Amir Khan gets mistaken for the actor all the time. He says people knock on his hotel room door, asking for the actor, but he has to tell them he is the UK-born boxer, not the Hindi film star.
The 30-year-old grins as he says this, sitting in his St Regis hotel room in Mumbai, his right arm in a light cast after a training injury in Dubai earlier this week. Currently on a break from the sport, after undergoing surgery earlier this year, Khan is that rare active athlete who is venturing into the sports business and already seeking a role as a mentor and an entrepreneur.
“India has a massive (number of) semi-young and young children who have nothing to do, but are good fighters and are hard-working. The talent is here, we have to direct them, give them a chance and support them," says Khan, a two-time former world champion.
It’s the reason and explanation for why Khan and his manager-business partner Bill Dosanjh have decided to launch a Super Boxing League (SBL), between eight city-based franchises, from 7 July in Delhi. Their intention is to ride on the country’s growing sports industry and their ambition, to emulate Formula One as a sporting event that travels the world.
Dosanjh says the “success" of the Super Fight League (SFL), which the two co-own currently, gave them the impetus to organize the SBL. The SFL is a mixed martial arts league launched in 2012; the latest edition was held in January-February.
A SBL fight night, to be held on weekends, will comprise six fights in different weight categories—five men’s bouts and one women’s bout—between teams. Points will be awarded for wins and knockouts. Teams will be divided into two groups, and a total of 12 league-level matches will lead up to the semi-finals, and the final on 12 August.
The league, comprising 96 pugilists, offers prize money of Rs4 crore and team owners, like Hero Cycle’s Aditya Munjal, have invested about Rs6 crore each in buying the franchises. Dosanjh says the total investment in the league would add up to Rs100 crore.
The SBL has not been recognized by the sport’s domestic governing body, the Boxing Federation of India (BFI). This means that many domestic amateur fighters will not be able to participate. India does not have too many top-level professional boxers, with Vijender Singh being a notable exception.
But the promoters of the SBL do not see this as a problem, aiming instead to find home-grown talent and include foreign boxers as well—each team can have three foreigners as fighters. The league’s two British-born Asian promoters hope to leverage celebrity power to publicize and popularize the SBL.
Khan, who won an Olympic silver medal in 2004 at age 17, is a tabloid favourite in the UK. He turned professional soon after his medal and had a record of 31 wins and four losses before injury stalled his career. A few years ago, he moved to the US, driven by family feuds and a career that needed a leg-up.
He lost his last fight in May 2016 in Las Vegas after changing weight categories, but hopes to be back in November against an as-yet undecided opponent.
“I got the fan base in Europe and Asia," says Khan. “People will trust me because I have won titles. It’s better me fronting this league because I have been an amateur, a professional, I have a world title, been through highs, lows, wins, losses…everything."
The SFL got movie actors like Ajay Devgn, Tiger Shroff and Jacqueline Fernandez, among others, as team brand ambassadors and Dosanjh hopes to do the same with SBL.
“In the SFL, I had over 100 million social media co-owners," says Dosanjh, who is also chief executive officer of SBL. “If Jacqueline’s team is playing and she has 20 million followers, we have about 100,000 people tuning in (because of her). If everyone shared the link, we would have 1.5-2 million followers tuning in. If you monetize that in three seasons (of SBL), that’s a quarter- to half-a-million dollars in income per event from an international audience."
There are already murmurs of a fight between Khan and Singh, leading up to the SBL, to be built up as an India-Pakistan contest (Khan is of Pakistani origin).
“Vijender maybe will happen one day, it will be massive," says Khan. “He is learning, getting better, and has a long way to go. But I am my own boss; Vijender has bosses to answer to. He accepted a challenge…. It could be the biggest mistake he’s made but I am not going to trash-talk because I like the kid."
“I want to see talent. Who is the next big name I can pass on the baton to? I want the next champs to come from India and Pakistan, places I am close to," concludes Khan.