How Amir Khan conquered Tourette’s Syndrome en route to martial arts stardom

Singaporean contender Amir Khan has already built a reputation as a finisher as he ascended the ranks of the lightweight division. But arguably the biggest win of his life came against an opponent he didn’t face in the cage – Tourette Syndrome.

A neurological disorder that causes his muscles to tic and twitch involuntarily, Tourette Syndrome has been a part of Khan’s life since his early years, where he struggled to manage the condition during his schooldays.

“Growing up, I used to have spasms,” he told ONE Championship.

“I used to shake my head a lot. I would blink my eyes and make facial expressions. When I was younger, it was really really bad. When I was in school, the other kids would pick on me and imitate me and stuff. It was tough growing up with it.”

However, stumbled upon an activity that helped to ease the symptoms – Muay Thai.

Khan started training in “The Art of Eight Limbs” aged 13. Prior to that, he followed in his father’s footsteps and played golf. He even harboured dreams of taking part in tournaments.

Muay Thai changed all that, as he discovered that training in the ancient art proved useful in his control of his tics.

“I believe martial arts has helped me through [my Tourette’s],” he said.

“Whenever I felt like I could not control my Tourette’s, then I would go to the gym and I would sweat it out. I felt relaxed and better after each session.

“In martial arts, you cannot really take your eyes off your opponent when you are sparring with him. You have got to really really focus, or else you will get hurt, so it definitely taught me how to focus, and I was able to bring it over into real-life situations.”

Khan’s desire to compete grew the more he learned about Muay Thai, and he entered his first amateur bout aged just 14. After more contests, he travelled to Thailand and trained in the sport’s spiritual home. It had a profound effect on him, and he decided to turn pro.

Prior to that point in his life, he’d found himself the target of bullies at school, but once his proficiency at Muay Thai started to become known around the school, the bullies started to give Khan a wide berth and the teasing over his condition gradually drifted away.

“After I started picking up Muay Thai, people started to say, ‘This guy knows how to fight,’ and they just talked [to me] a lot more,” he said.

“They seemed more interested in me, I guess.”

While his fellow pupils had started to take an interest in Khan’s pugilistic pastime, his mother wasn’t so keen. Understandably, the thought of her little boy getting hurt wasn’t one she was initially ready to buy into. But her son’s success in the ring eventually won her over.

“My mom was alright with me just training, but when I wanted to compete, she was not too sure about it,” Khan recalls.

“You know moms can be very protective. My dad supported me since day one. When I told him I want to compete in Muay Thai tournaments, he said: ‘Okay, just tell me what I can do to help.’

“My mom, after a couple of years, I tried to convince her that this is what I really wanted to do, and then she supported me in the end.”

With his family fully behind his endeavours, Khan eventually swapped the ring for the cage, as he joined ONE Championship as part of Singapore’s world-renowned Evolve Fight Team.

His performances have marked him out as one of the most exciting talents in ONE Championship today, and his run of form appears to have him locked in on a course towards the ONE lightweight crown.

Yet despite his accomplished performances inside the cage, he’s still often asked about coping with Tourette’s – and he’s always happy to share his story and explain how it now barely affects him during competition.

“Usually, inside the cage, I do not try to control the tics,” he explained.

“Sometimes, it comes up, but it does not affect me, because I learned to cope with it. Even if I were to move my head, my eyes are still on my opponent.”

After racking up a string of finishes, his most recent outing saw him go all the way to the scorecards with teak-tough Australian Adrian Pang at ONE: IMMORTAL PURSUIT. Their co-main event bout was one of the standout contests of 2017 in ONE Championship, as both men traded leather in a thrilling three-round contest at the Singapore Indoor Stadium in November.

While not able to get the finish on that occasion, Khan’s unanimous decision win over “The Hunter” extended his winning streak to six in a row. That run, along with his ONE Championship records for the most finishes (eight) and knockouts (seven) is making a compelling case for the Singaporean sensation to be lined up for a title shot in 2018.

Now the 23-year-old Singaporean stands on the verge of world title contention as he prepares to face Russian contender Timofey Nastyukhin at ONE: QUEST FOR GOLD in Yangon, Myanmar, on Friday, 23 February.

Victory against Nastyukhin could see him pitched into a title bout later in the year, where he could cap a remarkable run with a world title.