'The Brash Prince' - Prince Naseem Hamed

naseem hamed12.12.08 - By James Forster: 'Prince' Naseem Hamed was born on the first of november, 1974, in the city of Sheffield, England to parents from the Yemen. A prodigy of Brendan Ingle's St Thomas Boxing gym, his talent and flashy southpaw style marked him out from an early age. He entered the pro ranks in 1992 as a flyweight and by 1994 had become the European bantamweight champion, beating the savvy and respected Italian Vincenzo Belcastro with astonishing ease. Hamed appeared to be the most frightening boxing talent to emerge from Britain in many years. His elaborate fight entrances to rap music, cocky assessments of his own talents and brilliant ring performances soon gathered attention. Hamed frequently mocked opponents as he took them apart with punches thrown from gravity defying angles and looked pratically unstoppable.

In 1995 he moved up to featherweight and challenged WBO featherweight champion Steve Robinson. Welshman Robinson was an unlikely 'world' champion and had stepped in at late notice to win the WBO belt with a decision over fellow Briton John Davison in April, 1993.. Since then, Robinson had become the 'Cinderella Man'. Spurred on by a boisterous home crowd at the National Ice Rink, Cardiff, the Welshman had made six defences of his title including the high profile scalps of Colin McMillan, Paul Hodkinson and Duke Mckenzie. Some, including Robinson himself, felt that Hamed would suffer the same fate but on the 30th of September 1995, outdoors at the Cardiff Arms Park, Hamed dominated Robinson with his usual arrogant ease before the battered champion was rescued in the eighth round. Anything seemed possible for 'Naz', the gyrating little genius with dynamite in his gloves.

Hamed's US debut was a wild fourth round knockout of the classy American Kevin Kelley at Madison Square Garden in 1997. Prior to stopping Kelley, Hamed had already beaten IBF champion Tom 'Boom Boom' Johnson in eight rounds in a unification bout and made three knockout defences of his various belts. He was now unquestionably the number one featherweight and appeared to be on the brink of superstardom but 1998 brought only a scrappy win over a faded Wilfredo Vazquez and a dull points decision over the durable but outgunned Wayne McCullough in Atlantic City. More than a few wags were quick to note that Hamed's ring entrances had suddenly become more entertaining than his fights.

A bitter split from lifelong trainer Brendon Ingle and promoter Frank Warren meant that from now onwards Team Hamed would be a family affair. The little known Oscar Suarez was brought in as trainer to replace Brendon Ingle and legendary Kronk wizard Emanuel Steward was hired to join the camp close to fight time. It was a new start for Naz but his first fight in 1999, an alarmingly difficult scrap with fellow Briton Paul Ingle at the M.E.N. Arena, Manchester, suggested a fighter going backwards rather than forwards. Before he rallied to stop the gritty but limited Ingle in the eleventh round, Hamed had appeared dangerously close to running out of gas and suffering a shock defeat. Speculation about his training habits was understandably heightened.

On the 22nd of October of that same year at the Joe Louis Arena, Detroit, Michigan, Hamed seemed to reach a career nadir when he wrestled with Mexican Cesar Soto for twelve tedious and bad-tempered rounds to add the WBC featherweight title to his own WBO belt. A frustrated Hamed was lucky to escape disqualification when he picked Soto up and bodyslammed him to the canvas in the fourth round. He endured the worst headlines of his career but, four months later, seemed to be back on track in London with an impressive fourth round stoppage of the respected former IBF super bantamweight champion Vuyani Bungu. Hamed entered the ring on a 'flying carpet' and appeared to be back to his cocky best. But the doubts surrounding him resurfaced on the 19th of August, 2000 at the Foxwoods Resort, Connecticut, when he looked shockingly vulnerable and easy to hit agaisnt the unheralded Augie 'Kid' Sanchez. Hamed and his connections were criticised for picking Sanchez as an opponent but the underdog put forth a such a game effort he not only decked The Prince but sent him staggering backwards off balance on numerous occasions. Any concerns were masked by the thundering series of punches that put Sanchez away in the fourth round. Despite his technical flaws it still seemed highly doubtful that any featherweight in the world could take what Prince Naseem Hamed would eventually dish out in the course of a fight.

All boxers slowed down a step or two in time but the best ones used the accumulated knowledge of experience to add new skills and tricks. Guile, craftmanship, the ability to slip punches. By contrast, Hamed sometimes gave the impression of a man who had forgotten a little more about his profession each time he stepped back into the squared circle. The precoious bundle of power and flash who evaded punches with instinctive movement and put together dizzying combinations had gradually given way to a more one-dimensional model. The Prince was increasingly flat-footed as he pawed and probed with his right glove looking to land single bombs. In Hamed's compact 5'4 frame resided uncanny punching power. The Prince wrecked boxers with punches that seemed almost innocous in the effortless manner of their delivery. He had lost elements of the speed that marked his obstreperous rise to the top but he could still level a medium sized building with either hand. It must have been a reassuring thought as the ragged and untidy elements to his performances became more apparent.

But despite a sterling unbeaten record (35-0, 31 KO's), lucrative television contracts, and a profile and fortune that the rest of the featherweight division could only reflect upon with envy, Hamed still struggled for respect. As far as his critics were concerned he was more hype than substance and more than a few people desperately wanted to see the cocky young upstart humbled in the ring. For as long as anyone could remember the British Muslim boxer had spoken of becoming a legend and winning world championships up to lightweight and beyond. In reality he was marking time against carefully selected opposition as his star gently dimmed.

Nobody doubted that Hamed was colourful or marketable but when was he going to put it all on the line against a big name opponent? Talk of a move to junior lightweight to pick up another world title had petered out with the emergence of a fresh clutch of young fighters at that weight led by the brilliant Floyd Mayweather and the heavy-handed Diego 'Chico' Corrales and Acelino Freitas. Hamed's connections had no desire to put their cash cow in agaisnt such opposition for understandable reasons of weight, height and risk, but, even back at featherweight, had shamelessly avoided their obligation to accomodate teak tough Mexican - and WBO number one contender - Jaun Manuel Marquez.

The fistic credentials of Hamed were coming under increasing scrutiny.

On Febuary the 19th, 2000, at the Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino, Las Vegas, Mexicans Erik Morales and Marco Antonio Barrera staged one of the great fights of the modern era at the weight directly below featherweight. Going into the last round the consensus appeared to be that Barrera had a lead of anything between one and four rounds. When he got the better of Morales in the final round, including a somewhat dubious knockdown that nonetheless resulted in a count for Morales, it seemed to put the cap on a famous Barrera victory. At this moment two of the judges in attendance threw up one of those eccentric decisions that periodically have boxing fans scratching their heads and concluded that Morales had won. But Barrera could afford to smile. The loser was the winner. He knew he'd beaten Erik Morales.

Thoughts once again returned a Hamed v Barrera megafight, a contest that had been mooted for several years but, for various reasons, hadn't happened. Hamed needed a big name opponent to placate his television paymasters and prove a point to his detractors. Barrera, a recent participant in one of the greatest fights anyone could remember, was now the most obvious and attractive proposition once again. Boxing fans were intrigued at the prospect of the no-nonsense Barrera in the ring with the unorthodox Hamed.

Hamed v Barrera was eventually set for the 7th of April, 2001 at the MGM Grand, Las Vegas, Nevada.

Despite the recent heroics of Barrera against Morales, Hamed was the betting favourite. The Mexican had surely never tasted punches as hard as the British featherweight would throw. What would happen when The Prince inevitably landed one of his patented bombs? Hamed was also regarded to have an edge in handspeed. If he couldn't blast Barrera out then it was possible to construct a scenario where The Prince simply got on his bicycle and pecked his way to an anti-climatic points victory as he had done agaisnt Wayne McCullough in a bout held over Halloween in 1998.

While Barrera, now an experienced 52-3 with 38 Ko's, took to a monastic mountain HQ, Hamed rented a plush villa in Palm Springs, his brothers and a pool table on hand to counter the boredom of camp. Emanuel Steward arrived to oversee the last two weeks of training, including sparring. Steward was worried. He'd seen Barrera look razor sharp only a few months before stopping Jesus Salud in the sixth in Las Vegas. He knew Barrera was boxing as well as ever and had his old confidence back. The Kronk wizard must have been even more worried when he watched Hamed spar with the young Mexicans hired by the camp. The Prince looked ragged and his timing was woeful.

On the 7th of April, 2001, a boisterous crowd of 12,847 with British and Hispanic elements filled the MGM Grand at Las Vegas, Nevada. The fight was delayed by 45 minutes because Hamed rejected the green goatskin gloves that he himself had requested from Mexico. While a tense looking Hamed rewrapped his hands Barrera looked calm and relaxed and was shown laughing and joking in his dressing room. When he made his entrance into the arena, snugly enveloped in a spangly gown, he was given a warm reception by his Mexican fans. Arabic messages and fireworks greeted The Prince. When he finally made his belated entrance in his familar leopardskin trunks, he climbed, somewhat precariously, onto what appeared to be a large metal circle which was then suspended above the crowd. As this mechanical contraption wobbled slowly towards the ring, Hamed, usually the master of this type of hokum, tried to look nonchalant as cups of beer began to be hurled in his general direction, one, to the visible annoyance of the boxer, actually hitting him. Thoughts that the occasion might be getting to Hamed were magnified when he abandoned his pre-fight ritual of backflipping into the ring.

Doubts concerning Barrera's ability to fight at featherweight suddenly seemed less pressing when the two boxers came together for the pre-fight intructions from referee Joe Cortez. Barrera appeared to dwarf Hamed and his height advantage somehow came as a suprise when they stood face to face. As Hamed tried to summon the cocky spirit of The Prince as if he was an alter ego or character to escape into, Barrera smirked at something said behind him by a cornerman. At that moment you feared the worst for Hamed. His reputation meant nothing to Marco Antonio Barrera.

The first round subverted most expectations. Barrera, wearing blue and white trunks, did not go looking for Hamed. He quickly established a snappy and impressive jab. The Mexican moved to his left away from the southpaw Briton's best punch and declined to come forward - as had been widely expected, not least by his opponent. Hamed almost immediately began to look confused and pawed with his right glove in a tentative manner. He looked tense, as if he had not yet adjusted to the actual reality of the fight after all the hype of his Las Vegas bow. As he vainly tried to establish his punching distance, Barrera began to mix combinations into his own work. A crisp salvo from the Mexican sent Hamed skittering across the ring off-balance like a novice. It was astonishing to see how easily Barrera, the archetypal Mexican bruiser, was picking off his British opponent without taking punches in return. Barrera's subtle adjustment - moving and boxing instead of attacking - won him the first round with almost embarrassing ease. A sequence of thudding jabs slammed into a tight and confused looking Hamed as the round drew to a close. It was like watching a sparring session between a seasoned professional and a raw amateur and, although no one knew it at that moment, they had just seen whole the whole act in capsule form.

Round after round Barrera outboxed Hamed, his calculated strategy making The Prince look inept and confused. Barrera couldn't seem to miss with the left hook and Hamed, in a sure sign he was hurt and confused, mugged and grinned at the Mexican as he was tagged time and again. While The Prince kept his hands low and his chin wide open, Barrera tucked his elbows in and kept his gloves up. He was boxing an incredibly smart and disciplined fight and simply appeared to be in a different class to the man oddsmakers had installed as the favourite. It was a clinical, oddly anti-climatic pounding that saw Hamed in trouble more than once as Barrera blasted him with big combinations.

The Mexican's discipline only slipped when he manhandled Hamed and smashed him into a corner turnbuckle like a rag-doll in the final round. Symbolically, it was a fitting end to the contest. Joe Cortez deducted a point from Barrera but it hardly mattered by that point as it was difficult to remember a single round that Hamed had won clearly. The judges were somewhat generous to Hamed though and saw it 115-112 116-111 115-112, all for Barrera. To the suprise of some, Hamed was magnanimous and likeable in defeat. He praised his opponent warmly and admitted he hadn't boxed well.

It was hard not to think that Hamed was psychologically affected by such a defeat. He took nearly a year out of boxing and returned on the 18th of May, 2002 to box an ordinary Spanish fighter called Manuel Calvo at the Docklands ExCel Arena in London. Calvo had lost four times, including defeats to British boxers Jon Jo Irwin and Steve Robinson. He was chosen to give The Prince a confidence boosting blitz as he prepared to make another run at the top of the featherweight division. The night however was merely confirmation that Hamed had fallen out of love with boxing or training or probably both. He was billed as 'The Fresh Prince' but looked for all the world like a shot fighter, a shadow of the young Hamed who burst on the boxing scene in the previous decade. He outpointed Calvo over twelve tepid rounds but Hamed and those around him had all the evidence they needed. Despite frequent rumours of a comeback Prince Naseem Hamed was never seen in a boxing ring again.

How good was 'The Prince'? While he could realistically claim to have been one of the most successful and innately gifted British boxers of any era, Hamed never met the expectation aroused by the hype that surrounded him, the brashness of his own rhetoric and personality, and, perhaps most of all, the almost unlimited potential he'd once displayed as an emerging fighter in the mid-nineties. His style was based on reflexes and speed and once those had started to slip (for Hamed was never the most dedicated trainer) he had nothing but his punch to fall back on. He was also a 'confidence' fighter. Once he had been demystified by Barrera it was all over.

The young Hamed though was unquestionably one of the most naturally talented British boxers ever to step in a ring. He was also a great showman and, love him or hate him, the world of boxing has been a bit less colourful ever since those leopardskin trunks left the sport in 2002.

Article posted on 13.12.2008

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