A defeat full of silver linings as Khan sets his sights on Beijing

In the end we didn't get the golden fairytale. We got something much better, something you could hold up in the hard light of a boxing ring and say this is real, this is a real fighter with a real heart.

In the end we didn't get the golden fairytale. We got something much better, something you could hold up in the hard light of a boxing ring and say this is real, this is a real fighter with a real heart.

This was Amir Khan, the 17-year-old man-child from Bolton, reluctantly ceding gold to world amateur boxing's best pound-for-pound fighter, the reigning Olympic lightweight champion from Cuba, Mario Kindelan.

When it was over, the 33-year-old favourite of President Fidel Castro who has announced that he will now retire to the spoils reserved for heroes by his poor but intensely proud land, embraced the boy who had fought him so well and so courageously, and said: "You're a brilliant fighter and if you stay amateur you will be Olympic champion." Khan confirmed that he indeed planned to go on to the next Olympics in Beijing. It is a decision made easier by offers of major sponsorship from a group of admirers in the City of London.

There, in the Square Mile, the verdict is the same as the one reached by the fight crowd here and across the world: Amir Khan, without a scintilla of doubt, has hit the gold standard of seriously talented sportsmen. Single-handedly, he has established here the thrilling potential to redeem British boxing, to give it - after the retirement of Lennox Lewis and the abdication of the former fighter known to himself as the Prince, Naseem Hamed - some genuine weight and quality.

If any more confirmation were needed, it came from still another admiring spectator. Evander Holyfield, the "Real Deal", stepped forward to add to Kindelan's signal of approval. "You fought like a man," said the great former heavyweight champion. "Keep doing what you are doing, and you have a gold medal and a fine career before you."

As a matter of record, Khan had to settle for silver after being outpointed 30-22 but in those bare statistics, produced by a scoring system that at its very best can only be described as erratic, is a story to warm any fight aficionado's heart. In May, in the pre-Olympic tournament here, Kindelan beat Khan by a margin of 20 points, an edge which in amateur demands a referee stops the fight. Yesterday there was never a chance the fine champion would be able to build such an advantage. What we saw was the clear outline of a new champion in the making.

Khan led after the first round. It was the most slender of leads, 4-3, but it came from more than the fact than the Cuban is a notoriously slow starter. On this occasion there was an obvious incentive to intimidate the boy who had swept with increasing assurance through the four bouts which brought him to the final. Khan was not for cowering, however, and though Kindelan surged in front in the second round, outscoring his young challenger by six points, and then by another three in the third, the fourth round saw a thrilling parity.

In that fourth round Khan refused to subside beneath the skill and experience of his opponent and shared the 16 points. He did in a way which spoke of both hugely growing confidence and the finest of nerve, at one point landing a hard right which brought an expression of deep reflection on the retiring champion.

Said the British trainer Terry Edwards: "If you want to know how brilliant this boy is, remember this was only his 14th senior fight - and he was going against a superb champion, the best amateur boxer in the world. I just cannot say how much I admire what Amir has done here. Today, against a great fighter he pleased me more than ever. He faced the challenge like a man ... he is just amazing."

Khan said: "One day I know I'll fight as a pro, but before that I have some good years in the amateurs, where I can get so much experience against fighters of great quality. It's a very exciting prospect. Most of all I want to become a pro as a gold medal winner. A medal is something you have forever whatever happens along the road." Before that, there will be the pleasure of being reunited with "my mates in Bolton". Less uplifting, he suggested, is the prospect of catching up with assignments set by his technical college.

Not in question, however, is the extent of his education here at the 28th Olympics. He came in with a hint of nerves against a scrappy, inspired Greek, but smoothed them away in a flow of impeccable technique and biting aggression. He overwhelmed the Bulgarian European champion. He stopped a classically tough Korean as though he had, irritatingly, met a minor obstruction, and in the fight that guaranteed silver he pulled himself up against a bothersome brawler from Kazakhstan. That was a body of work which might have troubled anyone in the ranks of amateur boxing. Except, perhaps, the masterful Kindelan. The champion was determined not to have his moment of glory, and a subsequent brandy and cigar with the ageing sports fanatic Castro, whisked away by the boy who had come from nowhere.

To avoid that fate Kindelan was required to show, one last time, the workings of an authentic champion. He did it with a beautiful economy of effort and strategy but in that last round, when Khan announced that he was aware there was no learning experience quite so intense as defeat at the hands of a master, he was more than happy to seek out the safest corners of the ring.

Kindelan won, no question, but when he took the beaten boy in his arms there was no doubt about what he was saying. It was that there is no greater certainty in all of boxing than that Amir Khan will grow still stronger at this briefly broken place.

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