Profile: Fresh Prince

Cruel swaggerer, soppy family man, hero of Yemen and now a British MBE. Featherweight champion Naseem Hamed is a bundle of contradictions and inspires strong reactions in all who meet him. Gavin Evans, author of a new biography, hears the evidence from both corners
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Last year revealed the best and worst of Naseem Hamed. Inevitably, it was the bad that prevailed. He started his working year by dismantling a triple world champion, Wilfredo Vasquez, in a display of disciplined, calculated cruelty in Manchester and ended it floundering his way to a boring hit-and-run points win over the powder-puff Irishman Wayne McCullough in Atlantic City.

Beyond the ropes we were treated to hopeful signs that in his mid-twenties the little Prince was finally growing out of his petulance. There was Naseem the devoted husband, swapping his usual narcissism for declarations of love for another; Naseem the dedicated parent, helping deliver his son and chirping away in baby talk; and, briefly, Naseem the magnanimous employer, trying his wounded best to take the moral high ground after his trainer, Brendan Ingle, spilled the beans on their fraught past. And then it all fell apart. In quick succession he subjected Ingle to the most demeaning insults, talked of inflicting permanent injury on an opponent and strutted his Napoleonic way around, attacking boxers, journalists and everybody else who got in his way.

For many he has become a hate figure, but this brash aggression is also part of what pulls the crowds - those hip young British gunslingers, full of spitting jingoism, heartily booing his foreign opponents. Except here too is a paradox. The fighting man inspiring these atrocities is a first generation Arab Englishman who says he's on a mission from Allah and flies the Yemeni flag. In Yemen, he is treated as a national hero: he stays as the President's personal guest at the palace and his face has appeared on postage stamps as well as milk and juice bottles across the Arab states. So then, hardly a candidate for the Tebbitt test of Rule Britannia national purity.

But for all its intriguing mix of yoof suss and Islamic fervour, his cause is devoid of altruism. In a sense he's the antithesis of his big-hearted hero, Muhammad Ali - grasping, thin-skinned, and representing nothing higher than his 5ft 3in self.

And there are times where this Thatcher's Child persona transcends the accepted bounds of sporting obnoxiousness. One example: I have watched him answer a reporter's fawning question with the following words, "I'd give you a right beating. I'd like to give you a right beating, a right beating. Let me go Frank [Warren]. Let me give him a beating." Naseem would like us to believe that this public persona bears no relation to the "real". I have been with him when he's revealed a capacity for unpremeditated niceness: taking time out to indulge a hotel doorman, for example, or spending 15 minutes being polite to an old man he'd never previously met. And certainly anyone who's watched him cradling his son, or spending time with cancer victims, will know this softer, more endearing side is a genuine part of the whole.

Then again, that thirsty ego is also more than an act. The praise-sucking habits of a lifetime require its constant feeding, while the slightest hint of disapproval never fails to raise that missing-the-point defensive shield. In a streetwise way he's an intelligent lad, but his self-identity rests too heavily on his ability to fight. Aside from signs that this extraordinary faculty may be deserting him, I can't help wondering whether it is a sound basis on which to build a happy life. Despite the swagger, or perhaps because of it, I have never had a sense of Naseem as a man entirely at ease with himself.

Still, there are those who will tell you that, unlike most boxers, his family foundations were solid enough to cope with the inevitability of future failure. Some add that, despite appearances, the stable fundamentals remain intact. But there are also those who insist he was turned rotten by early success, and a few who say the seeds of nastiness were sown even earlier. Here, then, is a sample of these conflicting perspectives from four years of interviews:

Dr Abdul Shaif, Sheffield Yemeni community leader and family friend

"He was always cheeky. He had the arrogance when he was very young, but to me he was respectful. He always stopped and shook my hand from when he was very little, and he would run over and say, `Hello, how are you?' He was always a nice and gentle young boy; very caring about his family and friends, and about the community, but always with the arrogance. From an early age I knew this boy was going somewhere."

Dorothy Clark, librarian, Wincobank Infants School

"I remember him as being fairly quiet, or at least quite shy with me, so he was difficult to get through to, but he definitely wasn't one of the problem children. He didn't much like doing work with pencils - where you had to keep still and concentrate - and he wasn't very academically inclined, but he used to spark up if it was anything more active - if we were making something, say - and he was always very physical. He loved games and was always very quick on his feet, very agile."

Johnny Nelson, fellow boxer and older friend

"From day one, when he first came to the gym, aged seven, he always said: `I'm going to be world champion.' He was just as brash and cocky as he is now. The only thing is that when he arrived he had nothing to back it up with, and people looked down at him because of what he was saying. They found it all to be a bit presumptuous. I would say we had to work with Naseem, so we got used to him. He progressed and got better and better, and after a while, one by one, people didn't want to spar with him because it was like being hit by a bag of rice and not being able to hit back. He could talk a good fight, but he could back it up, and if you tried to grab him he was so fast you just couldn't catch him."

Herol Graham, the best-ever British boxer not to win a world title and Hamed's early role model

"I lived just down the road from him and from the age of eight - when I was about 22 - he used to come to my house, knock on the door, and say, `Come on, we're going training,' and I would go. Even then, he was so sure of himself, very forward, he knew what he wanted, he ruled, and that was that. He used to get into some scuffles, but he was intelligent enough to get out of them. He had the speed of his legs and the wit of his mouth, and his sarcasm seemed to get him out of everything, but if he had to defend himself, he could defend himself all right."

Mike Delaney, deputy head, Concord Middle School, Sheffield

"He was arrogant and a bit of a bully. He didn't pick on one particular child but a lot of children were in fear of him and I think he put a lot of emotional pressure on them to get his own way, and he got it because the kids knew that physically they couldn't match him. I go through all sorts of emotions when thinking of Naseem because he caused a lot of problems at school. Initially it was a bit like the old cock of the school thing - the strongest person has to prove himself and the young princes challenge, and this happened with Naseem, and he could handle himself all right. He was very wiry and much stronger than he looked. Most kids were in awe of him and we had to constantly keep an eye on him because of his relationships with other children - but we managed to keep him out of serious trouble. He could have achieved more if he had been more focused."

Hinde House High School leaving report, May 1990

"Naseem is a pleasant, well-mannered student. He is extremely confident and outgoing with a good sense of humour. He has been, on occasions, too confident but recently he has made a more consistent, serious attempt to improve upon his efforts. He is lively, with a friendly personality. He socialises well with peers and enjoys discussions, both giving opinions and listening to others. He is keen to succeed."

Des Gargano, veteran Manchester bantamweight and one of Hamed's early professional opponents

"He's one of those guys I feel I've always known because he used to go to all the shows as a little kid, travelling around with Brendan, hanging around the professionals. I got to know him quite well and he was always telling us he was going to be a champion. Once he told me that one day he'd fight me, and I said, `You'll have to wait a while,' but in the end it happened. I always liked him. He had a lot of spirit and was really confident, but not cocky."

Ali Hamed, younger brother

"He's never been a big brother, to tell you the truth. There's two older than him, so I never saw him like that, and he was so busy that it's not like we were very close. Sometimes it was like I didn't have a brother called Naseem. Even now we're not as close as we should be because of all his dedication to his training, but I'm very proud. We never thought he would succeed this well and basically it was a bit of a shock that he did so much."

Sabba Hamed, younger sister

"He's been training hard for all his life, for all his fights, ever since I can remember, and then he just sort of popped out of nowhere and suddenly he was famous. But he's been great to us, really great."

Richard Caborn, Labour Party MP for Sheffield Central and long-term friend of Brendan Ingle's

"I've known Naseem for a good number of years, right back from the time he started at the gym. I thought then he was a very talented lad and he was a tough little cookie when he came in, but he had dedication, he had his feet on the floor and he was self-disciplined. He's a nice enough kid, a great sportsman and a credit to Sheffield."

Sheffield tax driver, Jon, on an incident he witnessed seven years ago

"I was on the dance floor and this big bloke came flying past me. We all cleared out of the way, and he got knocked right across the dance floor. I looked closely and I saw the guy who'd hit him was what I thought was a little Pakistani boy. Everyone said the big guy started it and the little guy was Naseem Hamed. A while later, when Hamed started getting his picture in the papers, I recognised him as the guy."

John Ingle, former assistant trainer and son of Brendan Ingle

"I never saw him getting into fights. Once we were playing five-a-side football and this guy from the other team went for him. Naz could have knocked him cold, but he just danced away and laughed."

Chris Clarkson, who fought Hamed in 1993

"We really got to talking afterwards and when I got to know him he wasn't like I expected at all. He's not the big, upfront person everyone thinks he is. He's got a heart, and he's a funny guy as well, and basically he's a real nice kid."

Steve Robinson, the man Hamed beat for his world title in 1995

"He's very arrogant, but after the fight he wasn't too bad, like he said, `good fight'. I don't love the guy, but I don't hate him. He's all right."

Claude Abrams, `Boxing News' editor who sparred with Hamed four years ago

"He chopped me down with body punches until I was at his level and then he let me have it with one or two to the head. We had agreed only to go for the body and I had to think, `Do I retaliate to the head?' but I realised that if I tried anything like that he could really do me damage. When Brendan finally called `time' he looked like a dog who's just had a piece of steak removed from his bowl before he was able to finish it."

Jane Couch, women's world boxing champion

"Naz has been down here in our gym and he's been really supportive of women's boxing. Once I was messing around with him when he was here. I was saying, `I can knock you out,' and he was laughing his head off. He's brilliant, he is. He's me mate. And I've got a lot of respect for him, for what he's achieved, what he's up against. In Britain they don't like winners."

Steve Holdsworth, boxing commentator and

Hamed acquaintance for 15 years

"I was in the changing room, interviewing Ryan Rhodes before Hamed's fight with Jose Badillo last year, when Naz stormed up, pulled out a TV cable and screamed, "Everybody fuck off. I'm the fucking star here, so the rest of you can fuck off." I couldn't believe the language he was using given his religious protestations, and I didn't understand his motivation, but I went to one side and he came over and threw a karate kick at me which stopped just short of my nose, and then said, `Hi Steve, my mate', but by then I was absolutely livid. I don't like the way he treats people."

Ryan Rhodes, fellow professional and friend for 17 years

"We're still close - we're good friends and have been ever since we first met. We always wanted the best for each other. We weren't comparing - we just wanted each other to do well. We done all right to each other. I'm totally different to him though. In the past I was living in his shadow, but I'm on my own path now. His is really loud. I'm not as loud."

Junior Witter, sparring partner

"It's psychological warfare with him. Usually I get on with him but he becomes moody because of all the stress he is under. He's fine when there is no stress, but when people see him in public he's stressed, and when you're working with him in the gym, you sometimes have to deal with him in this mood. As soon as he sets foot into that ring, his arrogance comes on. He's cold - no warmth, no heart, but I suppose that's how you need to be."

Daniel Teasedale, 16-year-old Ingle-trained amateur

"I don't exactly get on brilliantly with him. We don't talk much, but sometimes he'll make negative comments to me. In the past we've sparred together but Brendan keeps us apart these days because he's worried Naz will slip me one on the chin. It doesn't bother me, but he's done that before - he's slipped me one. I still rate him very highly as a boxer, but I wouldn't rate him as a person. I don't want to become a show-off like him."

Robin Money, Adidas head of corporate relations

"I've got to know him very well and he's a lovely character - a real genuine guy. He's an extremely devoted son and father. In fact his own son is the greatest thing that ever happened to him, including his fights, and that speaks volumes for him as a person. Sometimes he doesn't come across well, like in his last fight in Atlantic City. He didn't behave well and he knows it, but basically he's a great guy. We will certainly continue using him in the long term, whatever that means in boxing. He's not only a very special sportsman but he appeals to the youth market, and in fact that's the real reason we chose him."

Brendan Ingle, manager, trainer, mentor, 1995

"In that part of Yemen his people come from, they can be totally vicious if they have to and this fella is like that too. If you break his hands he'll kick you. If you break his legs he'll bite you. If you pull his teeth he'll nut you. He has that will to win and the ruthlessness to go with it. In truth I've never seen anything like him. The only man who can beat Naz is Naz himself."

Brendan Ingle, 1998

"Fame and fortune have changed him. I've been proved right. He seems to think he's made of chocolate and unless he changes his attitude, one day he will devour himself. Sooner or later it could all fall down around his ears"

Gavin Evans' book, `Wicked! The Prince Naseem Hamed Phenomenon' (pounds 9.99) will be published by Robson Books in February

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