The Prince

Naseem Hamed, a Yemeni boy brought up in a Sheffield corner shop, is like a thousand young boxers before him: mortally certain that he's the greatest. Outrageous and devastating, he has amazed even the more measured critics.Tonight, he fights Steve Robinson for the world featherweight title, and nobody expects him to lose. Geoffrey Beattie, who has watched him since adolescence, profiles the brilliant kid whose boundless arrogance may yet undo him. Photograph by Bill Stephenson
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I remember seeing them in February 1993. They were standing in Brendan Ingle's parlour in front of a pair of scales - a grey-haired man in his 50s stripped to his underpants and a slight Arab boy of 19. On one side of the room was a large bookcase with a lot of books on Irish history. Black covers, with the green of the shamrock. Serious reading. The parlour of a minor academic or a priest.

On the other wall was a large, framed photograph of Herol Graham, the Graham of eternal optimism and promise, the middle-weight who looked a world-beater but wasn't. The grey -haired man got on to the scales first. "Twelve-stone dead. Now it's your turn, and don't forget I've been warning ye.'' His Irish brogue was as thick as buttermilk.The small Arab boy stepped forward in a mock swagger. "It'll be all right, Brendan, don't worry.'' His was a cocky Sheffield accent. "I'm young, fit. I am the business.''

He climbed on to the scales. "These scales never lie, Nas, remember that - eight stone nine," says Ingle. " What did I tell ye? You were boasting about all the crap you've eaten yesterday. You're three pounds over the weight. I've said to you time and time again, you're eating all wrong and you're sleeping wrong."

"But Brendan, I'm beating everybody. I'm knocking them all out. You know how good I am.''

"You may be the greatest thing since fried bread, but three pounds overweight two days before a big fight can be hard for any fighter to shift, let alone a bantamweight. You've got less than two days. This will show what you're made of outside the ring.''

"That lad could eat for England," said Ingle later."I didn't allow him to eat anything for the remainder of the Monday or on the Tuesday morning. When we got to London for the fight, my weight was down to 11 stone 12lb, exactly as I predicted. Nas had lost a pound on the drive down, but he still had two extra pounds to shift.

"It was a rough night, the bed was damp, and somebody down below was playing old Beatles records. Every time I went to the toilet, I had to reassure him by stepping on the scales again to show that the weight was coming off and that I wasn't sneaking a drink. We were watching each other like frigging hawks. I took him for a walk, and, by the time we got to the weigh-in, he was half a pound under the weight . He hadn't had anything to eat or drink since the Monday; that's 36 hours without anything. I took him to a restaurant after the weigh-in, but he couldn't finish his soup or his spaghetti. His stomach had shrunk. But he still felt good. I told him that day that he'd grown in my estimation. And Nas knocked Alan Ley out in the second round."

Brendan Ingle's gym is in the old village school hall in Wincobank, a rough area of Sheffield. It smells musty; it makes you sneeze. Sweat has been worked into the fabric of the building.The gym is always packed - professionals, would-be professionals, kids off the street: a bustling, vibrant, multi-ethnic community. Somebody has scrawled "National Front" on the wall of the garage that runs alongside the gym. It doesn't stop them coming here. Nothing would.

Bits of the tired wall are covered with posters and cuttings reminding the young men who train here of past boxing glories, and giving them hope of glories yet to come. Herol Graham in his prime looks down from one poster at the new boys in the gym. There are a few old cuttings about Graham displayed in a glass case screwed to the wall. The screws have been loosened. "They'd nick anything that wasn't nailed down," says Ingle.

The sign above the ring reads "Boxing can damage your health". It is repeated a few steps to the left. Naseem Hamed, also known as The Prince, has spent most of the last 14 years here.

"I was passing on this bus up the road here," says Ingle, "and the bus stops outside a school. It's three o'clock and the school is just getting out.There's this little kid, who I thought was a Pakistani, pinned up against these railings, fighting these three white kids off. All three of them are kicking and punching him. I could see this young kid had talent. I ran home and told my wife, Alma."

Ingle thought he had seen something special, and he was right. He had a phenomenon on his hands. Nas became five times national schoolboy champion and 1990 junior ABA champion. The fully-fledged Nas can throw 38 combination punches in eight seconds, with eight different foot movements and ten different hand movements; and the power of his punches is terrible. If he fulfils the prognostications of British boxing experts - that he has it in him to become a historic great - it is a sighting that will go down in the annals.

Ingle lives across the road from his club. Nas grew up 100 yards away. His family owned the open-all-hours family shop and lived above it. His father, who came from the Yemen, fell totally for Ingle's blarney.

At boxing halls up and down the country, Ingle showed the lad what the game required - the dedication, the glory, the pitfalls. He wanted him to see it all, especially the pitfalls. Ingle himself knew it backwards: "I've had boxers before with great talent, but they never had the discipline. I've seen boxers throw their careers away. I've witnessed terrible performances in the ring and, when you ask them what they've been up to, they tell you that they've gone round the back of a pub for sex in the freezing cold the night before a fight. Nas, by contrast, is clean living. He doesn't smoke, he doesn't drink, and he doesn't gamble.The hardest person to beat in the world is yourself, but to beat yourself you need self-discipline. Nas has got that singular determination to win.''

Nas won 61 out of his 67 amateur fights, and Ingle persuaded him to turn professional on his 18th birthday. "I always knew that he would be world champion and a millionaire at the age of 21", said Ingle. "There was never any doubt in my mind." Or in Nas's.

In 1994, at the age of 20, he took the European bantamweight title from the Italian Vincenzo Belcastro. It was that fight which grabbed the headlines, not just for his blinding display of skill but because of the way he taunted his opponent in the final round. His self-discipline seemed to have given way to an uncontrollable arrogance. Boxing Monthly reported that it had never before received such a postbag of complaints about a performance. The tabloids were trying to make up their mind about him. They were calling him "Motormouth''.

Journalists turned up at Ingle's gym in droves. After they had drifted away, I interviewed him. Motormouth spoke in such a quiet voice, with his arms locked across his chest almost defensively.

I asked him what it was all about. "It's all about getting bums on seats. It's best to cause a big . . ." There was a very big pause; eventually, he settled for "fuss"...".fuss about you or whatever, so people come and watch you. I was very surprised at the criticism of my last fight. I was surprised at how the people went against it. I think that they went over the top. I wasn't trying to humiliate Belcastro.''

If he wasn't trying to humiliate Belcastro, what was he trying to do? "You have to remember that I was very psyched up for that fight because it was a big fight for me at the age of 20. It was only my 12th professional fight. Everybody was reminding me that I had never gone past six rounds. So, basically, I was thinking, 'I've got all this to prove now to the media', so that's what I did. It was my big chance. I wanted to prove that I could do 12 rounds easy with a fighter who was number six in the world.''

It was all just an act, then, to get bums on seats - a big commercial front? He looked almost hurt, as if I was accusing him of something untoward. "It's not an act when I'm in the ring. I can't put it on. It just comes out.

"I'd won every round. I dropped him in the 11th. Brendan told me just to enjoy myself in the 12th. I came out jumping all over the place. I wanted to show everybody that I had as much energy in the 12th round as I had in the first. I wanted people to ask where I got all my energy from. I wanted to show that I could stand in the middle of the ring with my hands on my hips and show the champion that he couldn't hit me. I didn't want to ridicule him at all. I couldn't believe it when I read the papers in the days after the fight.''

He was still living with his family. Home, he said, was very good for keeping his feet firmly on the ground. "My parents are proud of me.They're proud to see their son up there. Their advice to me is to live my life cleanly. When people see me on the telly, they see a cocky, arrogant, brash, fighter who just wants to win, but then, when they meet me, they think that I'm just normal.''

His name is often mentioned in the same breath as Chris Eubank, the other British boxer who provokes with his flashness. "I'm not flattered," he says. " Chris has tried to copy a few moves from me, but some of the moves he can't even do. For example, trying to hit an opponent while he's looking at the floor. When he tries to do it, he falls on his knee. My advice to him is that if he keeps on watching me, he may learn something.''

This is all delivered in this low, quiet voice, with the defensive bodily posture. And this: "It's a definite that I will be a world champion. I will be a world champion at four different weights. I'm so confident. I definitely will be a multi-millionaire at the age of 25. I'm not in the business for nothing. I'm in it to secure my needs and my family's needs. I want my family to live like royalty."

The cockiness makes him more interesting, just as it had made Eubank interesting - for a while. You wanted to see the Prince get hit on the chin, just to see what would happen next. After the Belcastro fight, a lot of people wanted to see what he was really made of.

His next fight was in August 1994, against Antonio Picardi. I wandered along to the weigh-in. We were in Sheffield's poshest hotel. The television cameras were busy, flooding the hotel room in white light. The Prince was prime time. Nas came in quietly, dressed in a grey tracksuit. Then he saw the cameras. The bright light filled the room. Suddenly, he was in jaunty mood, spinning, smiling, jeering. Dr Jekyll and Mr Funk: I remembered the song well enough. I noticed that Nas and Brendan were wearing identical running shoes, but in slightly different colours. Probably last year's and this year's models; probably some sponsorship deal carefully worked out, with the manager only qualifying for remaindered stock.The lights had been extinguished. He looked reflective.

There was some bustle of activity by the door. One small man with a broken nose came in, followed by another, then another. The trickle became a stream, all small and dark, their noses not just broken but pummelled into wide arches by fistic bone. It was as if they had been stuck on to their faces by an apprentice sculptor, who was not yet sure of the perfect scales and symmetries of the human visage. The challenger, Picardi, had arrived with his entourage. Somebody was whispering again. "I wonder who will be paying all their wages. Yer man will need to borrow money after the fight to pay for the trip back to Italy for all of these."

I noticed that for many minutes Nas did not even look toward his opponent. It was not that he was avoiding eye contact, he just looked uninterested. Then I saw him watching as Picardi stripped out of his tracksuit. It was a look of curiosity, with no discernible emotion. Not fear, not sadness, certainly not happiness. Just a look that said, "So this is the man who's standing between me and my first million."

It was Nas's turn to face the scales. He had snapped out of his mood. He was on camera, in character, ready for the action. "He's going down. Believe me folks, he's going down tonight." The accent more American than Sheffield. The Italians smiled amicably. You got the impression that they couldn't tell what he was saying.

Nas finished Picardi in three rounds. None of his fights were going the distance.

Back in the Yemen, they had his photograph on boxes of tissues. "Not even Muhammed Ali had that," said Brendan. But Nas was spending more time in London, when he was not in strict training for a fight. "That's where all the commercial activity is," said Ingle, a shade wistfully. 1995 was going to be Naseem's year. He was on the hoardings, alongside the 'top-of-the-range" Audi, with the slogan, "They're both the most powerful in their class". A deal had been struck with the Joe Bloggs Clothing Company. Computer games companies, manufacturers of sunglasses and video producers were queueing up with lucrative offers. Nas's brother Raith said: " We're building an empire around him. He's 21 and he doesn't have to work another day in his life."

I asked Ingle straight out if he missed the lad he had spent the past 14 years with. I have to say it was the first and only time I have seen Brendan hesitate. "Well,, not really, you know. I don't think that anyone has the right to pinch anybody else's life." It seemed a curious thing to say. He continued: "We spent a lot of time together, working together over the years. And it's paid off - that's for sure. But you worry about him. He's a major star now, and we do get some funny phone calls these days. There are lots of nutters out there." There was a much longer gap before he went on. "Perhaps, most important of all, I've taught Nas the personal and social skills to get by in life, to survive in the gym and out of it."

That night I was in Sheffield's ultimate night club with an ex-boxer who, Brendan said, could have been world champion "if he had had half a brain". I asked him what he thought of Naseem's success. "Good luck to him, that's what I say. But he's an arrogant little bastard. Mind you, he always was. But he's got worse lately. I saw him at the bar the other night, five-foot nothing, trying to push through. He was saying to people, 'Do you know who I am?' And, sure enough, across the crowded floor of the nightclub, I could see Nas edging towards the bar. Everybody in Sheffield was dressed up for their Thursday night out, in their linen suits and white shirts and ties. Nas was wearing a leather waistcoat with his bare chest visible. If he'd been anybody else, he would never have got in dressed like that.

The old boxer nudged me. "What I want to know is, how he'll be when someone does eventually floor him. Is he going to bounce right back again? He lost four fights as an amateur, you know, but Brendan always used to tell me that judges didn't like his flashy entrances, with him flipping over the ropes and all that jazz, and that one or two fights were awarded to his opponents, no matter what he did in the ring. A lot of ordinary punters want to see this cocky kid really tested."

When I went back to the gym earlier this month, I heard one kid ask, "Is Nas here?" In the ring, professional and amateurs were all mixed together, as always. One slight, eight-year-old boy, whose mother, Brendan told me, is a professional shoplifter, was sparring with a pro. She had recently been away for six months. Brendan informed the boys in the gym that she was on holiday. "I bet she comes back with a suntan with two stripes down the middle," said one nine-year-old. "These boys take some fooling," said Jimmy Wood, 55 and a money-lender, who trains every day - including, he told me, Christmas day.

Jimmy the money-lender had recently been robbed at home. "It's common knowledge around Wincobank that I'm a quarter of a millionaire," he confessed to me. He said he got a lot of frustrations in his particular job, but boxing released it all. "Plus, I love the competition. All these young guns go into the ring with me, and they think that they're going to fucking bash me because I'm getting on a bit, but they're wrong."

Two men from the Daily Express were waiting patiently in one corner of the gym for Nas to arrive for training. "I'll let you take a photograph of me sparring with Johnny for a quid," said the eight-year old. No deal, replied the men from the Express. "Could you lend me15 pence for my bus home then?" he asked - he only lived up the street. They hadn't got the right change, so they gave him 20 pence instead.

The gym was busy, but there was still no Nas. The Saturday before, he had been in everybody's front room, ringside at the Bruno fight against Oliver McCall, with Nigel Benn beside him. You could see the two of them bobbing up and down, like puppets on a string, as Big Frank kept grinding forward. When Bruno landed a punch, it was as if the puppeteer was having convulsions. You couldn't tell what they were shouting, but it did not require much imagination to guess. The encouragement is always the same, whether it comes from a world champion or the know-all in the second row. "Work off the jab." "Hurt him." London, with all its gaudy attractions, was where the action was, and Nas was soaking up his new-found fame.

Now, with just over three weeks to the Robinson world title fight, he was back home; he just wasn't in the gym. He had promised to turn up for some photographs, but there was not a sign of him. His brother Raith explained that he was watching television and didn't feel like training or posing for photographs. Brendan, as usual, was making himself busy, running around because a lift had fallen through for two of his boxers, and he was preparing to drive them down to Stoke for a fight in one of Nas's sponsored cars. It was the Peugeot. "Nas will be here in a minute," he said apologetically, as he watched the Peugeot race off.

A little knot of fans waited expectantly outside the front door. One little black girl had her autograph book ready. I asked the little white boy who was with her what he thought of The Prince. "He's right cool. He acts a bit arrogant when he's in the ring, but he's got a good talent. I like him being cocky. It's cool. I wish he didn't stand over some of his opponents when he's knocked them out, but I like the way he comes into the ring, and the music. I like Frank Warren, too. He lets me sit in his limo."

I asked one of the lads in the gym the 64,000 Dollar Question: why wasn't Nas training that night? I wasn't trying to imply that this might be the crack appearing. The weakness that spreads when hubris takes over and the one-in-a-million guy starts to believe that hard work and the daily grind is only for the average mortal. But perhaps I was thinking it.

The lad just shook his head. "Nas used to be in the gym every day, but, after he won the WBC International title, he started training less. He used to come in for a full month before a big fight, but now he only comes in for three weeks before the fight. I mean, he's fighting Robinson at the end of this month, and he's only trained once this week, as far as I know."

It was only Wednesday; at most Nas had missed one day. But in this gym, where total dedication is the norm, even that was significant.

Jimmy the money-lender had now joined us. As usual, I found my eyes being drawn to those big red welts from punches on his shoulders and forearms. My own arms almost ached in sympathy. Jimmy had his own explanation as to why Nas did not appear to be about the gym quite so much. "He doesn't seem to need to train as much now. He's naturally fit. But I've seen him come in at eleven o'clock at night to train, when I'm on my way back from the boozer. That's why you don't see him. There's only one Nas. He's an individual. He trains at funny times, times that suit him. But he may miss the odd day because he's so good. You have to be careful, though, no matter what talent you've got. If it doesn't catch up with him now, it will catch up with him one day. In my view, you have to train every day. "

Nas never did come that night, but he did train on the following one. The photographer asked if he could take a photograph of him sparring with Jimmy, the ring regular from way back. But Nas was adamant. "Get out," he said to Jimmy. The photographer tried once more. "Don't tell me what to do, I'm the champ," said Nas.

On the Ropes - Boxing as a Way of Life by Geoffrey Beattie will be published by Gollancz in spring 1996