Amir Khan is moving here from a blaze of thrilling promise to the wonderful certainty of real achievement.
Amir Khan is moving here from a blaze of thrilling promise to the wonderful certainty of real achievement. It is a rite of passage that brushes against the best of Olympic boxing history and recalls dangerously, but not without some validity, the fact that Muhammad Ali was a year older when he burst upon the world in Rome.
Khan is not Ali, of course, and to suggest as much even for a careless second would be a burden more than a tribute. But there is no question about it, this is a special fighter indeed. At 17 the age when Floyd Patterson, who was later to become world heavyweight champion, won the middleweight title at the Helsinki Olympics in 1952 Khan now has a bronze medal after his eviscerating work last night on the tough 24-year-old South Korean, Baik Jong-sub.
It is the first significant bauble on the way to what only cruelly random fate can prevent becoming a major boxing career.
Khan meets the brawling Serik Yeleuov, of Kazakhstan, in Friday's lightweight semi-final, and at this distance it is hard not to imagine the brilliant youth's appearance in Sunday's final against the Cuban Mario Kindelan as the last word in formality.
What happens then is, suddenly, a matter of vast and thrilling intrigue. Khan lost to Kindelan, the world amateur lightweight champion, in a pre-Olympic tournament here in the spring. But, given the coruscating progress of the boy from Bolton over the last week or so here, you have to say it is a long, long time from May to August.
Time, enough surely, to turn a boy into an authentic fighting man of the highest potential. Last night he simply dismissed the threat of a world-ranked fighter from one of the toughest environments known to the lighter divisions of boxing. Korea ranks with Mexico as the producer of small but deadly packages of pugilistic aggression, but last night one of its fighting sons strayed way out of his class.
Khan won when the Bulgarian referee stopped the fight after just 1min 37sec of the first round. The damaging combination was a classic left-right as the Korean came storming in with more desperation than hope. Earlier, a heavy right cross had put Baik on the canvas a place he seemed to be considering less as a place of humiliation as of salvation.
Khan was finding his target with thrilling ease as the Korean realised, as the rest of the boxing fraternity has been grasping in this tournament, that he was facing opposition of an exceptional quality.
By fight time in the Peristeri Boxing Hall there was a rare sense of expectation. Khan's impact here has been quite extraordinary, reviving that old sense of the Olympics as a genuine proving ground for talent which might just irrigate a desperately jaded professional game.
It is a long time since the phenomenon occurred and Khan's brilliant progress to last night's quarter-finals had, understandably enough, alerted the paymasters of American television boxing, including the head of Showtime TV in New York, Jay Larkin. Before these Games, Larkin declared: "I couldn't even tell you the American super-heavyweight entrant, because I've been told there simply isn't anything coming through the amateurs. This is very depressing for the future of the sport."
Larkin was certainly right to ignore the potential of America's big man, Jason Estrada. He went out on Monday to Cuba's Michael Nunez in a parody of the kind of performance which distinguished such former Olympic champions as Ali, George Foreman, Joe Frazier and Lennox Lewis.
Afterwards Estrada gave a bleak insight into the current aura of Olympic boxing. When asked about the level of his disappointment, he said: "Frankly, I don't give a damn I'm turning pro next month."
Khan, though, represents something entirely different. He talks, with impressive modesty, about learning his trade and going on to fight in Beijing in the next Olympics. But that may be too much of a pause. Khan is moving at a breathtaking rate towards a natural extension of his challenge. Careful professional management seems to be the route to a career that can surely be a powerful current in British and, maybe, world boxing. He has been widely compared with Naseem Hamed, but he rejects the comparison. He says that Naseem had great talent, but too much arrogance. That is not so much an insult as a philosophical insight of vast encouragement for all those who see high talent as a gift to protect rather than plunder.
Last night, after the demolition of Baik, Khan declared: "I am thrilled. I came here wanting to win a medal of some description and now I have got that medal, no one can take it away from me. The Korean was made for me. He had slow hands and slow feet. I didn't expect to win so quickly but he was made for me. I have to fight for silver before I can think of gold, but all the attention is not going to bother me."
The British team coach, Terry Edwards, said: "Using a straight right is something we worked on in the dressing-room. We thought it might work by the second round, but Khan beat him in the first. Now I think he can go all the way."
It is strange to think the rulers of British boxing hesitated to bring Khan here. They thought he was too young. They thought wrong, and utterly so. This is a boy fighter who has more than a chance to win an Olympic medal. He can make an empire all of his own.Reuse content