models like myself, to say the right things. There are a lot of bad things happening out there – shootings, bombings, stabbings. And people like me sending the right message across can help to stop all that. I’m totally against all of that stuff, and so are my family. We wanted to help, and that was one of the reasons we wanted to make this programme. We want to help change things in society. When people see this series, hopefully they will realise that if these guys can change, so can others.
What ambitions do you have left in boxing?
I want to be one of the youngest world champions to come out of Britain. And then I want to defend it, and move up a couple of weights and win world titles at other weights as well. And then I want to finish up as a role model and a legend. I want people to talk about me after I’ve finished boxing as well.
Amir Khan’s Angry Young men begins on Channel 4 on Tuesday 21 August at 11:05pm.