When Floyd “Money” Mayweather Jr (49-0), until recently the best boxer in the world according to the P4P rating, and certainly one of the richest men in sport, announced his retirement, numerous boxing fans were hoping for a goodbye treat. The star finally decided to wage his final fight against Andre Berto, a choice many found disappointing. One of those who wanted a chance to take on Mayweather was Amir Khan (31-3), a British boxer born of Pakistani parents. Khan won a silver medal in Olympic box at the age of 17 and may now be one of the main contenders for Mayweather’s vacated titles. I leave it to boxing experts to assess Khan’s chances of taking over Mayweather’s trophies and I leave it to those who really know Mayweather to predict whether his retirement will be final.
It is Khan’s other activity that is of interest here.
In Pakistan, boxing is in such dire straits that Iqbal Hussain, secretary of the Pakistan Boxing Federation claimed in July 2015 that his organization “did not receive any funds from the PSB [Pakistan Sports Board] during the past two and a half years.” For this reason Pakistani boxers nearly missed the August 2015 Asian Boxing Championship in Bangkok, which served as a qualifier for the upcoming Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper reported that the boxers were preparing in “run-down facilities” with “torn boxing gloves.” Eventually, all those who went to Bangkok lost their bouts, and Pakistan stands little chance of sending a boxing team to Rio. The problem, however, runs deeper. In a cricket-mad country of more than 180 million people, not only is there money not there to promote promising boxers already in the sport, but there are also no funds to build from the ground level by establishing boxing schools and academies.
This is where Amir Khan comes in. Although born in Bolton in the U.K., Khan does not shy away from his Pakistani roots. In August this year Khan, having arrived in the country of his parents, announced the establishment of the “Amir Khan Boxing Academy” in Islamabad. A memorandum of understanding was signed with the Pakistan Sports Board on August 21 under which, according to Pakistani media, Khan “would provide coaches and boxing equipment for the Academy.” While this institution will be established in the capital, it is other areas that need more attention and that are more likely to become sources of promising boxers. “This will not be the only academy in Pakistan,” promises Khan. He was also seen touring Lyari, a notorious part of Pakistan’s biggest city, Karachi.
Establishing a sports school in a run-down area like Lyari would not be surprising. Boxers often come from difficult backgrounds. Consider Floyd Mayweather, who left behind a troubled childhood. The pride of the Philippines, Manny Pacquiao (whom Maywaeather recently defeated) came from a poor family, as did earlier Filipino boxing legend, Gabriel Elorde.
Many Pakistani communities not only lead a tough life that produces stout individuals, they are also exposed to incessant conflict that has destroyed local economies and robbed them of opportunity. For some, a sporting career could be a way out. Indeed, some of Pakistan’s present boxers already come from Lyari, among them Hussain Shah, the only Pakistani boxer to win an Olympic medal. Shah was born in Lyari in the 1960s, when it was admittedly not as notorious as it is now, but was already seeing decline.
So Amir Khan’s efforts are highly welcome. Much more money will be needed, however, and the additional challenge will be to stop it being lost to bureaucracy and corruption. Boxing in Pakistan will have to become much more popular if it is to attract sponsors, and this in turn will require victories by Pakistani boxers, or at least those of Pakistani origin like Amir Khan. In the end, the task may be nearly as difficult as facing Mayweather in the ring.