Twenty Years later: Looking back on the Naseem Hamed-Kevin Kelley featherweight war

It is the fight HBO’s Larry Merchant called “a featherweight version of Hagler-Hearns” and it rocked New York City twenty long years ago today.

Many fans, and plenty of experts, were left in awe due to the violence, speed, ferocity and number of knockdowns, knockout punches, and sheer, relentless two-way action that was somehow crammed into less than 12-minutes of boxing.

It was the Naseem Hamed-Kevin Kelley war that took place inside the historic Madison Square Garden on December 19, 1997, and it is fitting that such a great fight took place at such a venue. Hamed, “here on business,” the promos stated, was an unbeaten KO artist who had captured two major belts at 126 pounds. Kelley was a no-nonsense pro who had come up the hard way in winning the WBC crown at featherweight.

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Together, these two put on a display of combustible drama that lit up the entire boxing world.

Was Hamed, undefeated at 28-0, the real deal, or was the southpaw, thoroughly unorthodox, punches-from-everywhere sensation a mere hype job? Kelley, 47-1-2 was the man to let us all get an answer. The build-up to the fight was hugely entertaining and it also polarised fight fans. And in a strange way too, because though “The Prince” was deemed too full of himself, too cocky for the taste of many, Kelley was also no shrinking violet; “The Flushing Flash” as fast with his mouth as he was with his fists.

Which loudmouth southpaw would the fans root for?

Well, in light of the fact that Kelley was fighting at home, most of the bodies crammed inside MDSG were fully hoping their man would send the outspoken, braggadocio back home to the UK with his mouth shut and his tail placed firmly between his legs. The night had been provided with a sizzling encore an hour or so before Kelley and Hamed locked horns; with the underrated Kennedy McKinney stunning Junior Jones in another 126 pound slugfest.

The main event would surpass even this Fight of The Year candidate.

Kelley, at age 30 the older, and more experienced man by seven years, stunned his man early, sending Hamed to the floor in the first-round. There would be many more knockdowns and home-run punches on display. In total, both men scored three knockdowns apiece – the fans, of both men, in a frenzy as a result. Indeed it was breathtaking stuff.

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In the end, after navigating his way through a fight that could have gone either way many times, on sheer luck if nothing else but raw power, Hamed got the stoppage win in the fourth-round, as Kelley, with less punch resistance but a whole lot more wear and tear to his name, was overcome.

It was a great fight, an epic even, and all these years later fans still talk about it. Maybe not in quite the same hushed, respect-filled tones they speak about Hagler and Hearns’ three-rounds of absolute mayhem with, but with plenty of enthusiasm all the same.

There was indeed a featherweight Hagler Vs. Hearns-like rumble taking place two decades ago this day.