Former heavyweight world champion Foreman talks courage, fear, money and the man he could not beat.
Doha, Qatar – Amir Khan does not regret becoming an Olympic silver medallist at the age of 17.
But he does miss his youth, ruing the fact that his achievement – becoming the youngest British Olympic medallist – forced him to mature more quickly than he had perhaps wanted to.
Born in Britain but with parents of Pakistani origin, the two-time former world champion grew up in a society that kept a watchful eye on the Muslims, given what was happening around it.
Khan spoke to Al Jazeera about life as a father, discrimination against minorities in the UK, how the British society needs to let go of the “fear”, and how he wants “boxing to miss Amir Khan” once he retires.
Al Jazeera: From an Olympic medallist aged 17 to a two-time world champion now, how much have you changed as a person and boxer?
Amir Khan: I’ve changed a lot as a person. I think being put in that position at the age of 17 – becoming a high-profile athlete – everyone knew who Amir Khan was. It kind of made me mature a lot quicker than a normal 17-year-old would. I had to behave because everyone was watching me. I had to become a role model to so many children.
But with all the pressure on me, it also taught me to say the right things at the right time. I had to be very smart. I was still a boy then. That’s why sometimes I say that I miss my youth because when all my friends were going out partying or when they were going on school trips or holidays, I was in the gym training.
Al Jazeera: How was life for you growing up? Being of Asian ethnicity, did you face a lot of discrimination in the UK?
Khan: It wasn’t that bad for me. I represented Great Britain at the age of 17. I had so much love from everyone. So many other things, including post-9/11, were around. But me being a British-Pakistani Muslim, they saw me as their own. Everyone knew I was doing something positive, and I wanted people to follow in my footsteps – to do what Amir Khan was doing.
Al Jazeera: But apart from you, the youth of Asian origin in the UK don’t have a lot of role models and they are not achieving what you’ve achieved. Why is that the case?
Khan: That’s because most of our kids are quite lazy. They are not hitting the gyms. It’s not that they don’t want to achieve something, it’s that they think they can’t achieve it because they think they might get looked past and nobody will look at them. They’ll always have that racial thing in their head that they won’t get picked because they’re Muslims. That’s not the right thinking.
Al Jazeera: So how do they get past that thinking?
Khan: What I’m trying to do now is put their mind to rest and say: ‘Look at what I’ve done and achieved in the sport and on the global stage: representing my country even though I’m of Asian origin.’ I’m still representing Britain; I’m still winning titles for Britain even though my family’s from Pakistan. It’s all about going out there and achieving what I want to achieve.
That’s the message I give to all kids: If you have goals in life, go and achieve them. I’m a role model for Muslims. I’m a Muslim, but people don’t see me as a terrorist, and I want kids to follow in my footsteps.
Al Jazeera: But is there a need for British society’s perception towards Muslims to change too?
Khan: It’s the fear that needs to go – that’s what a lot of the public has. They think all Muslims are bad. The fear shouldn’t be there. They should be happy being on the same bus or being in a taxi with Muslims. We’re not bad people. We’re good people. The Quran tells us not to hurt anyone. It tells us to be respectful and good to others. And that’s what we want to do.
Al Jazeera: How does boxing help society? Can it help the youth?
Khan: Boxing plays a very important role. If you look at it, it channels your energy to something positive. If you’re going out on the streets, you’re going to channel it the wrong way: get into trouble or start fighting.
The youth use that adrenaline the wrong way. With boxing, you chose to go into the gym and build your energy where you’re surrounded by good people. Listening to your trainer helps you develop discipline. Boxing can change lives.
Al Jazeera: So how do you plan on promoting it?
Khan: I want to promote boxing in many places, especially where it’s not too big right now. I’m thinking of opening an academy here in Doha; Dubai has asked me for it, as well. I’m going to build five academies in Pakistan.
I’ve done the same thing in the UK: I have my own gym and facilities and have up to 200 kids coming a week. That’s 200 kids off the streets and 200 kids not getting into trouble. They burn their energy in a positive manner. This not only keeps you off the streets but also keeps you fit and teaches you discipline. And you get women [working out] in there, as well.
Al Jazeera: You’ve done a lot of work with children. But how has being a father changed your life inside and outside the ring?
Khan: It’s changed a lot in me. It’s changed the way I think – the way I am as a fighter. I’m also very disciplined and a dedicated person now. Because everything I make now in my career is for my family: my little daughter and my wife. I do it for them. I want to give them a better life. I never wanted to be one of those fathers who spoils their kids, but I want her to be very comfortable in life.
Al Jazeera: You’re also trying to make it a better life for others with your foundation.
Khan: The Amir Khan Foundation is a charity that helps emergency disasters. We build orphanages around the world. Our first project was in Gambia. I remember going there and I couldn’t believe how much poverty there was. So many kids on the streets and no education. So I thought: ‘Let me go and do my thing. Let me educate them so when they get older, they can help their youth.’
So we started an orphanage there for 200 kids with food, schools, mosques, and foster mothers. And that’ll be fully functional in the next six to nine months. For my next project, I want to do something in Pakistan.
Al Jazeera: You’re leaving your mark outside the ring. But what sort of legacy do you want to leave behind once you retire from boxing?
Khan: I want to be remembered as one of the fighters who was never scared of going into the ring with anyone, who was never afraid to fight anyone, one of the toughest, fastest and most exciting fighters in the world. And I really believe I am that. I want boxing to miss Amir Khan.
Follow Faras Ghani on Twitter: @farasG