James Lawton: Price packs the punch to walk in step with legends
The Merseyside super-heavyweight has bronze in the bag; now his Italian nemesis and China's hero stand in the way of a title that carries a special aura
Tuesday 19 August 2008
Just one more fight, one more win and David Price is in a place he can still hardly dream about.
It is the one once occupied by men such as Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Sugar Ray Leonard and, just to keep the record straight, Audley Harrison.
With a bronze medal already in his pocket after last night's victory over his Lithuanian super-heavyweight quarter-final opponent Jaroslav Jaksto, Price has to launch one last condor-span reach of aggression to make an Olympic final – almost certainly against a hero of China, the 6ft 6in Zhilei Zhang.
It promises be an occasion that would surely be one of absolute compulsion for most of Zhang's 1.3billion compatriots – and an opportunity to draw the attention of the professional boxing world in a way that the amateurs have not done in many years – a possibility heightened by the fact that veteran promoter Don King has added this vast land to his theatre of operations.
It is a new kind of pressure for the man from Merseyside but as the 25-year-old plumber stands at least an inch taller than the Chinese giant and fast-growing folk hero, and seems to have developed an overwhelming urge to throw quick, long and hard punches at the heads of his opponents ever since arriving here, plainly he has no reason to be intimidated.
Yet Price knows his boxing and knows his own dreams and he admitted they came crowding in on him when he stepped into the ring of the Workers Gymnasium to face another potential member of a generation of of professional heavyweights currently so anonymous the Alis and the Fraziers and the Foremans might have been hatched on another planet. This was the greatest pressure he had ever faced, he admitted.
Not that it showed when he launched himself at Jaksto, who had beaten him five years ago when, by his own admission, he was too tall and too immature to handle a new competitive level. Here though he showed the same ferocious intent that laid waste the world's No 1 super-heavyweight, the Russian Islam Timurziev, in the second round.
It was all over nine seconds into the second round when Jaksto grimaced in pain after jerking his leg in reaction to a couple of heavy right hands from Price. As ice was applied to his opponent's back and thigh, Britain's best chance of a gold among the three survivors – light-heavyweight Tom Jeffries and welterweight James DeGale are the others – knew that he had again to reverse an old form line if he was to make it to the final that launched so many hugely profitable careers.
His semi-final opponent is the Italian southpaw Roberto Cammarelle, who four years ago denied him a place in the Athens Olympics at the final qualifying stage.
Price looked like a man who had a few demons to dispel – but only after celebrating his bronze with his family who have flown in from Merseyside to see what they hope is another of the great British Olympic stories.
Said Price: "It was a bit of an anti-climax how it happened but I'm not going to complain about that. I definitely started better and I think I was going to do him whatever happened. But I did feel the pressure. All week I'd felt great and then it suddenly dawned on me how important it was to get a medal and fight through to the final.
"I didn't really know what had happened when the fight was stopped. I just said 'Thank God'. He had been a thorn in my side in the past and I was determined it wasn't going to happen again.
"Cammarelle took me off the road to Athens but I wasn't mature then. I'm mature now, maybe not fully mature, but enough to do this job."
It did not seem the most self-deluding of statements when you weighed the night's evidence. Price landed a couple of straight rights to establish his intentions and lead the first round 3-1, and there was clear evidence that, at least in the ring, he had retained the mood that helped dismantle the formidable Timurziev a few days earlier.
By comparison, Cammarelle seemed relatively passive, happy to counter-punch his way to a 9-5 win over the Colombian Oscar Rivas.
Yet Price is candid enough about his real opponent this side of the huge Zhang. It is not the underwhelming Italian but the sometimes awe-inspiring thought of walking in the steps of so many legends.
Olympic heavyweight champion in an often devalued boxing world, and where the amateur is besieged every four years by judging that is not only bizarre but is distorting the way men fight, it is a title that still rings out and, as the Sydney 2000 champion Harrison discovered, a certain commercial value.
Harrison was paid more than £1m worth of licence-payers' money by the BBC. After that embarrassment Price is unlikely to be overwhelmed by such largesse, and certainly not by the corporation, but he is surely aware that a final against Zhang would catapult him into astonishing exposure for a fighter who up until these past few weeks had appeared to suffer from a killing tendency towards the tentative.
Can he go all the way? Second time around, Cammarelle should be negotiated, certainly if Price can reinvent the power and the self-belief that have carried him to a new level of authority. It flashed into life again last night even though he was was prepared to admit that an old tension had been gripping hold of him on the way to the ring.
"I saw the medals tally up on a notice board at the GB headquarters and it made me even more determined to add to it. The trouble comes in your mind when you think about what it means to you and the people around you."
As one spur, he can presume that whatever pressure he feels if he makes it to the final, it will be nothing against the man in the other corner if it happens to be Zhang. Another southpaw counter-puncher, he showed some sleek touches in beating the tough but uninspired Ruslan Myrsatayev from Kazakhstan by the comfortable margin of 12-2. He also admitted that some of his ringside theatrically came directly from Ali: "He is my idol and I want to be as much like him as I can." As work projects go, some might feel that renovating the Great Wall of China would be roughly on a par but Zhang is certainly not without self-belief.
Price, on the other hand, makes no secret of the fact that he is travelling into unknown terrain.
"What I'm telling myself now," he says, "is that I'm not facing an Olympic semi-final. It's just another semi-final in some routine championship."
Of course he can tell himself that a thousand times but always with the risk that he will think of some of the names who have won the title that now beckons so hard.
For reassurance, though, he need only review his most recent form. Whatever weight he carried into the ring here last night, it didn't stop him going forward. He got on top of his own doubts and fears. It is the first task that faces any champion, and so far David Price has no reason to believe that he has stumbled too inappropriately amid the gods of the ring.
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