The interview PRINCE NASEEM TALKS TO BEN THOMPSON

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the interview

PRINCE NASEEM TALKS TO BEN THOMPSON

photograph by john houlihan

He's British, but proud of his Arab blood - a hero in Sheffield and the Yemen alike. He's the Prince of the ring, and he knows it

on a regular spring Saturday morning in a central London betting shop, the steady drone of the satellite broadcaster's voice breaks up in surprise. He's giving the odds for bets on the round in which that night's big fight will come to an end. This doesn't usually attract a great deal of interest - the more favoured rounds will usually be six- or seven-to-one - but the odds on Prince Naseem Hamed to win in round three have come in at an absurdly cramped nine-to-four. "I'm sorry, that can't be right," the voice tails off. "Oh," composure is regained, albeit with a hint of disgruntlement. "It seems round three is the Prince's prediction."

Prince Naseem's predictions are not entirely to be trusted (although his mother's, apparently, are more or less infallible). Extravagant as they sound, they tend to err on the side of conservatism: the fight duly ends in round two.

A few months later, having beaten Steve Robinson to become World Boxing Organization featherweight world champion, the pocket powerhouse - 5ft 3in but so compactly muscular he seems slightly shorter - struts with his entourage into Soho's newly opened Mezzo restaurant. The rest of the pre-Christmas revellers in Terence Conran's designer works canteen are wearing shirts and ties. Hamed and his party are defiantly, albeit expensively, sports/casual. The Prince looks around him, in the words of one disgruntled diner, "like he's Jack the Biscuit".

The thing is, Prince Naseem Hamed is Jack the Biscuit. Amid the whirlwind of commodification currently sweeping through sport in this country, the Prince - diamond-encrusted bracelet, leopardskin trunks and all - is that rarest of commodities: the genuine article. Anyone who doesn't think so should proceed directly to their local home entertainment emporium and rent his superb video, Natural Born Thriller. Among the many audacious claims that pepper the natty dance steps, gravity- defying victory back-flips, and disdainful flicking aside of an assortment of unhappy-looking Mexicans, one in particular will seem to stretch the limits of credulity: "I know I look arrogant," Prince Naseem admits demurely, "but I'm altogether a different person outside the ring."

At the appointed time and place for this assertion to be put to the test - a snowy February afternoon in Wincobank, Sheffield - the St Thomas' boys club boxing gymnasium is empty. The lone can of Right Guard deodorant rolling across the floor is the only sign of the testosterone festival that unfolds here daily. Happily, Prince Naseem's trainer, Brendan Ingle, lives just over the road, and an exasperated Mrs Ingle ("It's like trying to get hold of the Pope") tracks down Hamed's brother and business manager Riath, who pronounces him "on his way". Mrs Ingle leers demonically: "Don't be surprised if you're still there in an hour."

Fifty-nine minutes later, a familiar figure weaves his way though the gym's growing throng of mitt-maulers and punchbag-pounders, dispensing greetings like boiled sweets. Verily, there is not a hint of aggression about him: Prince Naseem Hamed is a grin on legs. Obligingly he balls his fist - a tautly rounded bundle of trouble - to show off the minor hand injury that caused the postponement of his first title defence. "I just knocked it up in training, basically - one of the metacarpals at the back of the hand came up and it turned out to be a fracture."

A hand injury - even for a believer, as Hamed is, in a beneficent destiny - must be a little worrying. "It bloody is," he concurs warmly. "These are the tools of the trade. But I've had the cortisone injections and it seems to be OK now. I know by the time the next fight comes round I'll be strong." The next fight is in Glasgow on 16 March, against unfancied unfortunate Said Laval. For reasons about which Hamed has "not a clue", it's on the same day as the Tyson/Bruno Las Vegas gore-fest. Might the cause be something to do with groundwork for the UK introduction of pay- per-view fight coverage; Naseem's promoter Frank Warren is pretty keen on that idea, isn't he?

"Definitely," Hamed nodded emphatically. "Pay-per-view will hit." Is pay-per-view a good thing? "For me it is, because you'll be talking big amounts of money, but for the people that are watching ..." Naseem smiles, not without sympathy for the plight of the armchair fight-follower, but secure in the knowledge that, for him at least, the days are long gone when a champion's share of his own purse would be three jumping beans and a record token.

Prince Naseem has just bought "a brand new big house at the posh end of town", but there is no sign of a change in his training environment. What St Thomas' lacks in swank it makes up for in street credibility. "What I love, basically," he says proudly, "is that I can walk in here and there'll be loads of kids thinking 'I can do what he's done ... a kid out of Wincobank, a kid out of Sheffield'." Naseem could hardly be more of a local. He grew up on this street - his family still run the shop at the top of the hill - and he's been coming to canny Irishman Brendan Ingle's gym since the age of seven.

The authorised version of the trainer's first glimpse of the Prince has the texture of myth. Did Ingle really catch sight of him from off the top of a bus, in his school playground, effortlessly dodging the punches of racist bullies twice his size? "I can't remember much about that to be honest," Naseem admits with engaging frankness. "A lot of it was made up for the press. Brendan said it would create interest, and it did, but I think it's gone a bit far now."

Hamed, who turned 22 earlier this month, resists the simplistic diagnosis of talent forged in the heat of prejudice - "I'm not bragging but it's natural, mate: God-given." He has no sense of any racial animosity towards him now either. But doesn't he feel that even as they build him up, some people are hoping to see him fall? "They can hope as much as they want. They can have their fingers crossed all year round. I honestly can't see myself losing."

As befits a Muslim jungle fan, Prince Naseem's saucy aura of casual invincibility is underpinned by a sense of belonging, not to one culture, but to two. "I was born in Britain and I'm proud to be English, but at the same time my parents are from the Yemen - that's the culture I come from - and I'm so proud to be an Arab it's not true." This is fiercely reciprocated. The Arab world is not over-populated with sporting heroes, and Prince Naseem fits the bill triumphantly. Desert monarchs shower him with Mercedes convertibles and pounds 100,000 watches. In the Yemen his face appears on postage stamps - "It's a wicked likeness!" - and he can't get the president off the phone.

In this country, of course, we do things differently. To be admitted to the inner sanctum of nationwide celebrity here, sportsmen have to allow themselves to be insulted by comedians. Prince Naseem's uncomfortably acrimonious recent appearance on Fantasy Football League - "Not at all was I impressed with that programme," he observes with imposing formality - was superficially the least successful of several recent ventures into sports/showbiz crossover territory. In years to come, however, Hamed's refusal to be the butt of Skinner and Baddiel's schoolboy sneers may be looked back upon as a triumph of human dignity.

It's not that Prince Naseem can't take a joke, as anyone who heard him chortling at the anti-pugilism material in the first night of Lee Evans' West End run will gladly attest. But true sporting greats are not like other people: that is the point of them, and it is about time we stopped pretending otherwise. When Prince Naseem's mobile phone rings to confirm that the time has come for him to take his leave, it plays "Whistle while you work".

"You can get leopardskin ones now apparently," Hamed says, not sounding as covetous as he might. Does he ever tire of leopardskin? "I was going to change it, but they told me it's my trademark now, and anyway," his deep brown eyes twinkle, "the girls love it."

8 Prince Naseem Hamed's first single, a collaboration with top-flight Rochdale rappers The Kaliphz, will be out in the spring.

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