THE KIMBALL CHRONICLES: Visa Woes Dogged Khan, But Fight Goes On

BY George Kimball ON May 12, 2010
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NEW YORK – Given what we know of the way these matters are handled under the Patriot Act, the wonder shouldn’t be that it took Amir Khan two weeks to get back into the country, but that he didn’t wind up in Guantanamo instead of at the Madison Square Garden Theatre this weekend.

Saturday night’s WBA junior welterweight title defense against Paulie Malignaggi came nearer to foundering than most people realize, at least in part due to a miscalculation on the part of Khan’s U.S.-based promoters, Golden Boy, who appear to have blithely assumed that their client’s work visa would be routinely rubber-stamped with a quick visit to the United States Consulate in British Columbia.

There don’t appear to be many boxing fans operating out of the Department of Homeland Security these days. You may recall that a Ghanaian named Godwin Nil Dzanie Kotey was supposed to train Joshua Clottey for his March fight against Manny Pacquiao at Cowboys Stadium.

Kotey, who had spent considerable time in the states previously, flew back to Ghana over the Holidays, figuring that he would just drop by the U.S. embassy in Accra to pick up his visa stamp the way he always had. In the meantime, however, a Nigerian named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a/k/a the Underwear Bomber, tried to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight en route to Detroit on Christmas Day. By the time Kotey presented himself at the American embassy, Homeland Security had issued new screening guidelines for visitors from West African nations, leaving him without a hope of being approved in time for the Pacquiao fight, which is how Lenny De Jesus wound up as Clottey’s chief second in Dallas.

Amir Khan is a British subject who also holds Pakistani citizenship, and exactly what made Golden Boy think his application would be routinely processed in 2010 remains unlearned. The paperwork was filed in March, according to GBP COO David Itskowitch, by which time Khan, on a visitor’s visa, was already in Hollywood, at trainer Roach’s Wild Card Gym. The P1 Visa needed to be obtained outside the United States, so on April 23 the boxer was dispatched to Vancouver, on the understanding that he would be back in the gym two days later.

It was everyone’s misfortune that a week later, while Khan’s status remained in limbo, Faisal Shahzad tried to turn Times Square into an ash-tray by converting a secondhand SUV into a firebomb. Like Khan, Shahzad is of Pakistani ancestry. Unlike Khan, the bomber had an American passport.

The most likely explanation for the initial delay was Khan’s dodgy driving record back in Britain. He is 22-1 in the ring, but has been less successful behind the wheel of an automobile. Three years ago he ran a red light and injured a pedestrian. Then came a speeding ticket and a thousand-pound fine. In a third incident, he hit a bicyclist with his car.

Even taken together the driving offenses don’t necessarily constitute moral turpitude, but they might help to explain why Homeland Security had decided to give his case a closer look even before the Times Square episode put all Pakistanis under extra scrutiny.

Once it became clear that Khan wasn’t going to come zipping back over the border anytime soon, Roach made the best of a bad situation, moving the training camp to Vancouver, lock, stock, and barrel. Given the run of the Sugar Ray Gym in that Canadian city, Roach, conditioning coach Alex Ariza, and sparring partners Vernon Parris and David Rodella worked with Khan in Vancouver last week. The visa was finally approved on Friday, and the boxer and his entourage decamped for LA before flying to New York on Sunday.

Unlike the always-bustling Wild Card, the Vancouver Gym actually facilitated private workouts by locking the Khan party in, and Amir, who probably still doesn’t realize just how tenuous the situation had become, reportedly welcomed the opportunity to work out under more intimate conditions. (“If I’d been up there with my whole team it wouldn’t have bothered me, either, said Malignaggi (27-3), who doesn’t expect the distraction to be a factor at all Saturday night.)

Itskowitch says that to this day he has not been provided with an explanation for the two-week delay, but then he doesn’t expect one. “As a security measure, they never explain their reasons, said the Golden Boy operative. “Any time they explain something, it could be a tipoff to a potential undesirable to know what they’re looking for.

And as it turned out, obtaining the P1 visa didn’t get Khan completely out of the woods with Homeland Security. There does not appear to be a great deal of communication between the various federal agencies, as the boxer was detained when he attempted to re-enter the U.S.

“Even once he’d gotten the visa, when we got to the border Amir’s name got flagged on some terrorist watch list, said Roach. “They held us there for two more hours until they figured out it was a different Amir Khan.

Khan, in any case, must have been on his best behavior in the presence of U.S. consular officials, because if he’d started talking the same smack in Vancouver that he did at Wednesday’s press conference, when he promised (a) to shut Malignaggi’s mouth (b) to “teach him a lesson, and (c) to “hurt his American foe, he’d probably still be waiting.

For those of us who remember our introduction to Khan as a soft-spoken but talented lad of 17 who boxed his way to an Olympic silver medal at the Athens Games six summers ago, his debut performance at the MSG dais was disappointing.

Amir might have been better served by displaying a touch of humility, but instead conducted himself like the second coming of Naseem Hamed. Having been exposed to his father Shah’s ten-minute rant, it’s easy to see where he gets it.

* * *

Malignaggi by comparison seemed almost rational and restrained, though he groused about his apparent dismissal by Team Khan.

“I’m used to being the ‘B’ side in my fights, but all you keep hearing about this one is who Amir Khan is going to fight next, complained Malignaggi, whose parting shot was to remind the champion “Be careful what you wish for, Bro!

Garden Executive Vice President Joel Fisher is predicting a sellout at the 5,600–seat Theatre Saturday night. The HBO telecast will commence at 9:45. The network will showcase the potentially show-stealing co-feature, a crossroads fight for both former lightweight champion Nate Campbell (33-5-1) and 23 year–old Kansas up-and-comer Victor Ortiz (26-2-1).

HBO also plans to show highlights of unbeaten (19-0) New York middleweight Danny Jacobs’ undercard fight. The question is: Will there be any?

Not only did the network approve Mexican-born Juan Astorga (14-4-1) as the opponent for Jacobs in his 10-round prelim, but both the NABO and NABF have sanctioned the bout for minor titles. Doesn’t anyone remember watching Astorga’s execrable performance in his last fight? In the very same building four months ago he fell down the first time John Duddy so much as waved at him, and lasted less than two minutes.

HBO will cover the New York show with a two-man broadcast team of Bob Papa and Max Kellerman, not because Emanuel Steward is in Ireland with Andy Lee (who fights former European middleweight champ Mamadou Thiam in Limerick Saturday), but because that will apparently henceforth be the norm for all Boxing After Dark telecasts. HBO has no plans to replace Lennox Lewis.

Even Roach had to admire what he termed a bit of “psychological warfare on the part of Paulie Malignaggi’s promoter Lou DiBella, whose decision it was to add 21-2 Breidis Prescott to Saturday night’s undercard at the Theatre, where he will be opposed by Jason Davis (11-6-1) of Vancouver, Washington.

“Nice touch, Lou, bringing Prescott in, grinned Roach, who three weeks later will be back in New York to collect his fourth Trainer of the Year award from the Boxing Writers Association of America.

Prescott might represent a walking nightmare to Khan and his handlers, but it’s safe to say Roach doesn’t lose much sleep thinking about him. A year ago September before a packed house in Manchester, the then 25 year-old Colombian required less than a minute to knock out the previously unbeaten 2004 British Olympian.

Prescott, it might be noted, had been personally approved as an opponent by Jorge Rubio, the Cuban named to replace trainer Oliver Harrison after Khan’s handlers appeared to have offered the job to Roach. The error in judgment, in any case, led to Rubio’s stay in the Khan corner lasting exactly 54 seconds, and probably improved Freddie’s negotiating position the second time around.

Other bouts on the card will showcase a pair of unbeaten but largely untested DiBella prospects, 11-0 New York heavweight Tor Hamer and 8-0 New Jersey junior middle Dennis (Mama’s Boy) Douglin, who will be opposed, respectively, by 6-0 Floridian Kelvin Price and 13-18-1 Kenya journeyman Joshua Onyango. Irishman Jamie Kavanagh, a Roach-trained 140-pounder from Dublin, will make his pro debut against William Ware (1-2) of Athens, Ga.

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