At the start of the month of April in 2001, two British stars, in fact, global stars, were seemingly set to continue their respective dominance; Lennox Lewis up at heavyweight, Naseem Hamed down at featherweight. Both champions had a big fight coming up, Hamed especially, and both men were pretty big favorites going in, Lewis especially. Hamed was just days away from his fight with Marco Antonio Barrera, while Lewis was just a couple of weeks away from his defence against Hasim Rahman. Lewis was trained by the great Emanuel Steward, as was “The Prince.” But in their respective fights, even the Kronk guru was unable to save the pair from crushing defeat.
Hamed, who Steward was quite shockingly saying was the greatest featherweight in history, was unbeaten at 35-0 and the huge puncher had been a star attraction for some time. Hamed had made significant progress as far as becoming a genuine star in America, his 1997 slugfest with Kevin Kelley proving to be one hell of a US debut. Since getting off the deck more than once to stop “The Flushing Flash,” Hamed had returned to America to beat Wayne McCullough, Cesar Soto and, last time out, in a wild and extremely violent brawl, Augie Sanchez. The Barrera fight, set for April 7, would be the first Las Vegas super-fight for “The Prince.” Though a significant favorite to defeat the Mexican – Barrera having been twice beaten by Junior Jones as well as being controversially outpointed by Erik Morales in one of the greatest fights ever seen – Hamed knew he was taking on the toughest test of his 35-fight career. At least he should have known this.
Yet incredibly, in the lead-up to the fight, the Hamed camp was in almost complete disarray. Hamed seemed more interested in obtaining the biggest, best and most expensive suite in Vegas than he did in training hard and concentrating on Barrera (who locked himself away and trained with due diligence). Hamed was more worried about getting his personal barber over to Vegas than he was in listening to Steward. Looking back now, it’s more than clear the fame and attention Hamed had got, along with his enormous ego and sheer arrogance, had gotten the better of him. Hamed was also struggling to make the featherweight limit of 126 pounds. When fight night came, Barrera – who had said again and again before the fight that it would be a war – boxed smartly, confusing Hamed and making him pay when he saw an opening. And there were large openings in Hamed’s defence.
Barrera, 52-3, used his boxing fundamentals to teach Hamed a lesson in humility, Barrera stinging Hamed with hard shots throughout, often bouncing his head around. It was a clear win for the Mexican, who even found time to slam Hamed’s head into a corner post late in the fight, losing a point he knew he could afford. Hamed vowed to bounce back, to take the rematch he could have had via the rematch clause in place. Instead, Hamed vanished from view, from the sport. Fighting just once more (a dull affair with Manuel Calvo), “The Prince” was finished. The boxing lesson/beating Barrera had laid on him proved to be too much for the flashy southpaw who once threated true greatness to be able to take.
Heavyweight king Lewis also let Steward down as he prepared for his fight that April. Lewis spent some time in Vegas himself, but he wasn’t training. Instead, Lennox was spending valuable time shooting scenes for the movie ‘Ocean’s 11,’ this when he should have been in South Africa getting suitably adjusted to the altitude for his April 22 fight. Challenger Rahman made sure he got there early, and like Barrera had for the Hamed fight, “Rock” put his heart and soul into training. Lewis, who had a meet and greet with Nelson Mandela set up for after the fight, was a veritable sitting duck when he got into the ring in Carnival City.
Gasping for air as early as the third round, Lewis, 38-1-1, was in trouble. Rahman, 34-2 (the two losses coming in fights with David Tua and Oleg Maskaev, both by stoppage), duly took advantage and, in the fifth, he blasted an open-mouthed Lewis with his powerful right hand to deck the champion. Lewis had been smiling as he got his flush by Rahman’s bomb. It was a stunning upset yet it could so easily have been avoided. Indeed, had Hamed and Lewis trained like the champions they were we might have seen different results 20 years ago this month.
Lewis, though, did bounce back, soon avenging his loss to Rahman and then seeing out his career without suffering another loss. It sure was a bumpy April for British boxing fans back in 2001 though.