Brian Viner: When Amir met Ali it was the real deal rather than reality-show ersatz

He's a deeply impressive character, this boy, the more so as he is still a boy
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The Independent Online

Maybe it was because I was in Los Angeles, staying just a few miles along Sunset Boulevard from Hollywood, and maybe also because I was suffering from jet lag, that I woke up with a start in the middle of the night with a movie title in my head: When Harry Met Sally. Or in this case: When Amir Met Ali.

A few hours earlier I had been leaning against some banisters at Palms restaurant downtown, talking to Amir Khan about his audience earlier that day with Muhammad Ali. Khan and his entourage - his dad, his uncle, and assorted others - had just flown in from Louisville, Kentucky, where they (or maybe Frank Warren?) had engineered a meeting at the Ali Centre with the great man.

Amir's dad, Shah, is a friendly, open sort of chap, but he didn't want to give me much detail on when Amir met Ali. Nor did Amir's equally engaging uncle, Tahir. "It was private, just between them," he said. Were photographs taken? "Oh yeah, but not for press use, just for ourselves."

Amir himself, however, was more forthcoming. He'd spent 25 minutes with Ali and was so overawed that he found himself lost for words, he told me. With Ali so riddled by Parkinson's Disease or something very much like it, that he too can barely utter a comprehensible word, clearly not many sentences were exchanged. But what passed between them, I imagine, was an eloquent mutual understanding.

Amir and I were at Palms restaurant for the same reason, the after-show party following the season two finale, as American TV publicists call these things, of the reality boxing show The Contender.

The final had just taken place along the road at the Staples Center, best known as the home of the LA Lakers basketball team. Thanks to the good offices of ITV, who transmit the show here, I'd had a seat almost at ringside. And that's not to be sniffed at, not at the Staples Center. The price of a courtside seat for a Lakers game is an eye-popping $1,250 (£667). Even for the thrill of sitting just along from the Lakers' most famous fan, Jack Nicholson, that's a bit steep.

There was a large and raucous crowd there for The Contender final, between a couple of welterweights called Steve Forbes and Grady Brewer. I don't think anyone was kidding themselves that the occasion was as significant as a world title fight - except possibly the host broadcaster ESPN - but you wouldn't have known it from all the mildly intoxicated, bling-festooned women, and their overexcited, square-shouldered consorts.

A woman two rows in front of me was a little more than mildly intoxicated, in truth, and at one point during the build-up to the final, for some reason probably unknown even to her, lobbed out a breast. She quickly lobbed it back in again but even so, I fully expected the 8ft-tall security guards to pounce. In America you're allowed to flash firearms before you're allowed to flash nipples. But the guards didn't pounce, and the Janet Jackson wannabe was left looking even sillier than if they had.

The final has yet to be broadcast here so I mustn't divulge the outcome, except to say it was a fast and furious affair between two well-matched fighters.

Amir Khan told me afterwards that he'd been disappointed with the fight on a technical basis, that it was actually too fast and furious, and that even with his lesser weight and inferior reach he could have taken either man to the cleaners. This wasn't delivered as braggadocio, simply with quiet Boltonian assurance.

He's a deeply impressive character, this boy, the more so as he is still a boy. Ahead of him are all the pitfalls facing any teenager with money, fame and talent, but it's impossible to imagine that he won't skip lightly around them. The received wisdom is to credit his protective relatives with keeping him on the straight and narrow, that and a Muslim faith that keeps him off the booze, but he has a focus and a self-discipline that are all his own.

And he's already copped a driving charge that will help to keep two words of warning in his head if he needs them: Naseem Hamed.

After a while at Palms restaurant, Amir was gathered back to the bosom of his proud family, and I continued to circulate the room, unashamedly looking for celebrities, which is permissible behaviour in LA. There'd been a rumour that Eddie Murphy would be attending, with his new squeeze Scary Spice.

Alas, there was no sign of either of them, but I did wind up sharing a limo back to the Sunset Strip with Rachel Stevens, the pop singer formerly of S Club 7, which would have impressed me more if I'd ever heard of her.

Still, she's a sweetie, and deserves all the luck in the world as she tries to build a career in Hollywood. She'll know she's made it when she gets a ringside seat at a world title fight, rather than the slightly ersatz occasion that was The Contender final. On the other hand, LA is the capital of ersatz, and did it brilliantly.

'The Contender' final is on ITV4 at 9pm on Monday

Who I Like This Week...

The golfer Simon Dyson's caddie, who responded with marvellous stoicism when his boss lost his rag in the WGC tournament at The Grove last weekend. At the third, Dyson pushed his drive into heavy rough, but elected to go for the green, 190-odd yards away, with a mid-iron. Unfortunately for Dyson, the ball squirted out at knee height and shot across the fairway into similarly punishing rough on the other side. Dyson went the colour of an overripe tomato and took a full baseball-type swing at his caddie. Luckily, it was an air shot, because the caddie resourcefully rocked back on his heels, like Muhammad Ali dodging a George Foreman piledriver. Dyson then hacked his ball out of the rough, and got down in two more for a decent bogey five. Still furious, he steamed over to the next tee, faithfully followed by an admirably unfazed caddie. Wonderful.

And Who I Don't

Premiership football clubs, and indeed Premiership footballers, who all too rarely give anything back to the fans who follow them devotedly to all points of the compass. They should all be made aware of the actions of the Russian Premier League club Zenit St Petersburg, three of whose fans last month drove over 15,000 kilometres (9,320 miles) from St Petersburg to Vladivostok, in a clapped-out 1986 Honda Civic, to see Zenit play Luch-Energiya. Zenit won 2-0, but the three supporters had to take a train home, because the car wasn't up to making the return journey. When the club found out, they forked out for a new Toyota Corolla and presented it to the three fans at last Sunday's home match against Spartak Nalchik. A heartwarming tale. Obviously English fans never have to drive to Vladivostok, but even if they did, it would never happen here.

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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