Before Amir Khan turned professional, he found himself on the top table next to the guest speaker, the boxing manager Nobby Nobbs, at a Boxing Writers' Club dinner. Amir, who received the Best Young Boxer of the Year trophy, was followed on to his feet by Nobbs, who persistently thrust a piece of paper in front of him. "Sign this, son," he urged, "and I'll turn you from Olympic silver medallist to journeyman overnight."
"Can't understand why he signed for Frank Warren and not for me ," Nobbs now muses with his droll delivery. "I even offered him a corner shop. With a blind."
Norman "Nobby" Nobbs is nothing if not a comedian. The tall, bald, big-hearted Brummie is the sort of salt-of-the ring character without whom boxing would struggle to exist. His stable of fighters are rarely without work. Most are what are known in the trade as "strictly opponents", hand-picked to test the best, but rarely win.
In fact, Nobbs calls his team "Losers Unlimited". Sooner or later, you'd have thought, one of them would be called upon to face the up-and-coming Amir, but so far it hasn't happened and the probability is that it never will, which is a measure of Nobbs' respect for the youngster, and his own men.
On Saturday night, at the Nottingham Arena, ITV will show Amir's fifth professional contest and his first six-rounder. Instead of calling Nobbs, they have called in an opponent from Belarus, Vitali Martynov, who has a record of 10 wins from 11 fights, seven by knock-outs.
Yet Nobbs has a lightweight named Peter Buckley, the most experienced fighter in the land, who has fought over 250 times and won only 31 though he has never been knocked out or badly hurt. Thirteen of his opponents went on to become world champions, and he was the first to take Naseem Hamed the distance. A model professional and at 36 the archetypal "opponent", but not, Nobbs insists, for Amir.
"There is no way I would let Peter fight him," he says. "Amir is a brilliant young prospect who really looks the business, and I have too much respect for Peter to want to see him humiliated in front of a big TV audience. He doesn't deserve that."
Have gumshields, will travel, is the philosophy of Losers Unlimited. As boxing enters one of its busiest periods for years, Nobby's squaddies await the battle call. At least a couple of Losers Unlimited will be on standby for the Amir undercard.
"All mine have got parachutes," Nobbs, 57, says. "When the light flashes, they jump." Undercard material they may be, but the man in their corner is certainly a bit of a card himself. Ask the pugilists' favourite patter merchant if he gets requests for after-dinner speaking and he replies: "Yes, but only from the Deaf and Dumb Society."
Like all good turns he has a routine, which goes something like this: "I was a colourful fighter - black and blue all over. My corner man was the only one to use a red towel, because it never showed the blood. It cost me sod-all in transport because I always went home in an ambulance. They used to call me 'Battling Rembrandt' because I used to spend so much time on the canvas. I was the only fighter with a cauliflower arse.
"I used to have three cuts men, one for my eyes, one for my knees and one for my bum. In my last fight there were 75,000 people at Villa Park - I had a bottle over my head when they played Manchester United."
Actually, he is kidding, because he never did box. "Well, I tried but I soon found out that I was crap and I ended up training the others when I was in my early twenties. I was a doorman for 20 years and I worked on the market, though I could have been a doctor, but I never had the patients!"
Joking apart, there is no more professional mentor in the business. The wisecracks may flow when he is in the corner, but the attention he gives his charges could not be more earnest. "I teach kids to look after themselves. The name of the game is to earn as much as you can without getting hurt. It's like when I was a doorman. If I got beat up I got 20 quid. If I didn't get beat up I got 20 quid. So what do you do? You don't get beat up. It's the same with my fighters.
"All the top amateurs and internationals go with the big- name managers. I get the kids off the streets. Any kid who wants to come to my gym and train can, and we teach them the right way to survive, because a kid who is easily hit isn't going to last very long and he won't earn any money."
Losing - usually on points against "prospects" - may be the name of the game, but the stand-up comic's boys never lie down. He has had a few champions too, though not recently. It is not just a case of they "coulda been a contender", either. Several have been. "I've had loads in title fights but they have never been lucky."
His gymnasium in Aston, Birmingham, is one of those spartan sweat emporiums that are the lifeblood of boxing. "Mind you, we do have running water - down the walls. And I always ask them to wipe their feet - on the way out."
Back to the serious stuff. "During the course of a year you can count on one hand the number of mine that get stopped. I've never put a fighter in just to get stopped. You would be running a meat factory if you did that. They always stand half a chance. I show them how to slip and slide. It's my job to ensure they don't get hurt. They may not win on paper, but they are winning in life. To me, they're all champions.
"All my lads earn their money legally. They don't rob, they don't knock old ladies on the head, so good luck to them whether they win or lose.
"It's like football, they can't all play for Chelsea or Manchester United. Someone has to play for Villa." Boom boom!Reuse content