Naseem Hamed - Prince Or Pretender To The Throne?

01.02.05 - By Cris Neill: 'Thirty-six punches in 12 seconds! That's impossible!' I passed the newspaper I was reading to my friend and he agreed. 'That's way too fast, he wouldn't be throwing proper punches.' It was 1994, and I had made my first acquaintance with Naseem Hamed. A Sunday Times article had described him as one of the most outrageously talented boxers in emerge from the UK in years. Looking at his picture, the jug-eared, bambi-eyed kid didn't look like a fighter. It seemed unbelievable that his trainer, Brendan Ingle, thought he could be as great as Muhammad Ali.

More than a decade, 37 fights and a defeat later, Hamed is planning a comeback, this time against an unnamed opponent in the Middle East. "I've not said anything publicly until now but I plan to fight again in the summer," Hamed told the Sheffield Star. "We have not selected my opponent but the fight will take place in the Middle East and that is definite."

Hamed hasn't fought since 2002 and has entered a limbo which he refuses to term as retirement, but can't convincingly be described as anything else. Where did it all go wrong? It's at this point that two schools of thought emerge. The first judges Hamed on his fight with Kevin Kelley onwards, which marks his professional debut in the United States, up until his defeat at the hand of Marco Antonio Barrera in Las Vegas in 2001. It can be summed up as this: Hamed was a powerful puncher who lacked defensive skills and was magically exposed at the hands Barrera. Part of this assertion is true, but it's also misleading. It ignores the fact that the Hamed who fought Barrera was unrecognisable from the boxer who fought Steve Robinson. Hamed didn't always fight the way he fought against Kevin Kelley and Barrera - clumsy, flat-footed, throwing bombs and caution to the winds in lieu of a sound boxing strategy. There was a time when Hamed was a brilliantly elusive switch-hitter in the mould of fellow Brendan Ingle protégé Herol Graham. You only have to watch his fights in 1994-95, when he first started emerging in the public consciousness, to see that he was something different. As Jim Watt put it, prior to Hamed's third round TKO of Laureano Ramirez, "In his last two fights he has been with men who have gone 12 rounds for world titles, and he has just toyed with them.' Prior to his fight with Danny Alicea in 1996, it's arguable whether Hamed ever lost a single round of boxing. No, the men he fought weren't the greatest boxers in the world, but a fighter can't face the best at the beginning of his career. It's unfair to suggest that because Hamed fought fighters who were past their best, this is somehow a reflection on his abilities. Even when faced with limited opposition, he dazzled. Again, quoting Jim Watt, he was capable of surprising even experienced pundits: "He threw a punch that started off as a jab but ended up as an uppercut. I've never seen that done before."

Clearly then, an unbiased examination of Hamed's early fights reveals that he was one very real slice. Sure, he had his faults. A tendency to show-boat, and abandon defensive tactics in favour of seeking a knock-out shot. But these could have been - and were - held in check by a careful trainer. It was Brendan Ingle's tutelage, applying his hit-but-don't-get-hit-back to Hamed's natural gifts of power and sharp reflexes, that built the boxer. Let me reiterate that. Brenda built Hamed. Don't believe me? Then watch what happened as Ingle's influence started to wane, and Hamed started listening to the advice of his brothers and well-wishers on how to manage his career. I don't intend, and don't have the space, to give an exhaustive account of Hamed's fall from grace. Nick Pitt's book The Prince And The Paddy chronicles in detail how the relationship between Ingle and Hamed degenerated as the boxer's career took off. The seeds of this disintegration were present from the the very beginning. Hamed, so Ingle claims, was lazy and refused to train in a systematic way. The week before his fight with Steve Robinson, for the WBO featherweight title, he visited the gym just once in preparation. Hamed was starting to show a preference for what he termed his 'rocket-launcher', the knock-out punch in default of defensive subtlety. This reached a climax in his fight with Kevin Kelley in 1997. By his own admission, Hamed whispered to Kelley that he wanted a war. Well, that's exactly what happened. Hamed was almost unrecognisable as the fighter who had handled Steve Robinson and Freddy Cruz with such ease. Hamed hit the canvas himself in the first, second and fourth rounds before he knocked out New Yorker Kelley after two minutes 27 seconds of round four. It was an exciting, but strangely disappointing introduction of Hamed to US fight fans, and they could be forgiven for thinking he was nothing but a banger with nothing in the way of defence. This was followed in November 1998 by his final split with Ingle. They claimed it was a mutual decision. Hamed had retained Ingle in his corner only as a supervisor for his last WBO featherweight title defence against Wayne McCullough in Atlantic City in October. The bad blood between the two was evident throughout the fight. Hamed appeared to completely disregard advice from Ingle and his two sons during the contest, which ended in a lacklustre points victory.

Then came defeat at the hands of Barrera. Anyone wishing to get an interesting insight into this fight should watch the Channel Four documentary, Naz: the Little Prince, the Big Fight. It's kind of watching a car-crash in slow-motion as Hamed messes up the greatest challenge of his career. Hamed's vanity and petulance, whether agonising over his hairstyle or choice of gloves, does not make for pretty viewing. Nor does the sobering assessment of his fighting abilities by Manny Steward, who advised Hamed in training camp that his punches were wide and badly timed. The absence of influence from Brendan Ingle was making itself felt, as the fight itself bears testimony. Hamed's feet are set wrong, his punches are telegraphed, he's throwing single shots, not combinations. Watching the fight now, it's clear that Barrera's victory owes as much to the fact that Hamed did absolutely nothing to win it, as it does to his opponent’s boxing ability.

So what happens next? Given that Hamed's last promoter Barry Hearn walked away after spending a year trying to set up a match with Michael Brodie, the omens for a triumphant comeback do not look good. Time isn't kind to a boxer's reflexes, and althought at 30, Hamed isn't over the hill, his absence from the ring means there will be an awful lot of ring rust to shake off. The absence of Ingle's influence is also likely, yet again, to have a detrimental effect on his performance. Having a permanent 'What If?' hanging over your name isn't a legacy most boxer's would aspire to, but in Hamed's case, it's a self-inflicted epitaph.

Article posted on 01.02.2005

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