Boxing: Caravan Kid ensures amazing amateurs are travelling nicely

Billy Joe Saunders is one of Britain's magnificent seven set to punch above their weight in Beijing. By Alan Hubbard
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The Independent Online

Boxing's magnificent seven were acclaimed in the O2 Arena ring in the early hours of this morning. Not the seven world professional champions, who included the cruiserweight combatants Enzo Maccarinelli and David Haye, but the seven Olympians who will be representing Britain in Beijing this summer.

How many of them will be back in the ring after the Games without their headguards and vests is a question that vexes Team GB's head coach, Terry Edwards, who is already assembling the assault force for London 2012. He knows he may lose one or two, including Amir Khan's lightweight successor, Frankie Gavin, Britain's first world amateur champion, who has signalled his pro intentions, but he is hopeful the bulk of the squad, which he considers the nation's best ever, will still be in there punching in four years' time.

"We have to look seriously at how we can give these kids a better deal to keep them from going pro," he says. "I don't think we have yet got our heads round how big 2012 is going to be for us. We need the Government and sponsors to invest in that."

The leading promoter Frank Warren promises a moratorium in which he will not sign any potential Olympic prospect in the two years leading up to 2012, but the post-Beijing period could see boxing's "transfer window" wide open, especially for those who, like Khan, will be tempted to cash in on any Olympic medal. And such is the talent in the current squad that there are several in sight of the podium.

With four boxers, including the super-heavyweight David Price, still in the final qualifying event in Athens next month there is the prospect of a full squad of 11 British boxers at the Olympics. The seven who are already qualified make up the biggest contingent since Barcelona in 1992.

The silver won by Khan, Britain's lone representative in Athens aged 17, has been the catalyst for one of the most remarkable transformations in British sport. Apart from Gavin, now favourite for gold, the past few months have seen the unearthing of several new nuggets, headed by the welterweight Billy Joe Saunders, 18, who has twitched the nostrils of pro scouts because of his story-book background.

Known as the "Caravan Kid", he lives with his family on a travellers' encampment near Hatfield, Hertfordshire, and is the great-grandson of one of Britain's most famous gypsy bareknucklechampions, Absolom Beeney. His father, Tom, a former amateur, also admits to being involved in a bareknuckle scrap once "to sort things out, the way the travelling community does".

Young Billy Joe prefers knuckling down under the Marquess of Queensberry rules, with a blossoming career that saw him win 49 consecutive bouts until he lost to a Ukrainian in Pescara at the second qualifying event last week. But a semi-final box-off gave him one of the three Beijing berths secured in Italy (four had already gone through at the World Amateur Championships in Chicago). Saunders says his aim is to win gold in China, even though he was originally being groomed as a candidate for 2012.

"It's an honour for me to be part of a great squad," Saunders says. "We are a band of brothers. We live together, train together and pull for each other. Terry has got us thinking like a team." Edwards says: "Billy Joe has the desire and will, and is a very exciting fighter. In Bulgaria he beat a Cuban who was the best boxer in their championships."

Another up-and-coming member of the travelling community,the bantamweight Michael Maguire, is in Britain's 2012 development squad. Edwards says: "Travelling lads seem to develop physically more quickly and have a lot of strength. A number of our youngsters, like Billy Joe, excite me as much as Amir did and have similar potential."

Among these is another 18-year-old, the Birmingham flyweight Khalid Yafai, a world cadet champion who, like Naseem Hamed, has Yemeni ancestry, and his younger brother Gamal, 16, who is tipped as a candidate for the London Games.

Increased funding from UK Sport enabled Edwards to centralise the Beijing preparations in Sheffield, with a squad of full-timers training four days a week. Edwards, 63, a former London cabbie, may be a hard-nosed taskmaster but he is immensely popular with his boxers. Yet after Khan's Olympic silver and England's five golds in the last Commonwealth Games, those revamping the sport wanted to replace him with a youngercoach from Ireland before the British Olympic Association's Colin Moynihan and Sir Clive Woodward fought his corner.

"I feel vindicated," says Edwards, who predicts that in 2012 Britain will be a greater powerhouse than Cuba. "Peoplethink I'm daft to say it, but I believe it will happen." Will he be there to mastermind it? "I'd love to be. If they want me."

Knocking seven bells

Khalid Yafai: Flyweight, 18, from Birmingham; nickname "Kool"; world junior champion.

Joe Murray: Bantamweight, 21, Manchester; "Mighty Joe"; world bronze medallist.

Frankie Gavin: Lightweight, 22, Birmingham; "Funtime"; Britain's first world senior champion.

Bradley Saunders: Light-welterweight, 22, Sedgefield; "Buzzin"; world bronze medallist.

Billy Joe Saunders: Welterweight, 18, Hoddesdon;"BJ"; European junior champion.

James DeGale: Middleweight, 22, London; "Chunky"; double ABA champion.

Tony Jeffries: Light-heavyweight, 22, Sunderland; "Jaffa"; Multi-nations gold medallist.

Super-heavyweight David Price, heavyweight Danny Price,featherweight Steve Smith and light-flyweight Darran Langley could all qualify for the Olympicsnext month.