Boxing: Funtime Frankie emerges from Amir's shadow to hit big time

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The Independent Online

"Funtime Frankie" wasn't having much fun last week. Britain's first-ever world amateur boxing champion, an avid football fan, watched glumly from his sickbed as Scott Carson's howler propelled England towards their Euro exit on Wednesday. If only the Aston Villa goalkeeper's handling had been as positive as Gavin's when the Birmingham southpaw secured his historic gold medal in Chicago three weeks ago.

As the cracks widen in football's shaky citadel, the rebuilding of boxing as a major force in British sport has been cemented not just by the pros – with seven current world champions – but also at the very foundations where the amateur game is making a cracking comeback.

Lightweight Gavin's victory in Chicago, where three other England team-mates, Bradley Saunders, Joe Murray (who both won bronze medals) and Tony Jeffries also qualified for next year's Olympics, will be celebrated at London's York Hall on Friday when England take on the United States. It was 46 years ago this month that the same fixture saw England's memorable 10-0 whitewash of the Americans, and the amateur sport here is on a similar high again, thanks to Gavin and the fast-rising star he once understudied, Amir Khan.

Khan's Olympic silver medal as Britain's lone ring ranger in Athens was the catalyst for the renaissance that has been accelerated by proper funding from Government agencies (about £2.5m), the timely "professionalising" of the Amateur Boxing Association and the stifling of the political correctness that saw boxing banished from schools.

The 22-year-old Gavin, having recovered from a bout of flu, was given a hero's reception on the pitch at the club he supports, Birmingham City, yesterday, a prelude to the one Funtime Frankie – although no extrovert, he is so known because of his fondness for playing practical jokes – will receive at York Hall.

He has finally emerged from shadow-boxing Khan to lead a new generation of young fighters who no longer need to hastily trouser cheques from professional promoters once they show signs of potential. Gavin, who once worked as a part-time lifeguard, now collects £25,000 a year tax free, and support packages for him and other elite amateurs can be worth at least another £30,000.

Even so, Gavin confirmed to us that he will still go pro himself – but only after Beijing. "I can't see myself staying around for London," he says. "I went to Chicago to qualify for Beijing and I was not really looking for the gold. Frankly, I was scared to death – not of getting hurt but of losing and letting everyone down. When I saw the draw I went 'Cor, there's no way I can get anything here'. I had six bouts in 11 days but I boxed out of my skin, and when I beat the world No 1 [Russia's Alexei Tishchenko, who had not lost for four years] in the semis, I thought 'Hang on, this could be on'."

Gavin's final victory over the Italian Domenico Valentino came a few hours before Joe Calzaghe's conquest of Mikkel Kessler in Cardiff, and consequently was submerged in the euphoria of that night and the triumph in Paris by cruiserweight David Haye a week later.

But Gavin's was a performance that Khan describes as "fantastic". Khan, whose 21st birthday bash against Graham Earl in Bolton on 8 December is already a 7,200 sell-out, says: "I've shared many training camps with Frankie and we've been room- mates. We sparred a few times too, though we never actually boxed each other. I couldn't be more thrilled at his achievement. I always thought he was in with a medal chance but to get the gold was brilliant. I'm glad to hear him say he will be staying on for Beijing, I think that's the right decision, although he'll probably have a lot of offers.

"Even if the Cubans are back for the Olympics I don't think he'll have many problems. The Cuban who has taken over from Mario Kindelan, who we've both fought, isn't as good. I met him in the world juniors and beat him 24–9, with two standing counts, so Frankie has a great chance and could even be favourite for the gold. If he gets it, I'll be the first to cheer.

"He could probably make a go of it in the pro game later because he has got that toughness and he can adapt. In some ways he is just like me with his fast footwork, but he will need to make some adjustments to his style as I did. What makes him such a good amateur is that as a southpaw he can dart in and out using that jab. He is awkward and more of a counter-fighter. He'd make a great opponent because like me he's a big, tall lightweight and quite muscular so eventually there could be a great match-up between us."

National coach Terry Edwards, whose astutely assembled Olympic Games plan could be further rewarded in the two remaining qualifying events next year, when super-heavyweight David Price recovers from a broken hand, has long been singing Gavin's praises. "I've kicked his arse a few times, too, but I honestly think he's got the skills of Amir. To beat that Russian, a world and Olympic champion, by nine points was just phenomenal. Obviously, I'd love him to stay on for London but if he gets on the podium in Beijing his stock will go sky high." Finally, it's big time for Funtime.