Naseem Hamed: Houdini and The Prince

21.11.05 - By Michael Klimes: In the Oxford Dictionary the word Houdini is defined as Ďa person skilled at escaping,í after the notorious magician. Naseem Hamed was famous for his ability to punish opponents but also his ability to escape their punches. The Princeís antics made anticipation surge in the ring and although this particular fighter has been written about extensively on Eastsideboxing, I cannot help but make my contribution to a boxer who I believe was one of the best in the 1990s.

I have become very excited, perhaps naively so, at The Princeís announcement of his return. I wonder, if the followers of Naseem Hamed, like the disciples of Jesus Christ are going to witness a return of their Prodigal Son long after he has died. More than once, Hamed has disappointed us but now I am hoping that the opposite is true.

We all know about Hamedís flair and ring genius, his unorthodox balance, his bone crunching fist fury, his wonderful reflexes and pint point punching but we also know his laziness, his self-destructive arrogance, his hilarious theatrics and his belief that he could do it all alone. Hamedís career was so tumultuous he could be nothing but captivating.

Between the fall of the Iron Wall in 1991 and the fall of the Twin Towers on September 11th 2001 life was in the 1990s uncharacteristically quiet. There was no great enemy, no common threat to absorb our media attention so we turned to Hamed's own form of reality television. His contradictory character, his somersaults, his uniqueness and split personality made him more captivating than your normal coverage of politics. He even surpassed the celebrity hype of the O.J Simpson trial and the coverage of the Monica Lewinsky- Bill Clinton affair, which makes a statement about his box office appeal.

Hamed, very much resembled that frustrating tennis player John McEnroe. Both were born with and exhibited great natural gifts. However, their prime years burned themselves out terribly quick and both had bad temperaments blended with huge attitude problems. Kevin Kelley took away the aura of invincibility that Hamed possessed and Marco Antonio Barrera removed any shroud of credibility Hamed had left.

My nostalgia does not stop me from seeing Hamedís negatives but perhaps it magnifies his qualities in my eyes. I remember with a polluted joy of a boy his bewitching dismantling of Steve Robinson to become WBO Featherweight Champion, the fact that he won a belt at the precocious age of 21, his superb 35 seconds destruction of the poor Nigerian contender Said Lawal (he broke his nose in three places) and his grit when fighting Manuel Medina.

So what are the possible pitfalls awaiting the Prince in his planned return of early 2006? In a recent interview he said, ĎIíve been spending plenty of time with my two sons, my wife and parents just chilling. Iíve been boxing since the age of seven and it got to a point where I just thought I could take a break and thatís what I did. Iíve really missed boxing because thatís what I did for a hell of a long time and I consider myself not bad at it. Then again, I think boxing has missed me. My confidence has never really gone. Iím raring to go after a three-year lay off. I believe I can be even better. I am stronger and more mature now.í

A number of factors prohibit a successful return of The Prince and it is an illusion to believe that if he does return he will be a boxer of the same mould. Hamed, like Muhammad Ali in a Mark II model will not have the same speed and reflexes that were the hallmarks of his prime. Subsequently, this will effect his style as he wonít be able to get out of trouble by slipping punches like he did in the old days. What we will see if Hamed tries to fight as his older self will be more knock downs and bigger punishment. He might even sustain more damage than he ever has done in his previous career. Ali was savagely beaten in some rounds of his bouts between 1970-1975 (when he was still a great fighter even though in decline) because he simply could not maintain the original work rate he used to be known for. Ali had to use his incredible intelligence, ring experience, exceptional athleticism and astonishing mental strength to stay barely competitive in parts of fights. Hamed will have to exercise a similar array of qualities if he wants to beat the toughest opponents. Boxing purists were not entirely wrong in their criticisms of Aliís and Hamedís defences, they were fundamentally flawed but only when their defensive reflexes failed them from aging.

Another foreseeable trial is that if Hamed has slowed, then his style will have to dramatically altered to a more conventional one, holding has gloves down at waist height will not do anymore and Hamed will have to gain a more orthodox defence. This means changing his stance, which means playing around with his balance and how he throws his punches. One of Hamedís great strengths was that he could punch from the most awkward of angles because of this awkward stance and balance. If a trainer changes this The Prince is not only fighting in a completely different way but also is doing something that is not natural to him and goes against his most intuitive fighting instincts.

Hamed could still retain the wonderful duplicity of switch-hitting and deliver bombs in each hand but he will need to learn how to fight more economically. Showcasing stunning two round knockouts and engaging in four round wars is not the way to set the pace of a bout and wear down your adversary. The best boxer to currently imitate in this sense would be Bernard Hopkins who, with meticulous preparation and honing, knows how to work a means to an end: He is the perfect person to watch when it comes to breaking a younger fighter into smaller pieces over a period of time. Hamed needs to be patient, work a jab, take rest periods through clinching if he is tired, work the body and then deliver the knockout. He does not want to believe and operate on the one punch knock out philosophy.

The other problems are connected to weight and character. It is important that he fights at the weight he is most comfortable with and does not cut training like he did towards the latter half of his world title reign. The celebrity spotlight life he liked to live must not be rekindled and he will need to be wary of younger fighters coming up who want to staple his big name as a former world champion to their records. Sparring partners are invaluable from a training perspective as well as his lack of them in his big fight against Marco Antonio Barrera showed. Hamed needs to be humble and not let himself get carried away with being flashy. It is dramatic irony Naseem needs to, in some ways, completely reverse his arrogant persona and modify his boxing style to such an extent that in both spheres he will be considerably different to what he was once was, perhaps even the reverse.

Barry McGuigan, the former Irish brawler warned Hamed of his return stating, ĎMy advice to Naseem is to stay retired and enjoy your life. Itís very difficult to go back and capture that hunger again. He can get into shape but it is a different thing from being fighting fit.í

Emanuel Steward, trainer of Tommy Hearns and Lennox Lewis suggests otherwise, ĎHe can become a world champion again,í Hamedís comeback Ďhas to be done properly and delicately. A lot of guys comeback and they rush into it. You have to be careful about the opponents. If he trains hard, I donít think it will take him more than three months.í Steward has announced his enthusiasm to work with Hamed as, ĎI only have fond memories of him.í

These are two differing verdicts from two varying boxing experts. I for one think The Princeís return (if he does comeback) could be on one of the highlights of 2006. He does face a tough road and if he fails, the points of controversy flying around him will cease to exist as there will be no defenders this time. Houdini escaped once from his self-prophesised destiny of greatness by not coming back to defeat his arch-nemesis. It is time for the doubt in fansí and criticsí minds alike to be vanquished.

Article posted on 21.11.2005

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