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Amir Khan on Sunday failed to bring Britain's Olympic Games to a golden climax. But the Bolton-based boxer put in a skilled and gutsy performance in going down to Cuba's Mario Kindelan, long the acknowledged master of his craft in the lightweight division.
The assured 17-year-old Khan, the sole British boxer in Athens, did enough over four two-minute rounds in the Peristeri boxing hall to have his card marked as a banker for gold in Beijing in 2008 if, and it's a huge “if”, he can resist the lure to cash in fully on his talent by turning professional in the interim.
On Sunday, he was still insisting he would remain amateur until he is 22 December 2008 “because I want to be more mature and stronger”.
There was no doubting his sincerity as he chatted after the fight about his impending driving test and the thrill of being watched by 50 or more friends and family members, some of whom he scarcely recognised. “I'm just going to stay as I am,” he said. “I'm definitely going to go back to college.”
It seems an admirably level-headed attitude. But the temptations will be great for a boxer of such precocious talent in a sport arguably more in thrall to the rustle of greenbacks than any other. That said, in an age when so many professional athletes, some extremely wealthy, are able to compete in the Olympics, it seems increasingly anachronistic that professional boxers should be excluded.
In the meantime, Khan can go home to Lancashire and luxuriate in the tributes, and none more significant than that from the retiring master himself. “I think that the British boxer is a fantastic boxer,” Kindelan said. “If he doesn't turn professional, he will really reign over this weight category for many years to come.”
There is also the satisfaction of having contributed to a better-than-expected medals tally for Britain, which with nine golds, nine silvers and 12 bronzes surpassed the haul of 28 at Sydney. Buoyed no doubt by his thunderous reception, Khan refused to be overawed by his illustrious southpaw opponent. Although Kindelan indulged in some showboating on his last appearance in the ring, with fancy footwork and his guard held low, he could never fully relax.
The decisive action came in round two, as Khan, on the front foot throughout, fell prey to a masterful display of counter-punching from the champion.
The aggressive teenager, who had shaded the first round, kept plugging away, however, and was unlucky only to draw the final round as Kindelan largely shut up shop. Nevertheless, the final points margin of 30-22 fairly reflected the gap in class and experience between the two fighters.
It is an occupational hazard in the final stages of Olympic boxing competitions that you end up with the absurdly pompous Cuban national anthem lodged in your skull for the rest of the day. Sunday was certainly no exception, with Kindelan's victory giving the ditty its third airing in as many finals, as Fidel Castro's island nation mounted its customary late charge up the medals table.
Out of 11 weight categories, the Cubans picked up five golds, two silvers and a bronze, with Russia (three golds and two bronzes) the next most successful nation.
That Cuba will be back in force in Beijing is not in doubt. But if Khan sticks to his current plan, they will have to unearth a truly exceptional replacement for their three-times lightweight world champion to deprive him of gold again.
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