Professional fighters will compete in 2012 Games

Exclusive: Controversial move to introduce World Series sees the last bastion of amateurism removed from the Olympics
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The Independent Online

Professional boxers are to be allowed to take part in the Olympic Games. A revolutionary move will enable fighters who have earned money in the ring to compete for medals together with amateurs, starting in London in 2012.

This will take effect after the world amateur championships in Milan in August when boxers will be allowed to sign professional contracts without losing their eligibility for the Olympics providing they agree to make themselves available for a new tournament called the World Series of Boxing organised by the AIBA, the sport's international governing body.

The Independent on Sunday has seen a copy of a document drawn up by the AIBA formalising the tournament in which boxers will be paid purse money and box over five rounds without vests or headguards under a 10-points a round professional scoring system. But if selected by their home nations for the Olympics they will have to revert to amateur rules, boxing three three-minute rounds in vests and headguards. And there would be no prize money involved.

I understand the International Olympic Committee have already approved a move which will see the last bastion of amateurism removed from the Games – boxing is the only remaining Olympic sport which has barred any element of professionalism. But this does not mean that existing pros such as Amir Khan and James DeGale, both previous Olympic medallists, can go for gold again or that David Haye can try for a medal in London. The move is not retrospective and initially will be restricted to those taking part in the world championships. But many in the sport believe this is a forerunner to full-scale professionalism whereby any young boxer who turns pro can compete in the Games.

What it does mean now is that some of Britain's brightest post-Beijing prospects, including flyweight Khalid Yafai, light-welter Bradley Saunders and light-fly Tommy Stubbs, who all won gold in last week's European Union Championships, together with European bantam champion Luke Adams, would be able to sign pro contracts and still compete in the Games.

The modernising pro-am scheme is being pushed through by the new AIBA president, Chung Kuo Wu of Taiwan, and has the backing of the ABA of England, whose chief executive Paul King is Britain's representative on the governing body. He says: "This is a very positive move for the sport. We have to change with the times. It means we can ring-fence those quality boxers who may have professional aspirations, pay them substantial purse money to box in the World Series and still leave them with the opportunity to compete in the Olympics. Some boxers could earn between £50,000 and £100,000 a year, which is more than some young full-time pros are getting now."

King likens the proposed franchised World Series "to the IPL and Grand Prix of athletics". The AIBA document describes it as "a professional boxing league" and details how boxers will be selected to represent three regions, Asia, Europe and the Americas, in a team competition. There will also be an individual competition within the event, the first of which will be held in September next year, with London being considered as a possible venue.

Not everyone in amateur boxing approves. Terry Edwards, Britain's most successful coach who was controversially axed after Beijing, says he is "saddened". He adds: "It will lead to the loss of identity of amateur boxing. I don't understand the logic. It will create unfair competition because there is a distinct difference in the skill factors of pro and amateur boxing and these will be lost to the sport."

Karl Heinz Wehr, the former general secretary of AIBA, says: "It is crazy. This is not in the interests of the sport. It is purely a money-making exercise."

Counterpunching the arguments is the fact that it does make money for the boxers and will create greater interest in the Olympic boxing tournament, which is the busiest on the Games programme, with bouts every day.

It comes at a time when amateur boxing in Britain is undergoing a transition after Beijing. Medal-winners DeGale, Tony Jeffries and David Price have all turned pro, as has Britain's only world amateur champion, Frankie Gavin, while ex-coach Edwards is now advising the Ghanaians.

Kevin Hickey, the 67-year-old former national coach who returned as performance director after 20 years, says he approaches the move "with caution". Under Hickey there have been promising results from the elite squad, including three golds in the EU Championships – though England did better the previous year under Edwards, finishing top with Gavin voted the boxer of the tournament.

With new state-of-the-art training facilities in Sheffield and the prospect of women's boxing being included in the London Games, Britain's 2012 hopes are buoyant.

But the most contentious issue is the proposal to move the Olympic tournament from its natural home in the East End to Wembley to make way for rhythmic gymnastics. Both Britain and the AIBA strongly object because they fear the extra travelling time involved could jeopardise the boxers' preparations.

The Olympics Minister Tessa Jowell is adamant that boxing will be at Wembley, insisting: "We will make it work." Even with the IOC president Jacques Rogge, a former AIBA boxing doctor, expressing concern about the fighters' welfare, it seems this is one bout even the new-age pro-ams cannot win.

Britain's pro-am prospects

Khalid Yafai 20, flyweight from Birmingham. Former world junior champion, now EU gold medallist. Boxed at Beijing Games. May have competition from younger brother Gamal, 18, the new ABA champion.

Luke Campbell 22, bantamweight from Hull. First England boxer in 47 years to win full European title. Twice ABA champion. Tipped to succeed Frankie Gavin as a world champion in Milan in August.

Bradley Saunders 23, light-welterweight from Stockton-on-Tees. World amateur bronze and EU gold medallist. Criticised for saying he was happy to return home after an early exit in Beijing but unbeaten since.

Tommy Stubbs 19, light-flyweight from Manchester. ABA champion, EU gold medallist. His weight division may be axed if women's boxing is included in 2012.

Thomas Stalker 22, lightweight from Liverpool. Commonwealth and former EU champion. Beaten good international opposition.

Kirk Garvey 19, slick box-fighter middleweight from London in mould of James DeGale. 6ft 2in British champion known as "Cagey" after his initials.

Haroon Khan 18, bantamweight from Bolton – but growing. New ABA junior champion, younger brother of Amir. "Baby Khan" is developing into one of Britain's most exciting youngsters.

Alan Hubbard