Forgotten Prince: The Rise and Fall of Naseem Hamed

15.08.05 - By Peter Cameron: On the 14th April 1992, an 18 year old British boxer somersaulted into the ring for the first time. His opponent for the night, Ricky Beard, would soon be dismantled and demolished in two dazzling rounds. The night marked the professional debut of "Prince" Naseem Hamed and for me it represented the beginning of an emotion-fuelled journey that would span more than a decade, experience ecstatic highs and ultimately end in disappointment.

For the next three years, Hamed tore through the divisions like a force of nature. He displayed a thrilling mix of frightening power combined with lightning speed and almost intolerable arrogance. His style was so unorthodox it was unique.

Hands held low, chin deliberately exposed but tantalisingly out of reach, Hamed didn't just beat his opponents, he
humiliated them. He would imitate their buckling legs as they collapsed under his power, and wink at them as they lay dazed on the canvas. He would ridicule them at the pre-fight press conferences, the weigh-in, throughout the fight and even at the interviews afterwards. Each Hamed fight generated enormous excitement. His style and ability were pure box
office, and I soon found myself believing he could become, as he kept proclaiming himself, an all-time great.

On 30th September 1995, Hamed won his first world title at the age of 21. The newspapers were at last able to declare "the Prince has become King". Hamed took apart Welshman Steve Robinson, taunting him throughout before finishing him in the 8th in front of 16,000 appalled Welsh fans. Robinson, solid if not spectacular in the ring, decent and amiable outside, looked destroyed both physically and mentally afterwards, having been tortured and battered in front of his friends and family. Hamed held his new belt aloft and declared himself the best boxer on the planet. I applauded him from my armchair, but felt uncomfortable with the manner of victory. Did Hamed have to make it so painful for Robinson? Could he not have won the fight without so disrespecting the poor champion?

Now a world champions, Hamed's behaviour became even more cocky and arrogant. His ring entrances grew more extravagant and absurd, and even his loyal fans frowned at his worsening conduct. Nevertheless he continued to excite and his fights were compulsive viewing. On 8th February 1997, he beat Tom "Boom Boom" Johnson in typically obnoxious fashion to take the IBF featherweight crown. Then on 19th December at Madison Square Garden, Hamed made a sensational debut on American soil against Kevin Kelly in what was a strong contender for fight of the year. Hamed v Kelly was a battle of the braggadocios. British boxing fans, even those who loathed Hamed, united behind him in the hope of seeing the brash American humbled.

Hamed knocked out Kelly in the fourth round, but only after he had been floored three times by the American. There were moments in the first two rounds when Hamed looked to be in serious trouble. Although it was another victory to add to his 27 previous wins, Hamed's aura of invincibility had been dented. Kelly had exposed vital flaws in Hamed's technique, particularly his defence. For the first time Hamed looked vulnerable. He looked beatable.

Leading towards the Barrera fight, Hamed's ring performances became more inconsistent. He was unconvincing against Wayne McCullough and Paul Ingle, yet imperious against Vuyani Bungu. Some observers believed he had meddled with his style and the results had been detrimental to his performances. Others began to question his dedication to training, and feared he may be losing the explosiveness of his early years. The boxer himself pointed out, quite fairly, that he was now facing a much higher calibre of opponent. Whatever the actual reason, Hamed's performances were no longer matching the accompanying self-hype and showmanship. Against Bungu, Hamed entered the ring by descending from the ceiling on a flying carpet. In order to get away with ludicrous stunts like this, Hamed needed to keep producing the goods in the ring. He needed to keep

Enter Marco Antonio Barrera.

From the moment Hamed chose not to do his customary somersault into the ring, the first time in his career he had neglected it, a feeling grew that he was about to be punished for all his arrogance and cockiness. With hindsight it is staggering to think that Barrera was most people's underdog leading into the fight. The Mexican, focussed like never
before, beat Hamed to the punch every time, dominating and outclassing him for 12 painful rounds. A desperate Hamed, looking slow and clumsy next to Barrera's brilliance, was reduced to trying to land one big knockout punch. Having boasted about his invincibility for so long, Hamed was being handed a humiliating boxing lesson from a man who possessed far superior skills to his own.

In the final round, Barrera picked up Hamed, dragged him across the ring and rammed him against the corner-post. Although it cost the Mexican a point on the scorecards, it was as if he was repaying Hamed for all the disrespect he had shown. It was at this point that I instinctively shouted "finish him, Marco, knock him out". Now that Hamed's myth had been exposed, now that it was clear he was a long way from being the best fighter on the planet as he had always claimed, I wanted to see him punished. I had been prepared to accept his insulting antics whilst I still believed he could go on and become an undefeated all-time great. Once that belief had been destroyed, and it was clear he was about to lose, I wanted him thoroughly humiliated in the same way he had humiliated Steve Robinson, Tom Johnson and many others.

After the fight Hamed said "Great fighters have lost before. Great fighters come back". It is an accurate statement which perfectly summarises his career. Hamed never came back. Plans for a rematch with Barrera never materialised and Hamed fell off the boxing radar. In May 2003, thirteen months after the Barrera fight, Hamed made a low-key ring return to grind out a unanimous but unconvincing 12 round decision against no-hoper Manuel Calvo. All the magic, the excitement, the invincibility which had surrounded him, had gone.

Hamed has not fought since Calvo and although occasional rumours emerge that he is planning a comeback, it is obvious now that this will never happen. Once he had lost to Barrera, he really had no other option but to retire. His whole legend was built around being unbeatable. He couldn't deal with being just another boxer, and spectators weren't willing to put up with his hype if he couldn't back it up in the ring. Websites dedicated to the Prince have long since shut down, and attention in Britain has moved onto the likes of Ricky Hatton and Amir Khan. I followed and supported Hamed throughout his career, only to turn against him in the Spring Las Vegas heat. Yet, looking back, reliving his fights, I now genuinely miss the forgotten Prince.

Article posted on 15.08.2005

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