Boxing: Khan's firepower points to a golden career
Saddled with a scoring system that is more Basil Fawlty than the Marquis of Queensberry, the Olympic boxing hall has become a treacherous place to identify authentic talent. Look at Audley Harrison, who four years ago used his Sydney gold medal for a money-spinning raid on BBC licence payers. But then, on the other hand, look at 17-year-old Amir Khan. Everyone is doing it here - and for the most compelling of reasons.
Khan, Britain's only Olympic boxer, is looking suspiciously, gloriously, like the real thing.
He comes into the ring as a fighter should, with his head up and his eyes unflinching. He is a throwback, a serious man with a love of what he is doing that you can reach out and touch. He appears to have elected Greece as the place where he comes of competitive age. As he fights with such relish, and style, you have to remind yourself of his age. He has something you cannot fake or even learn. It is something that comes, if you truly want to be a fighter and you are very lucky, in the womb.
Yesterday he moved into the quarter-finals of the lightweight division with a superb victory over Bulgaria's veteran European champion Dimitar Stilianov. The computerised scoring - a judge presses a button every time he believes he has seen a punch land - said Khan won 37-21. These naked eyes said he took it by the length of the marathon course. What he also did for eight beautiful minutes was remind you that great talent makes its own announcements.
Stilianov was true to his status in that he did not go easily. Whenever he tried to impose himself on Khan, he was punished, a dawning reality that took away his first advantage of an awkward, southpaw style.
The Bulgarian refused to be cowed but beyond that statement of defiance there was not a lot he could do. For every punch he threw, he received at least two that landed, and sometimes the judges noticed. The result was a Khan victory that grew more impressive with every exchange.
No one should be surprised by his spectacular progress here. In his every major tournament he has been voted the outstanding boxer, most recently in South Korea when at the world juniors he was rated the best of 257 contenders. If you want a clue about why Britain's boxing representation is down to a shameful one, maybe you ought to know that Khan is only fighting here because his father's native country, Pakistan, noted our reluctance to send a fighter so young to Athens. Pakistan's interest provoked his selection. In that happenchance we may just have seen the salvation of British boxing.
An overstatement? Possibly, but the instinct is strong that what we have here is a Naseem Hamed without the appalling baggage of hype and leering arrogance. Khan doesn't have Naseem's extraordinary power but he has a talent and it is augmented by something vital indeed. He has learned to fight with a thrilling confidence and purpose. He moves from right to left, he counters with tremendous timing, he doesn't hang out his chin in the way that Naseem did when he refused to learn because of his belief that his power would always see him through.
That myth dissolved under the controlled, scientific attack of the brilliant Mexican Marco Barrera. Interestingly, while Naseem compared himself to Muhammad Ali, Khan picks out the legendary heavyweight as his greatest hero. Of Naseem he says: "Outside the ring he was too big-headed. I'll keep my feet on the ground."
Against Stilianov he was too much of everything that is vital in a boxing ring - speed, balance, ringcraft. The Bulgarian stayed relatively close for the first two rounds, but as Khan sensed that he had the beating of his man the contest became increasingly one-sided.
Said Khan: "I've just boxed a European champion who is years older than me and I was much more relaxed than in the first round (when he stopped Greece's Marios Kaperonis in three rounds). I was tense in the first fight, but I was confident I could beat this guy today. I looked at the video and I saw that I could take him.
"I'm not thinking about the future, I'm just going from fight to fight. I always had the Beijing Olympics as my goal, but this is a bonus. I'm not saying I will win gold in these Olympics but I know I'm capable of winning a medal. I was getting strong as the fight went on today and naturally that increased my confidence. But I'm not going to get too confident because I know my next fight will be a tough one."
It will be against the South Korean Baik Jong Sub, who comfortably accounted for a Mongolian yesterday.
In fact, the likeliest obstacle to an astonishingly precocious gold medal performance from the boy from Bolton is Cuba's 33-year-old reigning champion Mario Cesar Kindelan, rated by many as amateur boxing's best pound-for-pound performer. Yesterday Kindelan ransacked Pakistan's Asghar Ali Shah. He already has one victory over Khan in the pre-Olympic tournament, here last May, but Khan says: "Obviously, Kindelan is a great fighter, his record proves that, but I don't think he beat me as easily as the score, 31-13, said. I was a little bit overawed by him but as the fight went on I felt that I might do a lot better a second time."
Kindelan is emphatic that he is fighting for the last time here. He says: "After Athens, I'm not going to throw another punch. I want to hang up my gloves while I'm at the top after winning my second consecutive Olympic gold medal."
Khan is not intimidated. "It is great to feel your confidence growing," he says. "I'm not foolish enough to think that Kindelan isn't going to be the greatest challenge I ever faced, but he will be wrong if he thinks he's going to be facing the same fighter he fought here a few months ago. Now I know how it is to fight in the Olympics and I've just beaten a champion from Eastern Europe, where I think amateur boxing is at its toughest. That has got to make you feel better about yourself." It was the nearest we got to a hint of swagger from a young fighter who had just rolled back the years.
When he did that you were glad you had gone out into the heat of early afternoon. The reward had been to see a real one, a diamond not in the rough but in the making. Maybe he will hold off the promoters for a few more years. Maybe he will see Beijing in four years time as the perfect launching site for a professional career. He will be 21 then, and, no question, ready to join the pros. Not just for money but to practise something he was plainly born to do.
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