James Lawton: 'Tomato cans' do little to fulfil Khan's appetite for success
Boxing is not like elocution. If you have it, you tend to have been born with it
Tuesday 09 December 2008
Audley Harrison won Olympic gold and Amir Khan four years later picked up silver. Now it is said they occupy separate planets. But how can we be so sure?
Harrison's professional career is back in ruins after still another embarrassment, this time at the rough but less than mesmerising hands of a Belfast taxi driver. Khan, though, has returned to big-time business. Or so we are told after his beating of the deeply obscure Irish-American Oisin Fagan, whose heralded "durability" had to be sustained by whiffs of oxygen after two utterly overmatched rounds.
Khan, who is a charming young man, is back in business almost entirely because he retreated so far from the quality of opposition provided by the hard-hitting, hard-thinking Breidis Prescott.
The Prescott fight was of course a terrible mishap – an offence against a basic tenet of British boxing, the one that insists you only fight threatening opposition when there are extremely big bucks on the table – and the public's appetite for seeing you toy with and then dispose of what the Americans call "tomato cans" has clearly been exhausted.
This explains some of the rapture that engulfed the Nottingham arena where hometown hero Carl Froch won the WBC super-middleweight title in an old-fashioned slugfest with the authentically durable Canadian Jean Pascal. Froch's hope of fighting Joe Calzaghe is no doubt fanciful but if it is any consolation he can tell himself that, on the biggest night of his hitherto modestly pitched career, he provided a British crowd with the rare spectacle of a fight that seemed to make up a script of its own as it went along so boisterously.
In the case of Khan's professional record this, but for the odd disturbing knockdown, has happened just once – two months ago against Prescott. That of course was the most dramatic shift in the storyline. Khan was not only beaten but completely undressed as a serious world title contender. Now we are told that he is a near completely recast fighter after some time with the experienced American trainer Freddie Roach.
Roach has a superb CV and in the past has announced himself willing to tackle the most daunting of reclamation jobs, including the ultimate long shot of attempting to reintroduce Mike Tyson to some of the realities of both boxing and life.
What he cannot do, as even the greatest of his trade, men like the late Eddie Futch, were equally powerless, is create the instincts of a natural-born professional fighter at the highest level of the game.
Of course, he can improve what is already there. He can teach a modicum of defence, he can impart some of the tricks of infighting that would always have been elusive in the amateur ranks in which Khan distinguished himself so splendidly in the Athens Olympics. But he cannot be sure of that Eliza Doolittle moment of proclaiming, "By Jove, he's got it." Boxing is not like elocution or table manners. If you have it, you tend to have been born with it.
Manny Pacquiao, who so brilliantly ushered Oscar De La Hoya into the shadows at the weekend, certainly was. It is to Ricky Hatton's credit that, after seeing the stripping down of the Golden Boy, he gulped hard and expressed interest, even saw potential honour, in going in with the quick and ferocious Filipino.
Hatton no doubt expected, along with the odds-makers, victory for the bigger, taller De La Hoya and was on hand for serious hype in the American market which likes his ruggedly gung-ho approach to the business. But even though "Pacman" scrambled the plans with a performance that forced from De La Hoya the conclusion that he had reached the point where his body could no longer effectively respond to the urgings of his spirit, Hatton didn't flinch at the likelihood of another beating of the order imposed by Floyd Mayweather Jnr this time last year.
Once again, Hatton reveals an instinct to step outside the too often carefully manipulated "dramas" of his sport. Unlike Naseem Hamed, maybe the prime example of a British fighter unchallenged until he reached the last peak of his earning capacity, Hatton apparently hungers for the redemption offered by the possibility of a victory over a Pacquiao whose credentials are mightily unblemished. It won't happen, the victory that is, but if there are question marks concerning Hatton's ability at the highest level, there are none against his spirit.
Nor are there any against Khan's. Again the matter in dispute is the basis of the professional promotion that followed his success in an Olympic field that was pointedly ignored by the American fight men who once saw the event as a sure-fire quadrennial recruitment drive.
It is possible that, under the guidance of Roach, Khan will acquire some of the ring knowledge and self-awareness that was so pointedly missing against the vastly superior Prescott. You hope it is so because on top of Khan's charm there is a decency that with genuine success would enhance the image of British boxing that was given such an unexpected lift in Nottingham on Saturday.
However, he will surely draw little long-term benefit from operating in the kind of a comfort zone offered up by the likes of Oisin Fagan. He is past the point, surely, where there is anything of value left to be read on the torn-up wrappings of a tomato can.
Ince should be plotting how to get the players behind him
Paul Ince's talk of a conspiracy to oust him at Blackburn begs the question that always haunted even the greatest managers.
What kind of conspiracy is he trying to shape on his own behalf? It should be the classic one formed by a manager and his players. It is a lattice work of mutual interest built on time and trust, and when Ince rails against the threats to his livelihood, real or imagined, he isolates himself in a way that deeply questions his ability to earn the kind of respect in the dressing room without which all is lost.
Great managers know that they cannot spend enough time getting to know their players while also maintaining a vital mystery. This is difficult when you appear to spend most of your time jumping out of your own skin.
Don Revie once commanded Billy Bremner to kneel down and thank God for his good fortune. Bill Shankly conveyed, brilliantly, the impression he was at least half mad. Jock Stein could flush out a missing Jimmy Johnstone with one or two phone calls. Then there was Brian Clough, supposedly the mentor of Roy Keane, but a man from whom the former Sunderland manager learnt, as it turned out, apparently next to nothing.
Archie Gemmill, who was recently admitted to the Scottish Football Hall of Fame, once said of Clough: "Some days you think, 'Why the hell do I play for him?' You couldn't really put your finger on it. Was it inspiration? Was it fear? In the end you just did it."
Clough's working principle was that if you didn't have the dressing room you didn't have anything; all the other battles were minor. This wasn't strictly true at Derby County, where he was adored by the players but cut down by some resentful directors. On the day he was sacked, some Derby players were seen walking down a corridor armed with an axe. It's purpose, they said, was to hack down the door to the boardroom if they were were not granted an audience. They didn't save Cloughie that day, but they helped to make his reputation.
Ince might consider this as he fights his unseen enemies. He should devote the precious time to his most valuable allies – the only ones who can do anything practical to save his managerial life.
Olympian deservedly on pole
Concern that petrol-head block voting has loaded the odds in favour of Lewis Hamilton's candidacy in the BBC's Sports Personality of the Year race should not obscure his powerful claim on the trophy. Well, not totally. Certainly, the news that the brilliant, if slightly batty Rebecca Adlington is the new favourite is encouraging for those of us who some time ago identified her as the author of the single most uplifting moment in the year of British sport. She made glorious, single-handed history in the most beguiling way.
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