April 7th 2001, marks the 20th anniversary of the featherweight battle between Marco Antonio Barrera and Prince Naseem Hamed. The fight was a battle between two of the best featherweights of their time.
Marco Antonio Barrera, of Mexico City, Mexico, started his pro career at an early age of 15 in 1989. His nickname was the Baby Faced Assassin. After having a short amateur career and being a five-time Mexican national champion, Barrera decided to give the professional rankings a go. In 1992, American audiences got their first glimpse of Barrera when he stopped Esteban Ayala in the fourth round at the Great Western Forum, in Inglewood, California. From there on, Barrera became a fan favorite. He was known for his aggressive style who liked to throw punches to the body and head of his opponents. In 1995, Barrera got his first world title shot and he won the WBO World Super Bantamweight Title by defeating Daniel Jimenez by unanimous decision. Barrera made four title defenses for the remaining of 1995. In 1996 for his fifth title defense, Barrera faced off with Olympic Gold medalist and former world champion Kennedy McKinney. This would be HBO’s first Boxing after Dark telecast. Both fighters engaged in one of the best fights of that year. Barrera dropped McKinney a total of five times in the fight which resulted in a TKO win for Barrera in the twelfth round. Barrera was heralded as the next Julio Cesar Chavez and on top of the pound for pound lists. Barrera made three more title defenses.
Then Barrera bumped into a stumbling block.
At the end of 1996, he lost by a fifth round disqualification against former world champion Junior Jones in an upset. In the fight, Barrera was dropped twice in the fifth round and even though Barrera got up, he was in bad shape. The corner came in too early right before the bell rang which resulted in Barrera being disqualified. Barrera had a rematch with Jones in 1997 and Barrera was more careful this time around. He ended up losing on points to Jones in a twelve round unanimous decision. Many critics started to feel that Barrera was not the fighter that he was made out to be. After almost a year layoff, Barrera was back in 1998. He reeled off three straight victories and ended up becoming a world champion for the second time. He defeated Richie Wenton for the vacant WBO World Super Bantamweight Title. Barrera made two successful defenses of the title in 1999 and then faced off with his arch nemesis Erik Morales in a WBC and WBO unification bout. In what was the fight of the year for 2000, Barrera came up short and lost a split decision. Many observers felt Barrera did enough to win the fight. Afterwards, Morales decided to move up to featherweight and the WBO rewarded their belt back to Barrera. Barrera made three defenses of the title. Then Barrera decided to vacate the title and move up to featherweight to challenge the best fighter of the division, who was Prince Naseem Hamed
Prince Naseem Hamed from Sheffield, United Kingdom, started his pro career at the age of 18 after a small amateur career in 1992. He was a southpaw with an awkward style but had freakish power in both hands. He moved up in the professional rankings quickly and within three years he got his first title shot. He won the WBO World Featherweight title by defeating Steve Robinson by an eighth round TKO in 1995. From there, he started destroying his opponents. Hamed only fought out of the United Kingdom for the most part and then he came to America with a bang. Hamed faced off with Kevin Kelley at Madison Square Garden in 1997 for his ninth title defense. The fight was one of the best fights of that year. Both fighters exchanged knockdowns in a slugfest. Hamed would end up stopping Kelley in the fourth round. This was also the first fight on HBO for Hamed which made him an attraction. Not only was he an entertainer but he was an action fighter. Hamed continued to beat good fighters and at the end he made a total of 15 successful title defenses of his WBO title. Hamed decided to vacate his belt and he picked Barrera as his next opponent. The thought process was Barrera would be a more lucrative fight for him and an easier opponent than Juan Manuel Marquez or Erik Morales.
In the lead up to the Barrera/Hamed fight, Barrera was a 3-to-1 underdog. What was insulting, was two out of thirty experts picked Barrera to win the fight. Nobody was giving Barrera a chance to win the fight. You can say some boxing critics felt Barrera was still a brawler and that would have played in Hamed’s favor. Another reason was Barrera was moving from super bantamweight to featherweight, so maybe they felt Hamed’s power would be too much for Barrera. Finally, Hamed was so hyped, many felt no fighter can beat him. However, if you were one of the few people that analyzed the fight thoroughly, you saw the Barrera win coming. In Barrera’s last title defense at super bantamweight against Jesus Salud, an interesting commentator was on hand to call the fight. That was Emanuel Steward, who was Hamed’s trainer. Steward noticed a change in Barrera’s style. Barrera took the approach of boxing effectively using a good jab and not brawling. Steward was impressed by Barrera’s performance. He knew if Barrera fought Hamed the same way he fought Sauld, it was going to be a tough outing for Hamed.
So on April 7th, 2001 the stage was set for Barrera and Hamed at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, Nevada. The fight was televised on HBO PPV with a lively crowd of many Mexican fans and also a lot of British fans who made the trip from across the pond. Barrera came in with a record of 52-3, with 38 KO’s and Hamed had a flawless record of 35-0, with 31 KO’s. No major title was on the line for this fight but this was for the lineal title which was more important.
Before the fight started, there was about an hour wait until the main event started. Hamed had issues with his gloves and was not ready. Once the glove situation was corrected, the fight was on. This could have been a mental game that Hamed was playing to get in the head of Barrera. However, Barrera stayed cool and calm and ready to fight. Immediately, Barrera made a statement in the opening round. An off balanced Hamed with his hands down got caught with a Barrera left hook. Barrera kept a tight defense and used his left jab effectively. Barrera landed a few of those hard jabs on Hamed’s chin. Hamed soon realized he would need more than his awkwardness and power to defuse a determined Barrera. In round two, Barrera continued to work his jab very effectively. Hamed decided to use dirty tactics. When both fighters clinched, Hamed was off balanced and had Barrera in a headlock. Then he pulled him down to the canvas with him. As Barrera freed himself, he sneaked in a left punch while Hamed was on the canvas still. This caused a delay in the fight in which referee Joe Cortez warned both fighters not to implore dirty tactics. It was a good round for Barrera. The third round was close as both fighters were a little more tactical. There was more activity from Hamed in the round as Barrera boxed carefully. Barrera got himself back to gear in round four. He kept moving to his left, away from Hamed’s left hand. Barrera caught Hamed with a left hand that stunned Hamed momentarily. Hamed started to back up and Barrera followed him and landed a few body punches. Hamed had a comeback in round five and Barrera was less active in the round. The highlight was when Hamed was able to land a hard left hook on the chin of Barrera but Barrera took it well. In round six, Hamed showed more frustration and started the round quick. He was lunging with power shots trying to catch Barrera with a lucky shot but it was not working. Hamed even switched briefly to a conventional stance to offset Barrera. Barrera continued to box beautifully throughout the round. Towards the end of the round, as both fighters clinched, Hamed landed a left hand on Barrera and Barrera answered with a left of his own.
Midway through the fight there was concerns from Emanuel Steward who advised Hamed that he was losing the fight and he needed to pick it up.
In round seven, Hamed came out aggressively and he started to use his jab. The round was like the battle of the jabs with Barrera getting the best of it though. In round eight, Hamed once again came out with a lot of pressure. He started to throw hard right hands that were partially blocked by Barrera. Midpoint in the round, as Hamed came forward and threw a left hand that missed, Barrera countered with his right hand. The punch landed on Hamed’s chin which froze him to the point where he grabbed onto the rope briefly. Barrera took control of the round after that. Barrera continued to have his way in round nine with effective counter punching. Hamed was having difficulty as he was throwing one hard punch at a time. At the end of the round, Hamed got close to Barrera and he got clipped with a left hook while he jumped up in the air to get away from Barrera. In-between rounds, Emanuel Steward told Hamed that he needed a knockout and needed to throw more punches. Round ten was a better one for Hamed. He did take the advice of Steward and came out strong. Even though he was much busier, Barrera would still land good counter shots to back off Hamed. In round eleven, Barrera opened up more and put the pressure. At this point, Barrera was so confident, he started throwing more combinations to the body and head of Hamed. This was the moment for Hamed to land a big punch but he was so outclassed that Barrera took his heart away. Going into the final round, Barrera just needed to continue what he was doing and Hamed needed a comeback of a lifetime with a knockout. Barrera started more aggressively and went after Hamed. He connected with punches to the head of Hamed. Midpoint in the round, Hamed threw a wild left hook that missed that caused him to have his back towards Barrera. To give Hamed a taste of his own medicine, Barrera took Hamed and rammed his head to the ring post. This was in retaliation of Hamed’s dirty tactics earlier in the fight. This caused Barrera a point deduction in the fight. As the fight resumed, Hamed stuck out his hand to touch gloves but Barrera wanted no part of it. Barrera closed the show landing combinations on Hamed to end the fight.
There was no question on who won the fight. Barrera won a unanimous decision by scores of 115-112 (twice) and 116-111. It was a masterful performance by Barrera and one of his many best wins of his illustrious career. The victory was one of the biggest achievements in boxing history. To Hamed’s credit, he did go to distance with Barrera and showed toughness. However, Barrera humbled the Prince that night.
It’s safe to say the loss took a lot out of Hamed. He took a year off and came back in 2002. He defeated Manuel Calvo by unanimous decision to get back in the win column. Hamed did not look good in the fight and seemed out of shape. Unfortunately, this would be his last fight and Hamed retired. What a shame as Hamed retired at the age of 28 and probably could have gone longer in his career. There was a chance of him having future fights with Erik Morales, Juan Manuel Marquez, or Manny Pacquiao. Hamed was a really good fighter in his prime once you look back at his career. This is why Barrera’s win over him was superb. Hamed ended his career with a record of 36-1, with 31 KO’s. Hamed was inducted in the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2005 and rightfully so.
For Barrera, the win got him more popular and he would add more to his legacy. In 2002, he would win the WBC World Featherweight title by defeating his arch enemy Erik Morales in their rematch by unanimous decision. Barrera did not accept the WBC title but more importantly, he won the Ring Magazine title. Barrera would have another setback the following year in 2003. As the favorite, he lost to Manny Pacquiao by an eleventh round stoppage. This was thought to be the end of Barrera and many questioned if he would ever come back. Once again Barrera made another comeback. In 2004, he won the WBC World Super Featherweight title defeating Erik Morales by majority decision. It would be their third fight and final fight with Barrera winning the trilogy. Barrera would defend the title four times before losing it to Juan Manuel Marquez in 2007. Barrera would never regain the title again and fought for four more years. Barrera ended his career with a record of 67-7, with 44 KO’s. Barrera was inducted in the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2017 and is considered one of the best Mexican fighters of all time.
Looking back, the Barrera and Hamed fight was one of the most significant fights of 2001. Naseem Hamed was known as the Prince but on that night Barrera was the King.