A British prospect's coming of age

Without question, 2007 was a massive year for boxing in the U.K.

Joe Calzaghe and David Haye became unified champions; Ricky Hatton contested the unofficial pound-for-pound title; promoter Frank Warren was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame; Enzo Calzaghe, father of the super middleweight champion, won the trainer of the year honor at the prestigious BBC sports awards (Joe took the big one, BBC Sports Personality of the Year) …

"But what happens next?"

Well, 2008 got off to a bad start when "White Tyson" Ruslan Chagaev (who should be renamed "Whiter Axel Schulz," he's so damned average) revealed that Matt Skelton is not the second coming of Lennox Lewis -- strong men wept in the streets of Britain.

But Haye is set to meet cruiserweight rival Enzo Maccarinelli in a massive March 8 showdown in London; Calzaghe, who fought in front of a combined 80,000-plus crowd in 2007, will introduce Bernard Hopkins to a new experience -- fighting in a hall with more people than empty seats -- and in April; at light heavy, IBF champ Clinton Woods meets Antonio Tarver as part of a doubleheader with Chad Dawson versus Glenn Johnson designed to instigate 175-pound unification …

"But what happens next for British boxing?"

Nottingham's undefeated Carl Froch is set to meet Dennis Inkin in a super middleweight world title eliminator on March 15 (the latest installment of Britain's success story at 168 pounds?); Uncle Bernard is trying to buy Demetrius Hopkins a March 22 shot at WBC titleholder Junior Witter -- and if "The Hitter" comes through, he will be almost impossible for Hatton to continue ignoring …

"Yes, yes, yes, but these are all old men. Where's the fresh blood coming through?"

There's no escaping the fact that at 27, Haye is the youngest of the British fighters mentioned above -- and aside from 29-year-old Hatton, he is the only one aged under 30. These boxers might constitute the immediate future of the sport in Britain, but if one were to answer the question "What happens next?" in the broader sense, the answer would probably be Amir Khan.

There is a crop of young and promising British fighters developing at the moment -- Kevin Mitchell, John Murray, Derry Matthews to name but a few -- but standing head and shoulders above these second tier talents is unbeaten lightweight Khan, the Olympic silver medalist with the highest TV viewing figures in Britain (7 million homes being his best night).

Khan is the only fighter to have his contests televised by a British terrestrial network at the moment. ITV were quite happy to let go of the rest of promoter Frank Warren's stable, including Calzaghe and Maccarinelli, but such was their faith in Khan that the network's Saturday night boxing shows became titled "Amir Khan Live."

"Over the last 20 years there's only one boxer I've seen appeal to the public more than him and that's Frank Bruno," said Dean Powell, the matchmaker for Warren's promotional outfit, Sports Network.

Khan has tremendous crossover appeal. An open and personable Bolton-born Muslim of Pakistani lineage, Khan has important social significance in a nation where disaffected British-born Asians from very similar backgrounds to Khan were responsible for the July 2005 London bombings that resulted in the deaths of 52 people.

At a time when paranoia and distrust were rife, Khan showed an acceptable and likable face of Islamic youth in Britain -- hell, the previous year he'd had the whole country cheering on his Olympic exploits. He provided a perfect counterbalance to the extremism that was -- and is -- prevalent within sections of the Muslim community. Khan, most definitely, is a positive role model.

That's not to say he's perfect. There have been a couple of high-profile driving offenses, in one of which a man suffered a broken leg. He is currently serving a 42-day ban for speeding. But if anything, this fallibility goes to prove that race and religion are no barriers to young men with fast cars behaving like young men with fast cars. Khan is human.

Beyond that, he shows a high degree of social awareness for one so young. Khan seeks and takes responsibility. Recently he has opened a £750,000 (roughly $1.5 million) training facility-cum-community center in his hometown, the doors of which are open to the disadvantaged youth of the area.

"My aim has always been to give something back," Khan said.

But the young fighter would have had nothing to give back had he been unable to deliver the goods in the ring -- and so far he has.

In the most recent of his 15 straight wins (12 KOs), Khan destroyed the experienced European No. 2-rated Graham Earl in less than a round. That coming-of-age victory took place on Khan's 21st birthday on Dec. 8.

Already ranked in the world top 10 by the WBC and WBO, Commonwealth champion Khan has ambition to match his talent.

In the latest issue of Boxing Monthly magazine, Khan tells Mick Gill: "In 2008, I want to win the British and European and, by the year's end, I want to be in the top three, four in the world, holding one of the world belts, with big fights lined up for me in 2009. [WBA junior welterweight champion] Gavin Rees has got a good belt. I might sneak up: 'Bang' [smacks fist in palm]. Then go back down to lightweight! I'd also like to fight in America this year."

All well and good but some believe that, despite the undeniably impressive win over Earl, Khan has ideas above his station.

"I'd put him ahead of schedule right now," said Frank Warren, who has promoted all Khan's pro fights, plus his "revenge" win over Cuban legend Mario Kindelan, who beat Khan in the Athens Olympics final.

"But in terms of the schedule Amir has set for himself, he's behind -- he'd have fought for a world title six fights ago if I'd let him."

It's probably just as well that Warren has exercised a little prudence. Three fights ago, in his Commonwealth title-winning effort, Khan was floored heavily by the light-hitting former super featherweight Willie Limond. Khan got up to win, thus demonstrating his heart, but it is a fight from which people tend to remember the negatives rather than the positives.

Much has been written, said and whispered about the quality -- or the perceived lack thereof -- of Khan's opponents to date. But in truth, Khan has been a victim of his own ambition -- had he not been calling out world champions, the opponents he has faced to date would have been deemed perfectly acceptable for a prospect.

"The aim has always been not just for Amir to fight for a world title, but for him to be able to win it and hold onto it," said matchmaker Powell. "To that end, we've tried to put him in with a variety of different styles and sizes of fighters."

As if to illustrate the point, Saturday night's opponent in London is Guyanan-born, Australian-based Gairy St. Clair, who at 5-foot-4 will be conceding six inches in height to Khan, who is starting to fill out and find his man strength at a rate of knots.

St. Clair, at 39-5 with 17 KOs, is by far the toughest opponent of Khan's career to date. Just three fights ago he was defending the IBF super featherweight title, but he has fought at junior welterweight and has never been stopped despite facing opponents of the quality of former world champions Vivian Harris and Diego Corrales.

Could it be that Khan is now being brought on too fast?

"We've had to turn things up a notch after the Earl win," Warren explained. "St. Clair has experience and toughness, and he's not fazed by fighting away from home. He is a great opponent for Khan at this stage in his career."

This looks destined to be a fight where Khan, in defense of his Commonwealth title, will get to go 12 rounds for the first time, which will be vital if, as Warren predicts, a shot at one of the world champions is on the cards by the end of 2008.

"Five or six fights over the course of the year and then we'll be looking for a world title fight," the promoter said.

By which time, Khan might still be only 21. The future of British boxing is looking bright.

Glyn Leach is the editor of Boxing Monthly.