There’s something about both boxer Amir Khan, and rapper Drake, that makes them polarizing characters. Given this polarizing quality, it’s no coincidence that their careers share a number of similarities. The goal here is to begin by examining two of these similarities to determine why Drake has generally been embraced by the public, while Khan has met with so much hostility. Upon identifying the reasons for Khan’s hostile reception, a further inquiry into the roots of this hostility will follow.
Despite their successes, both Drake and Khan have had their credibility challenged. Drake was given a safe upbringing in an affluent Toronto neighbourhood. This produces a problematic discord between his material and his biography. When he raps about being worried about losing members of his team, saying: “I don’t really know who I’ma lose this year,” listeners may furrow their brows. Who might he fear losing? Who has he lost? The friends of his puerile years who were sent to Europe for the summer? Those dearly departed classmates pursuing post-secondary degrees elsewhere? Nevertheless, this is an innocuous inconsistency, one in keeping with a genre of music that glorified murder for so long it’s a miracle anyone is alive.
While Drake’s defence hinges on a flaw within rap music—that of frivolous and tacit dishonesty—Khan has more favourable explanations at his disposal. When Prescott decapitated Khan three years ago, Khan’s credibility suffered a crushing blow. The scar tissue opened when an over-officious Cortez helped preserve Khan in his fight with Maidana. But until his loss to Peterson last night, Khan had been on a roll. Khan would annihilate Prescott at this point. He comported himself like a fighter against Maidana, albeit a fighter in distress. One might justifiably criticize Cortez, and erroneously argue for Khan’s mandibular fragility, but Khan remained upright. His credibility is buoyed by the nobility of his pursuit and earnestness of his effort. So while people may criticize Khan for his showing against Prescott, Maidana, and now Peterson (in a fight of the year candidate), it can’t be said that these performances warrant the vitriol so often directed at him.
Professional success also fails to produce grounds for the loathing exhibited toward Khan. Drake is heavily dependent on popularity to argue his merit: inevitably every apologist for the rapper will point to record sales to defend Drake’s talent since musical taste is so subjective. This is at best a misleading criteria: Nickelback has enjoyed incredible success while producing music that has been decried for so long that ridiculing them has become old-hat. This maudlin simulacrum of Missy Elliot; this manifestation of Ja Rule’s sublimated femininity, who pens his arrhythmic eunuch ballads with the lyrical complexity of a beginner’s ESL workbook—how fitting that he shares the name of a fishing bait, luring in tiny-brained, indiscriminate consumers. No, Drake need not be good to be considered successful. He need only be popular to be deemed a success.
Khan’s criteria for success is much more objective. For Khan, validation is harder to come by, but harder to lose once earned. The lofty estimation of his merits professed by supporters may be incongruent with his in-ring performances, but that isn’t Khan’s fault. Even a hypercritical examination of Khan’s ledger reveals a very good, but flawed fighter. His inability to fight on the inside, propensity to punch at instead of through the target, and absolute helplessness on the ropes, contributed greatly to his defeat to Peterson. He isn’t as good as the hype portrays him to be. But public frustration with the hype has nothing to do with the fighter. Khan is self-aggrandizing, but most fighters are. Thus, the flack Khan receives can’t be the product of a justified begrudging of his success as a fighter. The loathing is rooted in the assessment of Khan the person.
And while Khan the fighter performed admirably on Saturday night, Khan the person was a disaster. After losing a disputed decision to Peterson, Khan had every reason to be upset. Given the deprivation and sacrifice culminating in last night, Khan was understandably gutted. But how Khan comported himself in the post-fight interview validated all of the criticism he’s received. In choosing to focus on the referee’s involvement rather than his opponent’s effort, Khan displayed immaturity, and poor sportsmanship. This wasn’t Mares-Agbeko l, and Khan wasn’t fighting two men at the same time. Moreover, he was as guilty of violating the Queensberry Rules for more frequently than Peterson was. Playing the victim of impropriety is a typical response from someone who’s spoiled: when things don’t go as planned there must surely be someone to blame. But the fight was simply too close to be declared a robbery, and graciousness seems like a reasonable expectation from both combatants. Khan blamed everyone from the referee to the city of Washington, DC. He would be wise to not weigh his heart against the Feather of Ma’at.
Rather than place blame, Khan should’ve praised Peterson for his performance. It’s a lot to ask of someone unaccustomed to losing, especially when he’s being prompted to address the refereeing in the post-fight interview. But Khan is forced to walk a finer line in interaction with the fans of the sport (more on that later), and did himself a great disservice but showing such classlessness before the crowd. Those who already deeply dislike him are unlikely to alter their perception now. Khan took a step forward in proving his mettle as a fighter, and two backwards in changing the public perception of him. At least he didn’t play the race-card.
But he’s done so before. Which adds another interesting wrinkle to the relationship between Khan and the boxing community.
After being booed at a Prizefighter tournament, Khan provided this explanation for the hostility: “It’s probably jealousy and sometimes skin colour does make a difference.” Clearly hurt, Khan engaged and returned fire. The problem is that name calling generally isn’t a refutation of the slander one has received—it’s an attack on a different front. And by responding the way he did, Khan validated his critics. A more tempered response would’ve done much for his image. But even if Khan answered poorly, is there a grain of truth in his words? Does Khan’s ethnicity contribute in any way to the vitriol he receives?
It says here that it does.
Consider the case of Carl Froch. He’s a British fighter who surpasses Khan in arrogance, who complained about home-field shenanigans in his loss to Kessler—a fight as closely contested as Khan-Peterson—and yet Froch resonates with fans. It must be said that Froch has a much more entertaining style than Khan, and given his participation in the Super Six Classic, Froch has performed admirably against superior competition while incessantly running his mouth. These two factors may mitigate his arrogance, allowing fans to embrace him. But that explanation is unsatisfactory because, as has been shown, Khan’s ring performances aren’t paramount to the public’s perception of him. Floyd Mayweather comes across as one of the most arrogant and boorish characters in the sport. Yet he boasts one of the most passionately delusional fan bases in boxing. What’s the difference between Froch, Mayweather, and Khan?
Before answering this question it’s important address the role of nationalism in boxing. It’s only been a week since Cotto-Margarito ll had Mexicans and Puerto Ricans frothing at the mouth. Boxing has always spoken, and will continue to speak, to the spirit of nationalism. When national ties play such a strong role they can both subtly and blatantly impact the public perception of a fighter. Having noted this, the difference between the perceptions of the three fighters listed can be explained.
With Froch, the brash British fighter willing to face the best fighters on their turf, that arrogance is seen as a strength—a stiffened upper lip, proof of the unwavering self-belief required to meet the challenges he faces. He’s uncensored British fortitude, and championed for it. There’s no villainy associated with Froch’s routine, or the national pride it represents.
Mayweather’s often churlish schtick is stereotypical, and congruent with the personae cultivated by the rappers he associates with. But this stereotype is at worst embarrassing, at best laughable. There’s little to fear from Mayweather because he occupies a social stratum most don’t inhabit. Floyd occupies his own world, and is harmless to everyone excluded from it. Moreover, Mayweather’s American, and ultimately embodies the American rags to riches dream—he’s proof, however dubious, that the American Dream is a reality.
But when nationalism colours an appraisal of Khan, his faults are set against a more menacing backdrop. This is why the public demand for humility is so strong with Khan, why the criticism is so quick and scathing. Khan can be arrogant, like Froch and Mayweather, and he can be immature, but he can’t be those things and be unabashedly Muslim. Unlike Froch, who embodies a national virtue, Khan embodies an evil. Unlike Mayweather, who’s a harmless blowhard, Khan is associated with a ubiquitous and indiscriminate threat.
This isn’t to equate disliking Khan with being racist. Or to say that everyone who finds him distasteful does so because he’s from Pakistan or Muslim. This certainly isn’t the case. Khan provided ample justification for disliking him Saturday night by virtue of his conduct alone. The idea is that, because of the connotations associated with Khan’s nationality and religion, and the role of nationalism in boxing, Khan is permitted less leeway, less room for character flaws.
Perhaps this sounds unfair, and it’s unlikely that people will want to acknowledge the place of xenophobia and discrimination in their own thinking. But it contributes nonetheless. The puzzling thing is, Khan claims that the issue of race is present, and yet refuses to heed this heightened sensitivity to his flaws. Perhaps he ultimately doesn’t care about the public perception of him.
“I’m doing me,” indeed.
Check us out Monday’s live on the air for Halestorm Sports Radio presents: The Calix Boxing Report.