Ken Jones: Prodigy must turn professional to punch weight

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The Independent Online

There was a time when the size of the crowd and how much money they kicked in determined the financial success of a fight. For the second Jack Dempsey-Gene Tunney championship match at Soldier's Field, Chicago, in 1927 about 150,000 turned up and paid $8.2m. But the big money since the Ali era has come primarily through television, even though Ali could put backsides on seats when he wanted to.

There was a time when the size of the crowd and how much money they kicked in determined the financial success of a fight. For the second Jack Dempsey-Gene Tunney championship match at Soldier's Field, Chicago, in 1927 about 150,000 turned up and paid $8.2m. But the big money since the Ali era has come primarily through television, even though Ali could put backsides on seats when he wanted to.

Because he was an international phenomenon, a crowd of 65,000 in Kinshasa, Zaire, saw him regain the heavyweight championship from George Foreman in 1974. Four years later Ali drew 70,000 at the Louisiana Superdrome for his rematch with Leon Spinks.

In each instance, even though the crowds were huge by modern standards, the television guarantee constituted the lion's share. The live gate income has not been the main source of income for star boxers and big-time promoters for years. Without television income promoters would very quickly go out of business.

Just as in the old days, however, when a fighter built his record and made his reputation in small local shows and provincial towns there are now television equivalents for all the steps in the process.

In Bolton today, Amir Khan will be shown "live" by ITV in a rematch with Mario Kindelan, the brilliant Cuban who outpointed him for the gold medal at the Athens Olympics last year. Proceeds from the contest will be divided between charity and the Bury Boxing Club where the 18-year-old Khan first learnt to box.

The attention Khan received across the airwaves and in newspapers as he fought his way to the Olympic final has brought him a status among casual observers of the sport that carries all the perils of potential.

If this is indeed Khan's last amateur bout - there is talk of him representing a team to box the Cubans in August - he is taking a big risk in seeking revenge against Kindelan, who would probably have made a fortune in the ring had he not - in common with other such notable compatriots as Teofilo Stevenson and Felix Savon - put his country first.

Perhaps Khan can overturn the odds against a man who is a Cuban national hero, and a favourite of Fidel Castro, after gaining three consecutive world amateur championships and back-to-back Olympic golds.

Defeat by Kindelan would be no disaster but further activity in the amateur ranks should be discouraged. When Khan, admittedly not in the very best condition, was put down by an average opponent, Craig Watson in the ABA Championships this year, there were plenty of people in boxing who said that it was time to get working on his suspect defence in a professional gym.

As I understand it, a trainer has already been picked out by the promoter Frank Warren who, as things stand, will guide Khan's professional career. It will be some time after today's event before Khan is again showcased on television, his development taking shape in a more traditional fashion.

The gulf between amateur and professional boxing is roughly that between preparing a TV dinner in a microwave and tackling Gordon Ramsay's duck à l'orange over gas. And of all the possible pitfalls for a new pro, none is more difficult to negotiate than choosing opponents during the transition.

The problem in making fights for Khan will be the one that A J Liebling, that most eloquent observer of boxing, nailed perfectly in his Sweet Science.

"In any art the prodigy presents a problem," he wrote. "Given too easy a problem, he goes slack, but asked too hard a question early, he becomes discouraged.

"Finding a middle course is particularly difficult in the prize ring... The fighter must be confirmed in his belief that he can lick anybody in the world and at the same time be restrained from testing his belief on a subject too advanced for his attainments. The trick lies in keeping the fellow entertained while enriching his curriculum."

Or, as Angelo Dundee put it at the outset of Sugar Ray Leonard's glittering career: "We'll let Ray get his feet wet first. But you can't start off against stiffs. All of us have seen kids who look like world-beaters, but for some reason they don't make it when the money is on the line."

Of course, Khan is no Leonard; however, there is one similarity. Khan, like Leonard has been made into a star by television while he is still an amateur. Whether he can make it all the way up to a professional championship remains open to question.

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