Revived Britons making a mark on Olympic boxing
BEIJING (AP) Britain's entire boxing team at the Athens Olympics was a slick Pakistani teenager from just outside Manchester.
Four years later, the eight-man British squad in Beijing has three world championship medalists, a teenage Gypsy welterweight named Billy Joe, and a 2.03-meter (6-foot-8) bruiser who just beat up the biggest Russian in amateur boxing.
So what happened to turn a nation of boxing lightweights into Big Bad Bens?
Amir Khan happened, according to this new bunch of British brawlers who are getting a head start on the 2012 London Games with a strong showing in China.
"I was watching on my couch, and I thought, 'I could do that one better,'" said James Degale, the muscled middleweight jokingly known as Chunky to his teammates. "We all saw what Amir accomplished, and it just made everybody work that much harder to get to his level."
When Khan wowed the world with a silver medal in Athens before moving on to a lucrative pro career, he got the attention of fight-minded lads from Newcastle to Brighton.
UK Sport was persuaded to finance an extensive training program for the national team early last year. The Britons' Beijing successes are the first fruit from the seed planted by Khan's televised brilliance.
"The legacy of Amir Khan is that he attracted more boxers into the gyms," Britain coach Terry Edwards said, describing a pyramid of talent with his hands. "Then the more you've got at the base, the top comes through even better."
Even after losing world champion lightweight Frankie Gavin to weight problems shortly before the Beijing Games began, the British team has been a significant presence in the tournament. Though faced with a brutally tough draw, five Britons have won at least one fight, and a few should be in contention for medals next week.
"The team's been so successful that we couldn't really ask for anything else," light heavyweight Tony Jeffries said after beating Colombia's Eleider Alvarez on Thursday. "I've been getting good-luck messages all the time, and that puts pressure on you - and because the team has been so successful, that puts pressure on you, too."
The British fighters are an exceptionally entertaining lot as well. They bewitched the English press even before the games with stories of 18-year-old Billy Joe Saunders' upbringing on a Gypsy travelers' encampment in rural Hertfordshire, or super heavyweight David Price's painful four-year wait for a second Olympic shot after barely failing to qualify for Athens.
Price posted Britain's most improbable victory Wednesday night, stopping Russia's Islam Timurziev with two stunning knockdowns in the second round.
"I think I might have paid him a bit too much respect," said Price, the British team captain with a Liverpool accent as thick as his biceps.
Britain's success began with Khan, but it really got rolling in January 2007 when UK Sport began paying a living wage to its fighters so the team could train four days a week in Sheffield.
"That enabled our boxers to have a full-time life in boxing," Edwards said. "Then we went out and we boxed around the world. We didn't win a lot, but we didn't go on easy tours, so our fighters would actually realize what it's like at the top of the world stage. Now they're coming through and boxing to the potential that we expect."
Last fall at the world championships in Chicago, Gavin won the world lightweight title while bantamweight Joe Murray and light welterweight Bradley Saunders, no relation to his teammate, took bronzes.
A few medals in Beijing would be remarkable, but Britain's improvements mostly bode well for its homecoming in four years, which has been the point all along.
"I'm not talking about medals," Edwards said. "I'm talking about progression with our team, and we've got our big prize obviously in 2012 in London. That's what our aim is. We brought a very young team relatively (to Beijing), and that's the process to lead up to 2012."
Not everything has gone swimmingly in Beijing. Murray was upset in his first fight, and the team must move on without Billy Joe Saunders, who lost to Cuba's Carlos Banteaux on Thursday. The curly haired teenager comes from a long line of bare-knuckle fighters and boxers, including his father and grandfather.
While the boxers' salary from UK Sport won't prevent Gavin from cashing in on professional riches, the program might keep some of Britain's young talent on course for London. Moments after his loss, Saunders already was thinking about fighting under the Union Jack again.
"I'm only 18, and there is 2012 to look at," he said. "This will be a massive learning experience for (London)."