The crown prince of Sheffield

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The Independent Culture
AT THE PEAK of his drawing power, Chris Eubank's fights were said to have interrupted dinner-parties in even the most politically correct households, where on other Saturday evenings boxing was dismissed as legalised assault. Under normal circumstances, therefore, Eubank's recent decision to transfer his allegiance to Sky (in a deal worth a reported pounds 10m) might have been expected to cause deep unhappiness among the executives of ITV, which televised his first 15 world title facts. In fact, ITV has welcomed the sudden availability of boxing 'space', because it allows them to develop and market the talents of an equally brash - and, many claim, more gifted - young man: 'Prince' Naseem Hamed.

The 'Prince' label is optional - just part of the marketing. He was born in Sheffield, of humble Yemeni parentage. 'I've got four brothers and four sisters and I'm somewhere around the middle.' He is 20, and has no doubt that he will become both a world champion and a millionaire. 'I seriously don't think I can get beaten,' he says. 'I believe I have a gift from God.'

Others share his confidence. By the time he was seven, Hamed had been taken under the wing of trainer Brendan Ingle, a Dubliner whose St Thomas's gym in Wincobank provides a rare beacon of optimism in the socially deprived areas of Sheffield all around it. By the age of 11, he had made his ring debut. 'He weighed about 4st 2lb,' says Ingle, 'and he gave the other kid the runaround. I knew at that moment he was special.'

In Ingle's old church hall, champions mix with fresh-faced, hard-eyed kids. Everybody learns together, boys and men: both to put their fighting talents to good use and to learn about the world. Over the years, hundreds have passed through. Ingle's reputation as a boxing trainer is for teaching the old-fashioned boxing discipline of hitting without being hit. Every so often, he enjoys the bonus of working with a real talent, such as Herol Graham or Johnny Nelson. Hamed, though, could be even better: a genius. He punches hard and quickly from unorthodox angles and has the ability to surprise even the most experienced of opponents. His quick reflexes make him very difficult to hit, and - of vital importance to a world-class fighter - he appears able to absorb what punches he does take. After 13 professional fights, he is already the European bantamweight (8st 6lb) champion. On Wednesday, he moves up a weight division to 8st 10lb to contest the WBC International title with Freddy Cruz of the Dominican Republic. Screened live by ITV, of course.

His achievements have won him many admirers, but he has also made enemies by his seeming arrogance. He was particularly criticised for taunting the Italian boxer Vincenzo Belcastro as he beat him to win the European title in May.

Outside the ring, however, he is humble, if self-confident, and his manner is polite. He is a Muslim, and says that 'My religion is one of the biggest disciplines I have.' His sport does not allow him as much time to practise his faith as he would like. 'Boxing is my 24-hour job. I train three times a day, seven days a week. But I also have my faith deep in the background. I am a clean person. I'm not out there doing bad things. If you've got nothing on your conscience you can sleep at night.'

He says he would like his first world title fight in Sheffield, and his next in Yemen. Twelve months ago he did a short-

notice exhibition tour in his parents' homeland - and 10,000 people came out every day to watch. Now the country's president, Ali Abdulla Salah, rings him personally to check his progress.

Eventually, the USA will beckon. In September, Hamed

visited Las Vegas with promoter Frank Warren, whose working relationship with the American Don King makes him a powerful influence in a business where the dollar is the only true god. But this young, bright-eyed man, upon whom so much rests for so many people, has no doubt about his priorities. 'I want to be one of the best fighters who ever lived.'

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