Naseem Hamed: Why did the ‘Prince’ Retire?
By Matthew Thomas Potter: For the first time in a decade long career, Naseem Hamed left the ring to a mixture of muted boos and polite applause. A short time later, one of Britain’s greatest ever boxers, at the age of 28, would announce his retirement. Hamed, looking out of shape after a long period of inactivity, had just won a wide points decision victory over an unheralded Spaniard, Manuel Calvo, for the lightly regarded IBO Featherweight title.
It had all begun twenty one years earlier, when at the age of seven, a young Naseem entered Brendan Ingle’s gym, in the steel city of Sheffield, England. Hamed was a polite and quiet boy, who would go on to become a brash and confident showman, capable of selling tickets, and filling sporting arenas across the world.
There has always been an aura of confusion surrounding Hamed’s retirement, which came not much more than a year after his career defining loss to Mexican legend; Marco Antonio Barrera. The fight with Barrera has become a point of reference for every critic and conspiracy theorist. The somewhat lazy and obvious assumption being; that Hamed was well beaten and exposed at the highest levels of the sport, and thus retired to avoid further embarrassment.
On the surface this seems like a credible reason, and, almost certainly, the loss to Barrera was one of the fundamental reasons why Hamed did retire, right in the middle of his physical prime. However, there were many other issues that contributed to Hamed’s retirement; it was a sporting death by a thousand cuts….
At the tender age of twenty, Hamed fought for his first prestigious accolade; the European Bantamweight title. The young Hamed won a wide points decision over the seasoned and durable Italian, Vincenzo Belcastro, who Hamed knocked down in the 1st and 11th rounds. That same year, in 1994, Hamed knocked out Freddy Cruz to capture the WBC International Super-Bantamweight title; which Hamed successfully defended six times, each time knocking out his opponent inside four rounds.
Then, in 1995, the call came for Hamed’s first shot at a world title. Taken on short notice, and moving up in weight, Hamed defeated Steve Robinson to win the WBO Featherweight title, and in doing so he became the youngest ever British World Champion, at the age of just twenty one. Hamed would go on to defend his WBO title successfully on fifteen occasions, before losing it for reasons outside of the boxing ring.
From 1995 to 2001, Hamed became the dominant force in the featherweight division, and a sporting and cultural phenomenon in his British homeland and further afield. During his heyday, Hamed met with, and was decorated by, Royalty from two sovereign nations. He had musical collaborations with The Ministry of Sound; he did commercials for Pizza Hut and Audi. He had a range of merchandise; posters, clothes, videos, statues and even his own Playstation game.
Inside the ring Hamed was equally sensational. He defeated no less than nine current, former or future world title holders. In 1997, he unified the WBO and IBF titles; with an 8th round TKO win over Tom Johnson. The American had successfully defended his title eleven times prior to the fight with the Prince. The following year, Hamed defeated the ageing three-weight world champion; Wilfredo Vasquez via 8th round TKO. Vasquez had been the current WBA Featherweight champion, but fearing unification with WBO, the WBA stripped Vasquez of his title. Two years later Hamed unified the WBO and WBC titles with a dull point’s decision victory over Cesar Soto in Detroit, USA.
Hamed’s single best victory perhaps came against Vuyani Bungu on the 11th of March, 2000, in London, England. Bungu had defeated Kennedy McKinney in 1994 to win the IBF Super-Bantamweight title. Bungu hadn’t lost a fight for over eight years, and had successfully defended his IBF world title on fourteen prior occasions. Hamed entered the arena on a magic carpet that hovered over the audience below before coming back down to earth; he then stepped off the carpet and continued his ring walk with hip-hip impresario P.Diddy by his side. Bungu fought bravely, but Hamed defeated him via TKO in the 4th round.
There was another thrilling fight and KO victory to come, against the big punching, but seriously outgunned, Augie Sanchez in Connecticut that same year. But the inevitable march towards Barrera and retirement had seemingly begun….
In fact, the seeds of Hamed’s discontent had been sown as early as 1998. Hamed’s gloomy demeanour in the build up to the fight with Vasquez wasn’t in keeping with flamboyant stars outgoing personality. After the fight, Hamed split from promoter Frank Warren, and it soon become clear that Hamed was also having problems with his long time trainer, friend and mentor; Brendan Ingle. Things came to head with Ingle, surrounding and during the October 1998 fight with durable Irishman, and future world title holder, Wayne McCullough.
During the entertaining fight, Hamed refused to make eye contact with Ingle between rounds, Ingle dished out advice, but Hamed sat stony faced and looking entirely indifferent to that advice. At the start of the rest period between rounds 11 and 12, Hamed refused to sit down and seemed to unceremoniously push Ingle away.
Later, Hamed would go on record to say, that he felt Ingle desperately wanted him to lose against McCullough. Perhaps Hamed said this, because Ingle himself was on record as saying that since Hamed’s win over Johnson, the money, fame and praise Hamed had received, had made the highly egotistical fighter difficult to train. Immediately after the fight with McCullough, Hamed split from Ingle.
The history of the 2001 fight between ‘Prince’ Naseem Hamed and Marco Antonio Barrera has been re-written. A dominant performance by Barrera, in a competitive fight that two judges scored 115-112, has been rewritten as schooling; an embarrassing and uncompetitive boxing lesson for Hamed. The historical reality of that fight is somewhat different to its current perception.
Without questioning an honest and open Naseem Hamed it is hard to say, with any degree of certainty, why the man who dominated the featherweight division for half of a decade, retired at the inopportune moment which he did. However, there are clearly a number of contributory reasons:
Hamed was becoming more deeply and openly religious as his career progressed, he often surrounded himself with religious symbolism, and consigned himself to promoting his Islamic faith; a faith that was under scrutiny after the September 11th attacks. It was not an easy time to be a Muslim in America; it was more difficult still for a high profile sports star, known for flaunting that faith at every given opportunity. Perhaps Hamed felt it was the correct decision to withdraw from the limelight, as his religious convictions became increasingly passionate, studious and all consuming.
Hamed’s split from long time mentors, like Frank Warren, and more significantly, trainer Brendan Ingle must have been traumatic affairs that may have left Hamed deeply disillusioned. Not to mention feeling somewhat abandoned and isolated.
Hamed’s loss to Barrera; was not just a significant sporting defeat, but also a difficult commercial conundrum. HBO seemed to lose faith; contract negotiations become protracted and difficult and then stalled and broke down all together. Adidas ended their long term and deeply lucrative sponsorship of Hamed after the defeat.
A total of 21 years, 10 years of which as a professional, living the boxing life; training hard, eating right, making and selling fights. Perhaps this had worn Hamed’ infectious enthusiasm down to the bone; see the Vasquez fight press conference where Hamed seems deeply disinterested in proceedings.
Fame; Hamed was internationally famous, with news of his fights being broadcast around the world. In his heyday, Hamed got more than ten million viewers tuning in for his fights on free-to-view network ITV, in country of sixty million that is an extraordinary achievement.
Success; from a sporting perspective, he had beaten every world title holder in the featherweight division by the time he was 25. What more was their for him to achieve inside the ring, except beat them all again?
Money; the total career earnings of Hamed were reported to be in excess of £30 million. In the year 2000 alone, Hamed made £7.5 million, despite only having two fights. Hamed’s haul of £7.5 million was twice as much as soccer star David Beckham earned that same year. The lucrative 6 year sponsorship deal with Adidas, and a 6-fight, £6 million deal with HBO had also swelled the young fighter’s bank account.
All these issues were undoubtedly contributing factors, although the truth may never be fully known. But what Hamed achieved inside and outside the ring was significant and thrilling. A fighter as exciting and enticing as ‘Prince’ Naseem may not been seen on these shores again, any time soon. And for that fact lone, he deserves our applause and our appreciation.