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Power, Poise and Posing: The Fistic Legacy of Prince Naseem Hamed

Naseem HamedBy Steven Pink: It is the uniquely paradoxical nature of boxing that very often the sport’s most skilled practitioners draw the ire and criticism of fans as readily as garnering admiration. Boxing’s iconoclasts from Muhammad Ali to Floyd Mayweather are derided for their idiosyncratic approach to the sport as often as they draw plaudits for their luminous skills. Yet few fighters in recent memory have polarized popular opinion quite so markedly as Naseem Hamed.

The Sheffield wunderkind regularly garnered rave reviews as he cut a swathe through the Featherweight division in the 1990’s, while simultaneously drawing the withering censure of the conservative element within the sport for his overt posing and histrionics, perceived lack of respect for his opponents and outrageous self confidence. In many ways Hamed represented a precursory template for modern day braggarts such as Mayweather and David Haye. Never one to hide his light under a bushel Hamed ceaselessly banged his own promotional drum and in doing so transformed himself into a huge box-office draw on both sides of the Atlantic.

Yet there was substance to be found behind the brash and abrasive exterior. Hamed, 36-1 (31), in a 5 ½ year run at the top of the 126 pound division, proved himself to be arguably the most consistently successful British boxer of all time and a candidate for the best Featherweight fighter of the last twenty years. At 5’ 5” he was a frighteningly potent composite of fistic talents. One punch knockout power allied to blinding speed and, in his earlier career at least, a uniquely loose limbed style of avoiding punches. While the Featherweight division, once the home of such luminaries as Willie Pep, Sandy Saddler, Ruben Olivares and Salvador Sanchez, toils in obscurity led as it is by competent though uninspiring champions such as Chris John, Steve Luevano and Takahiro Oah, it does us no harm to reflect on the last time the division truly captured the public’s imagination.

Like so many stellar prospects Hamed’s early career featured numerous matches against the journeymen opponents so beloved of matchmakers; and while wins over the likes of Ricky Beard, Miguel Matthews and Peter Buckley were anything but difficult or unexpected it was the poise, ring generalship and crunching power the young Sheffield prodigy displayed that marked him out as a uniquely precocious prospect. Trained by boxing sage Brendon Ingle Hamed’s style was a subtle variant on that used to good effect by stablemates Herol Graham and Jonny Nelson. Though what made the youngster stand out was his unique command of punching angles and his bewildering unorthodoxy in the ring. Dipping at the waste or swaying backwards Hamed would think nothing of launching huge uppercut leads or swinging hooks that often seemed to come up from the floor, yet were fired with such speed and precision that opponent after opponent simply found no answer to the puzzling conundrum poised by the diminutive battler. Only a few fights into his nascent professional career and Hamed was already becoming headline news.

Yet the press attention, while praising the ever rising catalogue of opponents reduced to immobile rubble in the ring, was not blind to the less savory elements of Hamed’s fistic makeup. His propensity for posing, taunting his opponents, dropping his hands and sticking out his chin combined with exaggerated back pedaling from exchanges all the time allied to a near ceaseless level of verbal sledging that would have done credit to an Australian cricketer, all served to alienate numerous armchair fans. It seemed that by the time he fought Vincenzo Belcastro, 28-6-3, for the European Bantamweight crown in only his 12th professional fight many of the crowd had paid in the hope of seeing the wily and experienced Italian shut his mouth. Yet when faced with better quality opposition Hamed invariably rose to the occasion. Belcastro was floored twice, in the first and the eleventh and dominated in a near virtuoso performance. The veteran of 37 fights was left a bemused and bewildered fighter, reduced to chasing shadows for the entire fight, while repeatedly soaking up punishment in return. The Prince pitched a shutout on two of the three scorecards.

At the age of twenty Hamed had annexed his first significant title. However, he was not to hang around at 118 pounds for long. He was maturing quickly, like modern day prodigy Manny Pacquiao adding weight and power while retaining his speed and poise. Indeed it is almost forgotten that in his early days Hamed garnered just as much praise for his defensive adroitness as his power. Indeed his in-ring radar was at times eerily reminiscent of a young Pernell Whittaker as he swayed, ducked and slipped his opponents punches; rarely ever taking a flush blow. Reeling off seven consecutive knockouts following the Belcastro match allowed Hamed to showcase his power for a wider audience, while giving him time to mature into a fully fledged 126 pounder. Among his most impressive wins in that knockout run were victories over Freddy Cruz, 44-6-6, and Sergio Liendo, 42-4-3, two men who had never previously been stopped. Hamed had shown he was ready for the big stage.

That stage was to be the bear pit of a Cardiff ice rink in front of 16,000 screaming Welshmen, united to a man in the common cause of supporting their hero, WBO Featherweight titleholder Steve Robinson. Hamed, who had never previously fought at the weight, had harangued Robinson at every turn over the preceding months, loudly proclaiming that he had the beating of the blue-collar champion. Many detractors claimed that Hamed’s mouth and promotional clout as much as his fists had secured the title opportunity. Though it must be said that the streaking Hamed, 18-0 (16), was big box office and presented Robinson with his most lucrative payday and highest profile fight.

Robinson, 21-9-1, was a brave and competent fighter who had risen from journeyman status to become a respected champion. He boasted championship victories over the likes of Colin McMillan, Paul Hodkinson and Duke McKenzie and was teak tough, battle hardened and comfortable in the trenches. Yet Hamed, in what many critics still believe to be his defining performance, annihilated the Welshman with a punch perfect display of precision boxing, defensive guile and concussive hitting. Robinson was hammered to defeat in eight rounds, after having been floored three times in all. Hamed had shown focus in ignoring the spittle soaked opprobrium of a rabidly hostile crowd and earmarked himself as a stellar talent in ripping away Robinson’s title in his backyard. A star was born that night; one who was to go on to set his own name proudly among the dazzlingly effulgent firmament of boxing’s elite champions over the next five years.

With Hamed’s public profile spiraling the flamboyance and showmanship was ratcheted up to a higher level. Borrowing from professional wrestling’s gaudy ring entrances Hamed was to variously enter the ring borne on a palanquin, march down a fashion runway and trot to the ring in a Halloween mask. He even went as far as to be deposited in the ring by an elevator set up in the MEN Arena. These bizarre ring walks (or potentially humbling exercises in hubris as some saw it) speak volumes about the Herculean confidence of a man, who while riding the crest of his championship wave, simply believed that he could not be beaten. The statistics between 1995 and 2001 emphasize that he was not wrong, though his conceit did render him something of pantomime villain among much of the British public and press.

Hamed, unlike too many of today’s cosseted and pampered title holders, proved to be a refreshingly active champion. What is even more laudable is that he chose (with a few notable exceptions) to defend his crown against the cream of his division’s crop. His run at the top saw him defeat a number of notable foes. The lanky and awkward former IBF Champion Manuel Medina, 52-7, was stopped, despite the wearying effects of a heavy cold, in eleven rounds. Tom Johnson, 44-2-2, the long serving IBF titleholder who was making his 12th defence, was hammered to defeat in ten rounds. Wilfredo Vasquez, who was demolished inside seven rounds, chose to vacate his WBA title in order to accommodate Hamed, who was quickly becoming the number one draw in the lighter weight divisions. Sadly boxing politics served to deny the sport a unification fight. Though interestingly Hamed was to go on to outpoint the rugged WBC king Cesar Soto, 54-7-2, in a rough and tumble battle in October 1999 which made him the only British fighter ever to have captured all four of the major alphabet association belts. For good measure Naseem also stopped IBF Super Bantamweight ruler Vuyani Bungu (who had previously made thirteen defences of his 122 pound belt) and future champion Paul Ingle (in a give and take struggle in which a seemingly shattered Hamed somehow managed to find the finishing left hand howitzer to knock out his previously unbeaten foe).

However, Hamed’s most thrilling performance was against the skilled and hard hitting Kevin Kelley, 47-1-2, in New York. In what must be accounted a featherweight version of Hagler-Hearns the two men traded multiple knockdowns over four thrilling rounds, with Hamed rallying from the very brink of defeat to level the Flushing native with a chilling left hander. It was the fight that would cement Naseem’s legacy as the most exciting fighter in the sport and one in which he even managed to earn the grudging respect of a hitherto scathingly critical Larry Merchant who was calling the fight for American television. Hamed had proved he could come through a war and rise from the canvas to down the very best fighters the division had to offer. While his chin (never perceived as iron clad following knockdowns against Daniel Alicea and Paul Ingle) had been clearly dented, notwithstanding issues of balance, his fighting heart had allowed him to prevail.

Yet the fight also provided vivid evidence that The Prince was entering what was to become a steady decline. The reflexes that had carried him through numerous battles over the years were slipping and he was becoming ever more easy to hit. This was partly due to the fact that as the knockouts mounted Hamed began to approach each fight as if a stoppage was inevitable. In doing so he neglected his skills and eventually allowed them to atrophy. By the time he faced Marco Antonio Barrera in 2001 he had become something of a one-dimensional puncher. The grace and fluidity of his early ring outings was now little more than a distant memory. Combinations became less frequent as Hamed became a stalking puncher obsessed with landing the big left hand. His fight against the hard-hitting Augie Sanchez, 26-1, provided further evidence of Hamed’s, by now, one-track approach. Both fighters were stunned in a wildly exciting slugfest before Hamed found the punches to stop the American in the fourth; it was to be his last successful defence; a life and death struggle against an opponent he would have dissected a few years previously. At the age of twenty-seven Hamed, by now a millionaire husband and father had fallen out of love with the sport. The contentment of his home life proved ever harder to abandon for the Spartan rigours of camp and he became an increasingly reluctant trainer. These chickens came home to roost against Barrera, who boxed smartly to soundly outpoint a strangely plodding and distracted Hamed and in doing so handed him his one and only defeat. Strangely Naseem was to fail to take up the rematch clause stipulated in his contract and the solitary defeat was never to be avenged.

For many the tepid nature of Hamed’s capitulation against Barrera irrevocably tarnished his legacy. Looked at objectively what one must take into account is Hamed’s dwindling appetite for the sport as well as the noticeable decline in his skills. Losing to Barrera was no disgrace. The Mexican holds his own place amongst the elite of boxing’s pantheon and would have given any featherweight of recent vintage a stiff tussle on that particular night. Many other extenuating factors can be called to account to throw further light on this one career aberration. Hamed was no longer working with long time trainer Ingle, while his dwindling motivation had resulted in a fractious and desultory training camp. Yes, Hamed could have re-motivated himself and sought redemption in a rematch. That he chose to forgo this privilege and walk away from the sport a year later at the age of twenty-eight should be weighed up and analyzed in the context of the many great champions who foolishly went on for far too long, returning to the ring long after the fistic well spring of their talent had been bled dry.

Hamed possessed everything necessary to secure greatness. He was skilled, exciting, hard hitting and flamboyant. His fights were almost universally exciting and his knockout wins most often spectacular. He showed heart in blazing back to defeat Alicea, Kelley and Ingle and always displayed a willingness to fight the very best opponents, often in their own country or hometown. Most importantly of all he displayed longevity reigning as the unquestioned number one in his division for many years. Hamed, forever the iconoclast chose to follow his own path and left the sport, if not at the summit of the mountain then gazing contentedly from the foothills secure that a peak conquered once need not be reattempted. In an age of tepid and unspectacular champions we should remember The Prince fondly. It may be some time before we see his like again.

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