Amir Khan was the only Commonwealth boxer to win a medal in the Athens Olympics, which says a great deal about him but not too much about the quality of Commonwealth boxing. No matter, the 237 combatants who assembled here may not be class acts by Amir standards but the early stages of the tournament at the cavernous Melbourne Exhibition Centre witnessed their fair quota of blood and thunder. The Friendly Games? Not when you are endeavouring to punch the lights out of each other.
At least Amir is with them in spirit, telephoning a good luck call to the England team and in particular to 20-year-old Frankie Gavin, his regular sparmate before Athens. Last night the Birmingham southpaw who has taken over Amir's lightweight berth showed he has got the message with a smartly worked victory in his opening bout, outscoring Ovidiu Bobirnat, of Cyprus, 16-5. It was a skilled, punch-perfect display of which Amir himself would have been proud, especially as the "Cypriot" is not quite what he seems. He is in fact a 27-year-old Romanian who won a bronze medal in the world championships before his "adoption" by Cyprus, where he has made his home.
Gavin rated this as one of his best three performances, and vows to return with gold, saying: "Losers aren't remembered. Gold medallists are. Hopefully I can go down he same road as Amir. He's an inspiration to me."
So he is to another 20-year-old, James DeGale, the eye-catching London middleweight who started his campaign oozing his trademark confidence with a blistering 98-second stoppage of hapless Fijian Tomasi Naivaqa, throwing a dazzling array of combination punches that earmark him as a future pro champion. "Early days yet but the power's there and I'm already feeling on top of the world," he said. National coach Terry Edwards, whose boys certainly had a g'day in Oz, warned him: "If you don't get the gold we're leaving you here!"
Like most of the team DeGale has had a red streak put in his hair, though a couple of Merseyside members declined because they are Everton fans. Silver-haired Edwards, 61, promises he will join the red brigade if they meet his prediction of eight medals in Saturday's finals.
This is a tournament cloaked in controversy. There's a light-heavyweight from New Zealand, Soulan Pownceby, who has served four years in jail for the manslaughter of his baby daughter and a Tongan has been ruled out because he ison an assault charge. The bouncer who was cleared after the incident which led to the death of Aussie cricketer David Hookes in a pub brawl two years ago has been helping coach their team.
Controversy goes hand in boxing glove in this sport where both audience and boxers know the round-by-round scoring. Thus the English heavyweight Danny Price, first of the 11-man squad to exit on Friday, knew he was being fight-clubbed out of it by an Australian painter named Brad Pitt. He did his best to catch up but admitted he boxed below his best. "Three months of my life wasted," he sighed. "I've let everybody down."
Edwards, who defended Price's contentious selection, told him he hadn't and insisted he was still a prospect for Beijing. But Price remained inconsolable. In boxing it is not so much the aching jaw but the aching heart that hurts the most.