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What would have happened if Floyd and Naz had met at the Crossroads, in 1999, at 128 lbs.?

Image: What would have happened if Floyd and Naz had met at the Crossroads, in 1999, at 128 lbs.?

By Joseph Hirsch: It’s hard to believe now with hindsight being what it is, but there was a time roughly around the beginning of the twenty-first century when HBO decided to bet big on featherweight phenom “Prince” Naseem Hamed, and to sell short on Floyd “Pretty Boy” Mayweather (as he was then known). Boxing fans old enough to remember can no doubt recall the furor that erupted when Floyd Mayweather dismissed a seven-fight, twelve-million dollar deal as a “slave contract,” asking instead for a three-million dollar single fight contract.

Floyd might have been asking too much at the time considering his market value relative to already-established superstars like Oscar De La Hoya or Roy Jones, but getting Floyd to fight for that kind of money after he dropped his Uncle Roger as a trainer (and the “Pretty Boy” moniker) would have been considered a great steal. You’d probably have to pay that kind of money to get Floyd to put in a personal appearance at your casino’s grand opening these days, forget fighting

But to repeat myself: hindsight is twenty-twenty, and no one quite knew the stratospheric heights to which Floyd would eventually climb. Nor could anyone have guessed the Mariana Trench-like depths Naseem Hamed would eventually plumb. How could they have known? Consider: Naseem Hamed had not only aced his first test on American soil against the game and experienced Kevin “Flushing Flash” Kelley, but had put on one of the great spectacles of modern prizefighting in that back and forth outing. If you haven’t seen Hamed and Kelley take turns knocking each other down at Madison Square Garden a few days before Christmas back in 1997, go watch it on YouTube now. Hell, even if you have seen it (and multiple times at that), now might be a good time to go revisit it.

Naseem Hamed tends to get overlooked on this side of the Pond partly due to nationalistic bias, partly due to his over-the-top flamboyant style in which confidence perhaps sometimes shaded toward arrogance. His behavior certainly got under the skin of Marco Antonio Barrera, who was willing to risk a disqualification to ram his already half-beaten foe into a turnbuckle just out of spite in their famous encounter, which turned out to be the Prince’s second-to-last professional fight.

But even the Prince’s heaviest detractors have to concede that his skillset, while unorthodox, was sublime; that the power he generated from his legs allowed him to leverage his shots with sledgehammer force the likes of which we’ve never seen before in featherweights and are likely to never see again at the weight class; that his hands-down, chin-out, try-and-hit-me style of pugilism made him an irresistible target but also a damn-near impossible one to connect on flush. He was reliant on intuition as sound as radar and reflexes as keyed up as those of a jackrabbit, matched only by those of prime Roy Jones Jr. or maybe Joe Calzaghe. Not only was he hard to hit but he was impossible to train for. Who were you going to get to mimic his style in sparring? Emmanuel Augustus on steroids might have worked but other than that I’m drawing a blank.

As for Floyd Mayweather, at super-featherweight he wasn’t the cash cow, crossover celebrity that he would eventually become at welterweight, but he may have actually been a better boxer, and certainly a more offensive-minded one. He proved himself in two major baptisms by fire at the weight, including one against the older and very experienced Gennaro “El Chicanito” Hernandez and another a bit later when he put the naysayers in their place as his supposedly fifty-fifty fight against Diego “Chico” Corrales turned into a one-sided slaughter. Boxing Floyd in 1999 wasn’t quite the same as playing the Deep Blue IBM computer at Chess (that came at welterweight), but I can still recall the jaw-dropping disparities in punch stats already telling the tale, graphics superimposed on the screen between rounds showing weird spreads of sometimes of sixty percentage points between what was landed on him versus what he landed on his opponent. I had to blink the first couple times I saw the numbers, as if to make sure they weren’t typos.

Back before Naseem Hamed vs. Floyd “Money” Mayweather was just fodder for barrooms and blogs, the fight was actually suggested on several occasions, by industry insiders, fans, and even by the men themselves. Floyd had talked it up in one post-fight interview with Larry Merchant (a spry 89 years-old as of this writing), saying that he would be happy to scrap with the Prince at a catchweight of 128 lbs.

If it happened then, before Naseem Hamed broke his hand against Augie Sanchez, before he gained thirty pounds during a long stretch of inactivity, and before he finally got unmanned by the “Baby-Faced Assassin” Barrera, what would have happened? How would the less defensive-minded, pre-peak Floyd have fared against the man we all thought was destined to be a first ballot hall of fame pick? The Prince has yet to be inducted, by the way.

To compare how two fighters might have fared against each other, it’s always sensible to first comb the resumes of both boxers to try to figure out who they fought who may have a style similar to the man they are to meet in the hypothetical matchup, and then to try to extrapolate from that.

The boxing fan is stymied there for the simple reason that Floyd and Naz were singular talents, with their own very idiosyncratic styles, and thus we’re starved for corollaries.

Floyd is a master of the hit-and-don’t-get-hit scientific school of boxing, but he tends to plant his feet like a puncher, rather than doing the backfoot balletic shuffle of a Whitaker or Ali who much preferred to pepper you with the jab for a few rounds before dropping the hammer when you got careless or frustrated enough to let your guard down.

Naseem Hamed didn’t so much leap as launch himself, a la someone like Jorge Paez or Kostya Tszyu, although he hit harder than either man just mentioned and the way he sort of elongated his neck and shimmied like a cobra made it hard to capitalize on the old axiom of “If he leaps, he sleeps.” Most of the time when Naz leapt, you slept.

One thing both men have in common is that they possessed what I call great “zero-to-sixty speed.” This is not the same as the ability to throw blinding combos, a la a prime Amir Khan, or to shoeshine, as the old-timers call the punches that look like hands at work on a speed bag and cause more disruption than damage. What Floyd has and Naz had was something much rarer, the ability to be in a shell or standing still and then to somehow let go of a shot as sure as a triphammer, fast as a bolt from a crossbow that was not telegraphed beforehand with even the smallest twitch of muscle.

Picture them circling each other in your mind’s eye and it’s easy to imagine Naz launching himself toward Floyd and getting snuffed with one of the sneaky check hooks Floyd sometimes loosed, but it’s just as possible that Floyd (who has great radar and reflexes) might not have seen it coming when the Prince finally struck. Boxers who threw from strange angles, Emanuel “the Drunken Master” Augustus and Marcos “Chino” Maidana, both gave Floyd problems in this way before suffering the same fate as the other forty-eight men who fought him as a pro.

If Floyd could get his nose bloodied by Burton (a criminally underrated, highly talented fighter), then it’s well within the realm of the possible that the Prince could put him down with one shot (and considering Floyd has never technically been down as a pro, that alone would have made the fight memorable and added to Naz’s legacy).

My gut tells me that there would be some very exciting action between the charismatic and unpredictable Prince going in against a Floyd Mayweather still very much filling out and transitioning from boy to man. I think the Prince would win some early rounds and use the element of surprise to run Floyd around the ring and maybe open a cut on him, or even stagger him with one of his hooks that looked as wide as a golf swing but was too well-timed to actually be wild.

But Floyd would eventually make the adjustments, and while it would be impossible for him to time those first few divebomb sorties from the Prince, as long as he survived that initial blitz, things would start to go his way, maybe around the fourth or fifth round. The kinds of fine calibrations he made with shoulders rolling and elbows lined up like the sights on a rifle would finally allow him to start picking the Prince apart when he made his leaps inside. The blood would start to dry in Floyd’s nose, especially with legendary cutman Rafael Garcia in his corner (you know him as the guy with all the little flair and buttons on his cloth cap) and the Prince would start to show signs of wear and tear as bruises began to appear on that mug which half the boxing world had come to love and the other half had grown to hate.

Hamed had the skill to maneuver out of harm’s way and to survive, and he certainly had the legs to keep Floyd from using his ringcraft to cut the ring (the Prince’s calves were like grapefruits), but his own sense of pride and flair for showmanship would have eventually sent him once more back into the fray and he would have probably gotten conked out by a hard counter. People forget at this point, but before Floyd developed his own problems with brittle hands, back when he was smaller, there were people who knew the game quite well (like Al Bernstein) who regarded him as a puncher. Not only that, but the fact that the Prince liked to jump meant that if and when he leaped forward and Floyd did time the counter correctly, Naz’s own momentum would have added to the force of whatever punch Floyd threw, and when the horsehair in the glove met the point of the Prince’s chin, it would have been Goodnight, Irene.

That’s just my opinion, though. If the reader doesn’t like it, they’re welcome to rent or buy whichever iteration of Fight Night has both the Prince and Floyd on it, and run the simulation to their heart’s content. Otherwise, we’re going to need a DeLorean with a Time Flux Capacitor to really settle this thing.

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