Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 19 October 2019

Amir Khan eyes boxing breakthrough in Saudi Arabia to set up fight with Manny Pacquiao - potentially in Dubai

British boxer says he hopes to become the 'face of boxing' in the Kingdom as he plans to put on a spectacular show against Billy Dib

Britain's Amir Khan faces Australia's Nilly Dib for the WBC International Welterweight championship in Jeddah on Friday. Reuters
Britain's Amir Khan faces Australia's Nilly Dib for the WBC International Welterweight championship in Jeddah on Friday. Reuters

Amir Khan says he is using this week’s title clash with Billy Dib to both make a breakthrough in boxing in Saudi Arabia and prove his own career is far from finished – with major fights against the likes of Manny Pacquiao in his plans.

The Brit, 32, headlines Fight Night in Jeddah on Friday, when he takes on fellow former two-time world champion Dib for the WBC International Welterweight belt.

Khan had been originally slated to face Neeraj Goyat at King Abdullah Sports City’s Indoor Sports Hall, however the Indian withdrew following injuries sustained in a car accident. Khan last fought less than three months ago, when he was controversially stopped in six rounds by Terence Crawford.

Fight Night, part of the Jeddah Season Festival, represents the second high-profile professional boxing event staged in the Kingdom. Last September, the same venue hosted the World Boxing Super Series (WBSS) final, in which Englishman Callum Smith defeated compatriot George Groves for the Muhammad Ali Trophy.

Khan was impressed by Jeddah’s hosting and received endorsement from Smith, who trains out of the same gym in England. Khan said he was first approached about Fight Night eight months ago and decided on both competing at and putting on the event through his Super Boxing League promotion. Last month, he announced a long-term deal to open gyms throughout the country designed to promote boxing and fitness.

“It’s a massive opportunity for us to get out there and make a name in this part of the world,” Khan told The National from Jeddah. “At the same time Saudi wants to introduce more boxing to the country. So at least I can say one day that I helped grow it here and was one of the first guys to make history in boxing. And who knows, I could be the face of boxing in Saudi Arabia.

“For the Middle East it means a lot because they want to host the biggest events here and they’re doing that. They’re not all talk here. One thing about Saudi Arabia, when they commit to something they keep their word.

“Having a big boxing event here is only going to promote boxing in this country. Saudi’s not what people think it is; it’s a developed country. There’s a lot going on here.”

Khan, who is rumoured to be making £7 million (Dh32m) from the bout, has been criticised for the location of his latest fight, but said: “We’re trying to grow something in Saudi Arabia. That’s the reason I’m doing it. Money is obviously a factor, but boxing is new here and I want to make it big here and one day produce champions out of here.

“And we’ve started the gyms, to promote boxing and health. There’s a lot of hunger now in Saudi – they want the biggest fights here and they’re making that happen with Billy and me. We are giving them what they want.”

An 11th-hour replacement for Goyat, Dib operates typically a few divisions lower than welterweight. The Australian last fought at lightweight, in April, but spent the majority of his career at featherweight and super-featherweight. He was the IBF Featherweight champion between 2011 and 2013.

Khan said he cannot underestimate his opponent on Friday, especially after heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua’s shock defeat last month to Andy Ruiz Jr.

“Definitely,” Khan said. “It happened to AJ, it’s happened to other fighters as well. So I know the unexpected can happen and it’s why I never ever go into a fight thinking it’s going to be easy. I’m always going to train out of my skin. I would never think I could afford to make those mistakes, especially at this stage of my career.

“For AJ-Ruiz, everybody thought Ruiz [had] no chance. Just looking at both fighters you can’t put them on the same page, but obviously Ruiz caused the biggest upset in boxing. So it can happen in any fight; it can happen in this fight. That’s why I need to be switched on. If I want to have a good future in Saudi Arabia, and a good future in boxing, I have to make sure I do everything right.

“Billy is very dangerous. He’s a two-time world champion, and although he’s coming up in weight, you still have to respect a world champion and respect what he’s done in the game. I can’t take my eye off the game. Sometimes you can make mistakes when you make a change like this; a change can sometimes work for you, sometimes not. And I just hope it works in my favour for this fight.”

Coming only 10 weeks after the contentious technical knockout loss to Crawford in their WBO Welterweight title fight in New York – there were subsequent calls for Khan to retire – the 2004 Olympic medallist said the fallout from his fifth professional defeat, and the need to remain active, prompted the rapid return to the ring.

Khan said also that winning against Dib is not enough – he needs to do so in spectacular fashion.

“I just want to put that fight against Crawford behind me, and getting back to winning ways against Billy,” Khan said. “Because as a fighter you’re always remembered by your last fight and I want to just get a good win and carry on doing what I do best. When this fight came, as I said, these opportunities don’t come along often, so I had to take it.

“And you don’t want to look bad and people to say ‘maybe he’s done’; the last thing you want is people thinking that we should call it a day. You have to put on a great performance. I still feel young, fresh and healthy.”

Khan hopes a convincing display will open the possibility of another major contest in the near future. The WBC confirmed earlier this month that Friday’s winner would earn a top-five ranking, increasing his chances of another crack at a world title.

“There’s still big fights out there: you’ve got Kell Brook, Manny Pacquiao,” Khan said. “Some super big names in boxing that we’ve been talking about for a long, long time. One of those fights could happen. I’d be looking at any opponent. There’s a lot of options. It just depends who wants to take that fight. I’m still in that mix where I can get those big names.”

A clash with Pacquiao has long been mooted, with Dubai regularly put forward as a possible destination. Khan said recently that he had a verbal agreement to fight the Filipino, boxing’s only eight-division world champion and a former sparring partner, in Saudi in November.

Pacquiao, 40, meets the undefeated Keith Thurman in Las Vegas on July 20, in a welterweight unification bout.

“We did talk about it, that we’ll fight each other one day,” Khan said. “And it will happen - maybe it will happen next. It just depends on how he does in his next fight and how I do in mine.”

Pressed on what needs to occur for the fight to take place in Saudi, Khan said: “It’s up to the government to say yes to that and make it happen. Manny and me are friends, but it’s a business and if we’re going to go into the ring and fight one another we’d obviously take it seriously. It depends, if the deal’s on the table we will look at it and we get our advisors involved. We would make it happen.”

Asked if Dubai could be a realistic option, Khan said: “It’s all up to the top guys really; if Dubai wanted it, if Saudi wanted it. We have something good going with the Saudi government, but who knows? It’s such a big fight internationally that it could happen anywhere: America, England, Dubai, Saudi Arabia. So we’re keeping our options open.”

Khan commended Pacquiao for his longevity, but despite previously suggesting Dib could mark the end of his career should Friday not go to plan, the former WBA and IBF light-welterweight champion said only he would decide when the time is right to hang up his gloves.

“It just depends how I feel really,” Khan said. “I’m a fighter, I know today how I feel in a fight. Manny was [almost 34] when he got knocked out by Juan Manuel Marquez and a lot of people thought he should have called it a day. Since then he’s had some great performances and won some great fights.

“I’ll know when to call it a day and when not to. I’m not focusing on that just yet. I’ve achieved what I wanted to in boxing. I don’t think there’s any pressure on me - not at all. I’m just enjoying every bit of it now. I know it’s the last chapter, but I hope this chapter will be a long one.”

Updated: July 10, 2019 12:20 PM

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