Khan adds precious mettle to golden reputation

Something shone out beyond the spotlit ring of the Peristeri Olympic Boxing Hall here yesterday, piercing the semi-darkness of the arena. It was a brilliant talent. And it belonged to a 17-year-old taking his first big step towards what might, what could, what should be a career that will establish him as one of this sport's celebrated protagonists.

Amir Khan is too young to contest the Amateur Boxing Association Championships, but he is old enough to be Britain's only boxer at these Games and good enough to have persuaded many experienced observers of the game that he has "got it".

How far "it" will take him depends upon many things, but all the evidence so far is that this level-headed, personable young man from a warm and supportive family in Bolton can aspire realistically to ambitions which include Olympic gold medals and world championship titles.

To achieve the first of those targets at these Games is a mighty task, particularly as Khan's first-round win over local boxer Marios Kaperonis yesterday has earned him a meeting with Bulgaria's European champion Dimitar Stilianov in a 60kg lightweight category that also includes the man many regard as the best amateur boxer in the world, Cuba's defending champion Mario Cesar Kindelan.

But neither Khan, nor the man who has coached him at the Bury Club since he was an 11-year-old, Mick Jelley, were ruling it out after an Olympic debut that was witnessed approvingly by, among others, the Minister for Culture and Sport, Tessa Jowell, the man charged with guiding London's bid for the 2012 Olympics, Seb Coe, and Princess Anne.

Asked afterwards if it seemed harsh for Khan to be already facing the European No-1 for a place in the quarter-finals, Jelley responded: "That's why you are here. But I think he's capable of winning it."

Jelley, a lean figure with a grey moustache and - especially for the occasion, one assumes - a natty Union Jack waistcoat, has had to give over his usual task to the team coach Terry Edwards for the Games, which meant finding himself as a frustrated front-row observer while his young charge began diffidently.

Khan, who arrived here with the title of world junior champion, may be precociously gifted, but by his own admission yesterday he was nervous. He is only a teenager. And these are the Olympics.

As Jelly strove vainly to attract his attention from the sidelines - "His timing were out and he were missing a few times. 'Try to get in distance. Punch a bit lower,' I wanted to say to him" - the young man in blue swiftly got the measure of his latest challenge.

Despite the excitable exhortations of the home crowd, Khan - cheered on by a band of Union Jack-waving supporters which included his father, Shajaad, a mechanic who also runs a scrapyard and a mini-cab business - soon got the measure of his rash opponent.

After narrowly shading the first round, the boxer who chose to compete for Britain rather than the country of his father's origin, Pakistan, began to demonstrate why he has caused such a stir in the sport.

With his rangy style and long arms and legs, he looks more like a basketball player than a boxer. Until he moves, that is. Then he shows a fluency and accuracy that has already, somewhat ludicrously, drawn comparisons with Muhammad Ali from some within the sport.

"After my first round I felt a lot more relaxed and comfortable," he said to a thicket of dictaphones afterwards. "I was catching him with some good shots and I kept catching him. I knew he'd tire a bit because he's a local man in front of his home crowd.

"Once I got into my stride I got my punch going. I just kept biding my time and picking my shots. The first fight is always the hardest because I haven't been in the ring for a while. After this I'll go into the next fight a bit more relaxed and confident."

There were exhalations of relief all round as Khan came through his inaugural Olympic test.

While his father looked on from ringside, Khan's mother, Falak, and his 13-year-old younger brother, Haroon, were watching a live television transmission at the family home in Bolton along with a group of friends and relatives which included his cousin, the Lancashire and England cricketer Sajid Mahmood.

It was a measure of Khan's swiftly growing reputation that the family celebrations were also witnessed by the cameras of Granada TV. People watching people watching people.

"They were straight on the phone to me after he won," Shahaad said. "It was as noisy there as it was here."

Jelley's reaction was considerably more measured. "It's like you plant a seed, and it starts to grow," he said. "It blossoms, and it might stay nice for three weeks and then it dies. That's the same as a young boxer. Every contest Amir has, he gets a little bit better.

"I've run my club for 40 years, and all the lads there get treated the same, and shouted at the same. Amir's the only lad that I've ever told that he can be world champion. When he's 27 years old he'll be world champion. I might be wrong. But when I say something it generally comes to pass."

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