DeGale sets off on the Amir trail to fame and fortune

Latest pro sensation is still only too happy to help nourish his amateur roots

Fresh, and still fresh-faced, from his sixth and sweetest professional victory, Amir Khan was back with the boys last week, turning up to encourage his former amateur mates as they prepared to fly off to Melbourne for the Commonwealth Games. But the Olympic silver medallist did more than wish them bon voyage. That night he stepped into the training ring at Crystal Palace, joining in their final squad session and passing on a hint or two that might help some of them to return with bullion of their own.

"When I asked Amir if he would like to join the lads on their morning run, I swear there was a tear in his eye," said the national coach, Terry Edwards, who was his mentor at the Athens Olympic Games in 2004. "He couldn't get his boots on quick enough."

Not that the 19-year-old Amir (below) regrets not being on the plane with them to Oz. Well, not entirely - but who would, with a couple of million banked and the prospect of many more to come?

"It would have been good to stay on for the Commonwealth Games," he admitted. "I certainly miss the buzz and the boys, being part of a team and the spirit in the amateur game. The pro game is much lonelier, just you and your trainer, really. But I made my decision and I think it was the right one for me. I made up my mind after beating Mario Kindelan, because I felt there was nowhere else to go as an amateur. It was a hard choice, but it is good that I am still welcomed to come and spend some time with the lads again."

Also fresh from victory last weekend, though not quite as fresh-faced after his bruising conflict with Matt Skelton, was heavyweight Danny Williams. He won a Commonwealth bronze in Victoria, Canada, 12 years ago and had this advice for the current hopefuls, among them Amir's lightweight successor Frankie Gavin and Liverpool's giant super-heavyweight David Price: "Go for gold - but stay relaxed. I didn't, and that probably cost me a better medal."

The fact that Amir and Williams were on hand at south London's Lynn boxing club to offer their combined wisdom indicates just how much amateur boxing has been transformed. Until recently, amateurs and pros would not have been allowed to spit in the same bucket. But, like Amir, the sport has moved on.

After Amir was Britain's lone ring ranger in Athens, and following his subsequent depar-ture, the sport slumped to the canvas. But it has picked itself up, sponged itself down, professionalised its administration and, backed by a seven-figure investment from Sport England, is healthier than for many years, with a wealth of developing talent. Four youngsters who won medals in the world cadet championships are in Cuba receiving tuition from Kindelan and Co, and are booked in for similar schooling in Russia.

England take a full complement of 11 to Melbourne, and Edwards says he is targeting eight medals. They won seven in Manchester four years ago. No A Khan in the corner then. Although a prodigious schoolboy talent, he was not even a twinkle in Frank Warren's eye.

Eight of the class of 2002 went pro, highlighting the ever- aggravating problem of the drain on amateur talent. This time, bursaries and medal bonuses are in place to help keep vests and headguards on. All Melbourne medallists will be asked to sign contracts agreeing to stay amateur until the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

Says Edwards: "We are not saying they are never going to turn pro. It is just a question of when. The ABA of England are working their butts off to make sure as many as possible stay until 2008 and even beyond, until 2012, because some may not reach their potential until then."

A prime example is England middleweight James "Chunky" DeGale, who many believe will be as big a TV hit in Melbourne as Amir was in Athens. The 20-year-old Londoner was a quarter-finalist in the world junior championships at which Amir won his gold. Tall and rangy, he can punch (his speciality is the now rarely seen underarm bolo), is a southpaw switch-hitter and the most telegenic of the squad. "He has the potential; what he needs is the experience," says Edwards.

His nickname lingers from his schooldays. "When I was 10 I weighed about 45kg. I was chubby and fat and just went in there and had a tear-up. The name has stayed with me but luckily the weight hasn't, thanks to a lot of hard training." He won a national schoolboy title at light-heavyweight, weighing a stone more than he is now.

DeGale, who believes his name has French origins (his British-born father has Grenadan ancestry and his mother is English) won Commonwealth Youth gold in 2004 and has the distinction of winning two senior ABA titles in the same year, both championships being held in 2005 because this year's event would have clashed with the Commonwealth Games. He has won 56 of his 65 bouts.

"I know I can mix it with the best," he says. "I can't wait to get in the ring in Melbourne. All I want to do now is box and box and box. I love this sport, the feeling it gives you. I just hope it never goes away."

A medal is a necessity if he is to stay amateur. He is on the lowest Lottery funding of £154 a week, compared with the welterweight gold prospect and team captain Neil Perkins' £1,600 a month. "I'd love to stay on for Beijing but I need more money."

Nowadays DeGale is more cheeky than chunky, and his style is made for the professionals. He admits he may make the switch after Beijing rather than stay on for 2012, when he will be 28. "But we'll see."

He eyes Amir's ambitions with some relish. "He is a terrific fella, and it's great that he is still one of the boys. He ain't got big-headed or nothing. He's been an inspiration to us all. I look at him and say one day I'd like to be earning that sort of money. I want to be world championship material, too."

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