James Lawton: Khan's prodigious talent reunites Olympics with golden age of boxing

Greatness awaits Khan... if he can avoid vulnerability of teenage stardom
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The Independent Online

If you could ever freeze time, just a few years of it when everything was perfect and the world stretched out free of doubt or betrayal, you would do it now for the boy fighter who is hurtling towards manhood in these Olympics.

If you could ever freeze time, just a few years of it when everything was perfect and the world stretched out free of doubt or betrayal, you would do it now for the boy fighter who is hurtling towards manhood in these Olympics.

Amir Khan, 17, spent much of yesterday locked with his parents and with his phone off the hook. Tonight, with a bronze medal already won, he fights Serik Yeleuov, of Kazakhstan, for the right to meet the great Cuban Mario Kindelan in Sunday's final. In just 11 days we have seen a perfect ascent to glory but already, with the arc of achievement here only slightly more than half complete, Khan's world has changed utterly.

He is besieged now, by the television networks and media of the world and, given the presence of such a cavalcade, we can be sure that a posse led by Don King, his American rival Bob Arum and Britain's Frank Warren will not be far behind.

Not since the emergence of Oscar De La Hoya in Barcelona 12 years ago has the Olympics thrown up such a brilliant prospect. Before that there was Sugar Ray Leonard in Montreal in 1976 and the great triumvirate of heavyweight champions: Cassius Clay (Rome, 1960), Smokin' Joe Frazier (Tokyo, 1964) and George Foreman (Mexico City, 1968).

Before launching an Olympic crusade that has produced progressively stunning victories over Marios Kaperonis of Greece, Bulgaria's European champion Dimitar Stilianov and South Korea's Baik Jong-sub, Khan had all that untouchable conviction shared only by the very saintly and the very young.

He said that he would be unscathed by all the attention. The enticements of the professional game would be firmly sidestepped at least for another four years, until the Olympics of Beijing. Now British team trainer Terry Edwards, who has banned all contact by professional boxing until the Games are over and who, after Khan's opening victory, said he was in charge of a gale of fresh air, admits: "My heart says that Amir will stay an amateur and learn his trade thoroughly up until the next Olympics, but if I'm very honest my brain says something different. Already we hear that people are talking in telephone numbers. Yes, sometimes you do wish the world would stand still for a little while."

But of course it doesn't. It takes talent and puts a value on it and then knocks it down. It celebrates glory even as it traces the steps of a vulnerable teenager like Wayne Rooney to the doors of a brothel. Here at the Olympics, as nowhere else, you can trace the joy of achievement and the pain of so much that follows.

You can see it all, including a reminder of Khan's astonishing precocity in the ring at a time of his life when so many of his emotions are inescapably half-formed. This is by courtesy of an Olympic champion younger even than Floyd Patterson, the middleweight winner in Helsinki at Khan's age ­ 16-year-old Jackie Fields.

Fields, real name Yonkel Finkelstein, fought his Los Angelese neighbourhood friend Joe Salas in the featherweight final in Paris in 1924. Later, after winning the world welterweight title as a professional, he recalled: "We had to dress in the same room and when they knocked on our door to call us we looked up at each other and cried and hugged. Ten minutes later we were beating the hell out of each other." They died, just days apart, 63 years later.

Khan left his home in Bolton a boy and, at least in the eyes of the world if not his mother who flew into Athens this week, he will return a man. Yet of course there is still so much growing to do. Clay-Ali was required to do his in a particular hurry. When, as an 18-year-old, he won the Olympic light-heavyweight crown, he was asked by a Soviet journalist how he felt about the fact that men of his colour were not allowed to eat in certain restaurants back home in Louisville, Kentucky.

"Russian," said the young Cassius, "we got qualified men working on that problem. We got the biggest and the prettiest cars. We got all the food we can eat. America is the greatest country in the world and as far as places I can't eat goes, I got a lot of places I can eat ­ more places I can than I can't."

Yet soon enough Ali, who had his father's wood-framed house decorated with American flags, was fighting with a motorcycle gang which sided with the racist restaurant owner who ejected the Olympic champion and a friend. He also said, when asked to join the US Army: "I got no argument with them Viet Cong."

In fact the casualty rate of gold-winning Olympic boxers is huge. Few of them carry their lustre successfully through a professional career. Patterson was thought to be phenomenal but after losing crushingly to Sonny Liston he was insulted by that famous pugilist Frank Sinatra and took to wearing a false beard.

Steve McCrory, the slight younger brother of professional world welterweight Milton, won flyweight gold in Los Angeles in 1984, but he was dead at 37, having pawned his medal and abused illegal drugs for many years.

The underpinning of his family life, and his own refreshingly uncomplicated nature, provide strong re-assurance that such perils will not threaten Khan. He repeatedly insists that these Olympics are simply a bonus run and that professional fighting is indeed something beyond his ambition until Beijing. But he is 17 years old. It is an age when unbreakable patience is perhaps not your most consistent asset.

Yesterday the trainer attempted to define the extent of Khan's talent. "Obviously Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard are two of the great talents to emerge from the Olympics, and you don't casually make comparison with such men," Edwards said. "But I believe amateur fighters at the highest level are tougher than many pros these days, and whatever we think of legendary fighters it doesn't mean we don't have to give credit to Amir Khan. He's a lovely kid and in the ring he's just awesome."

Certainly around his own weight class, Khan at 17 is occupying the terrain of potentially the best man since the Americans Howard Davis (1976), Pernell Whitaker (1984) and De La Hoya. In the '76 vintage there was also the superb Leonard at light-welterweight and the Spinks brothers, Michael and Leon, who won middleweight and light-heavyweight golds before going on to claim the world heavyweight title.

Evander Holyfield didn't win gold as a light heavyweight in Los Angeles ­ he was disqualified, outrageously ­ but he announced the dawn of a great professional career.

Here, Amir Khan is, partly because of the circumstances of professional boxing's desperate decline as a front line sport, offering something more. It is a touch of beautiful redemption, a reminder of pugilism's most enduring quality. It is to throw up a talent, when everything seems to have turned to dust, of the ages, a man to lift up the sport and carry it to still another new horizon.

This is a huge burden to place on the shoulders of Britain's only fighter here, one whose own local council in a burst of nanny statehood decided to ban the oldest sport of all from public buildings. But the brilliant boy can hardly complain. It is he who has invaded our senses. It is he who has reminded us of men like Ali and Leonard.

In return, we can only pray that somewhere along the road he doesn't have to pay the price of so many of the great boxing Olympians.