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TEAM KHAN (2018) review

November 18, 2018

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produced by: Oliver Clark, Blair Macdonald and Toby Welch
directed by: Oliver Clark and Blair Macdonald
rated: not rated
runtime: 97 min.
U.S. release date: November 16, 2018 (AMC South Barrington 30, South Barrington, IL) 

 

The kind of viewer who will benefit most from watching the boxing documentary “Team Khan” is someone who can compile on one hand just about all they know about The Sweet Science from the movies they’ve watched. That’s an assessment based on my own stance, since although I respect the sport, I primarily know about it by how it’s been depicted in movies. If you’re already aware of British-born Muslim professional boxer Amir Khan then watching what Australian filmmakers Oliver Clark and Blair Macdonald offer may be illuminating. It’s an opportunity to follow the fighter outside the ring, offering some personal and professional insights. Without knowing who Khan was prior to viewing the film, I walked away appreciating how “Team Khan” provided a well-rounded depiction of what he’s done so far and more importantly, the kind of man he is.

This is not a sports biopic, but instead a film that focuses on three key fights during a period in time (2014 through 2016) that saw the young fighter’s popularity skyrocket. Before the title appears on the screen, the camera closes in on Khan’s face as he reflects on where he’s at in his career and how he’s often criticized for who he is and what he’s achieved (or not achieved). We then see a montage of clips from his past – training in the ring as a young boy, winning a silver medal in the lightweight division at the 2004 Olympics at age 17, becoming Britain’s youngest boxing medalist, and on to pursue a professional career at 19 with the goal of fighting the best fighter at the time, Floyd Mayweather.

 

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We catch up with Amir Khan in Oakland, California, where he is training for a December 13th fight with southpaw welterweight Devon Alexander at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. Surrounded by his father/manager, Shah Khan and his brother Haroon Khan, Amir is overseen by his trainer, Virgil Hunter and his strength and conditioning coach, Tony Brady as he hones his skills and sharpens his aggressive speed, as Hunter comments to Brady how Khan’s “condition is phenomenal”.  Not long after this time in the gym, Khan is noticed and greeted by a fan at a grocery store and it becomes clear that this is someone who is easily recognizable to those in the know. Nothing about this moment is staged or rehearsed, it’s just one of many natural, real-world moments that Clark and Macdonald happen to capture as they follow the 28-year-old Khan.

Leading up to the fight with three-time world champion Alexander, we hear talking heads describe how “the stakes are high” for Khan and that he can’t afford another loss and how he’s been “rebuilt by Hunter” to get him into peak welterweight status. All that’s standard white noise for a story like this, what pulls us in is getting to know Khan and his expanding crew. Arriving in Vegas, they are greeted by his uncle and fight coordinator, Taz Khan, who gets them settled in anticipation for the fight, in the process passing a billboard advertising the main event.

At the hotel, we meet Amir’s enthusiastic business manager, Saj Mohamed and the team’s chef, Joe Turner, as the gang relaxes and plans out the next few days. This fly-on-the-wall approach offers viewers an understanding of the various machinations involved in ensuring Amir’s success. The next morning Team Khan is gathered at a nearby track, testing Amir’s speed and strengthening his stamina. As the fight nears, his mother, Falak Khan and his auntie, Faizal Khan, arrive to encourage Amir and lend support in the kitchen to make sure his food is appropriately weighed and measured. It’s scenes like this that reinforce the film’s title. After all, how far can a fighter go without a supportive team?

Meanwhile, Amir meets with his cutman, Jacob “Stitch” Duran, who wraps his hands and continues to spar in the ring with Hunter. Announcers can be heard over these scenes, stating how these next couple of years will be crucial for Amir, pondering whether or not he’ll be considering great or good. Then it’s one day before the fight and Amir can be seen being led around to different locations, always followed by media who ask him questions, many of them pertaining to how he’s been criticized and considered an overrated fighter, as WBA Champion Keith Thurman is seen stating, “because, to me, he’s yet to prove himself”. As the crowds gather, “Mayweather!” chanting can be heard, identifying the pressure that’s building for a fight on the horizon.

Prior to the fight at the MGM Grand, both Alexander’s and Khan’s teams can be seen prepping their respective fighters. The fight itself, which is televised on Showtime in the U.S. and on Sky Sports in the U.K., has almost 8,000 viewers in attendance and it winds up being a fight in which Amir dominates Alexander in twelve rounds, achieving a victory that led the judges to score heavily in his favor. Cameras follow Amir after the fight as press ask for quotes, where veteran Oscar De La Hoya can be spotted confirming to one reporter, “Let’s welcome Amir Khan!”, a promotion that’s understandable considering how the fight was a display of Amir’s formidable speed and hard combos.

The best moments of “Team Khan” come from what some may feel an unlikely perspective considering its a boxing documentary. It’s in the down time moments, apart from the fighting in the ring, where we get a glimpse of another side of Amir. He’s seen kneeling and praying in his hotel room after his Vegas fight. While the press continue to press on about there possibilities of Amir fighting Mayweather (who actually goes on to fight Manny Pacquiao), we follow him back to his UK home in Bolton and then to Islamabad to meet the Paskatani families of children who were victims of a Taliban-enforced school massacre and offer help to rebuild the school. It becomes immediately clear how popular Amir is in Pakistan, the people he meets mention that they are following him, supporting him and praying to Allah for him. There’s a scene where a member of security knocks on Amir’s hotel room door and admits his fandom, “I love you because you come here. There are so many people which have a lot of fame, but they don’t come here.” Apart from the fighting and training scenes or the interviews, much more can be gleaned by seeing Amir hang out with his family and fans.

It’s then announced that Amir will fight former WBO super lightweight champion Chris Algieri at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York  on May 29th, 2015, despite the media mentioning Mayweather yet again. Algieri had recently lost to Pacquiao with the buzz stating firmly that Amir will win. Algieri performed better in what was a farely close fight, but Amir landed more blows, making him the winner. Once again, talk of Amir fighting Mayweather follows this win and at this point it’s becoming redundant and annoying – even the commenters can’t help mentioning Mayweather. It gets old fast. Still, it’s clear Amir and his super-fast punches are developing a following. It’s just too bad we’re subjected to a random and needless scene where Jeremy Piven visits Amir in the locker room.

 

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What’s most interesting is how we see Amir respond and reflect to all this talk about a possible fight with Mayweather before or after each fight. He can be understandably frustrating with dogged reporters, since such a fight is something he’s dreamed about, but the reality of Mayweather moving on makes a fight unattainable, especially when Mayweather announces his career is over as he closes in on age 40. There’s speculation as to why Mayweather never agreed to fight Amir “King” Khan, like when we see De La Hoya pop up again, offering his own point of view, “There’s a reason why Mayweather didn’t want to take on Amir Khan. There’s a reason why Manny Pacquiao didn’t want to take on Amir Khan. He’s a difficult, crafty boxer.” 

For his next fight we see Amir moving up two weight divisions to middleweight to fight fight Saul Álvarez, a WBC champion from Mexico. It’s an ambitious move that all Amir’s fans are excited about and has his team scrambling to get him physically and mentally ready. The fight takes place back in Vegas on May 7th, 2015 at the T-Mobile Arena. The documentary follows the aggressive campaign and marketing leading up to the fight, which takes us to New York City and Los Angeles, which makes sense since here are the biggest fighters from their respective countries about to fight each other. The training leading up to this fight gets more intense, as we see Amir’s wife, Faryal Makhddom sharing her fears and hesitation as well as Hunter and watchful cornerman Don Eames studying up his their approach for Amir’s new challenge. That being said, this wouldn’t be a real story without coming across a loss.

If Amir Khan would’ve won his fight against Álvarez the world would’ve heard about it. To be honest, since I don’t follow the sport, I don’t know if such news would’ve come across my radar, but it may have received wider coverage. Nevertheless, it’s compelling to have such a devastating loss in a documentary in which viewers have come to know and understand who Amir Khan is and what each win means to him, his team and his fans. Seeing him get knocked flat-out in round 6 by Álvarez – a fighter who was clearly stronger, despite Amir’s speed (something Amir admits to later) – is hard, yet harder still is watching his concerned wife and family as he’s taken to the hospital to tend to his injuries.

The decision to have “Team Khan” only focus on a specific range of time in Amir Khan’s career, rather than offer a sequential look at his career, is a smart one. The film is able to focus more time on who he is as a person, not just a boxer. While it’s clear his life has been about boxing, a documentary should be more concerned with presenting more than what we expect, which is what Clark and Macdonald have been allowed to do here. Amir’s he’s confident he can be world champion again.

If it’s one thing I’ve learned about any good sports story, it’s that the heart and mind of an athlete is typically much more interesting than the intricacies of the sport – at least that’s where you’ll find the best stories. That’s something that’s reaffirmed in “Team Khan”.

 

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RATING: ***

 

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