Naseem Hamed: Prince returns to give the kiss of life
In his first interview since he quit, he exclusively tells Alan Hubbard about prison, Audley and saving the fight game
Sunday 28 November 2010
It is eight years since the inimitable Prince Naseem Hamed imperiously strutted his stuff during a glitzy career in which he got up as many noses as he bloodied with a regal arrogance that was ingrained in his pugilistic persona. But with his sublime skills and ferocious punch, he never short-changed anyone. Unlike some we could mention.
A fortnight has passed since boxing's fight of shame which masqueraded as a world heavyweight championship, but the malady lingers on. Hamed says his professional instinct immediately suggested to him that there was something iffy about David Haye's victory over Audley Harrison. "We've been listening to Audley saying for many years that to be world champion was his dream, yet the first chance he gets to fight for the title he doesn't even try. I don't know how two fighters at that level do not throw a punch for two rounds then suddenly you get what happened in the third. That's why a lot of people think there was some sort of a conspiracy, and that they've been robbed. There was definitely something funny going on.
"It was sad to see in boxing today," he adds. "When you are challenging for the world title, you've got to go into the lion's den to try and rip that belt away from the champion. My heart was bursting with pride the night I fought Steve Robinson in Wales and I made the champion look like the challenger."
Hamed was 21 then, back in 1995, and he went on to successfully defend the featherweight title 14 times before succumbing to a points defeat by the great Marco Antonio Barrera in Las Vegas on a humbling night in which the Mexican had a point deducted for slamming Hamed's head into a ringpost.
One year and one more fight later, the swaggering showboater whose spectacular entrances included being deposited in the ring via a flying carpet, on a palanquin and in a Chevrolet, walked away from boxing to live something of a reclusive life with his family. But now, if somewhat mellowed, he is back with a bang. Or rather, a banger, for he is to become a manager – with Scotland's big-hitting Commonwealth Games light-heavyweight gold medallist Callum Johnson his first signing. The sorcerer has found his apprentice. "Boxing has lost its glamour and excitement," Hamed tells us. "I'm going to bring it back."
Doubtless he will, especially as he has Frank Warren as his promoter again. They famously fell out in the Nineties but Hamed has been at the ringside at Warren's shows of late, and Johnson makes his pro debut on the undercard of Ricky Burns's first defence of his WBO super-featherweight title against Colombian-born Andreas Evensen, now of Norway, at Glasgow's Braehead Arena next Saturday.
"One of the reasons I picked Callum is because he's a raw talent but can really punch. He reminds me of a white Mike Tyson. I am not into guys who powder-puff punch and run round the ring for 12 rounds. I'm into guys that want to shock the world with devastating power." Just as he did, perchance?
"There's been a bit of a stigma about the fight game in recent years but to be honest I wanted to come back into it because I love boxing and I've missed it – though probably not as much as it has missed me. And I've always thought that one day I would like to pass on all the knowledge I've acquired to young fighters."
Hamed's sabbatical from the public gaze was interrupted in May 2006 when he was jailed for 15 months for a dangerous driving incident which left another driver seriously injured. He has not spoken of his incarceration before but now says it was a salutary lesson. "The worst moment of my life. I went from living in a castle to a cardboard box in a jail. It just shows what God can do, and what he has written for you.
"Deep down what really upsets me is knowing that somebody got hurt through a silly car crash of my own doing. It is something I bitterly regretand think about all the time. What I did was wrong, but I paid the price even though many people said I shouldn't have gone to jail, and that they simply made an example of me."
Ironically, one of the first things he saw when taken into the governor's office at Doncaster Prison was a portrait of himself on the wall. The governor happened to be Brian Anderson, a former British middleweight champion who had trained in the same Sheffield gym as Hamed under Brendan Ingle. Anderson promptly decided to move him to another prison, Moorland, because of their past association. Hamed was released after four months and now says: "It was a big, big learning curve me."
His concern now is for the future of boxing. "It is a downtrodden sport at the moment. You can see more exciting fights between kids in the playground than in the ring. There's a danger that the likes of UFC [cage-fighting] will take over.
"I'd like to believe that I was one of the game's great characters, I put some fun into the sport and made it attractive to those who weren't even interested in boxing, especially women."
So why did he quit after only one defeat in 37 fights? "I was 28 when I had my last fight and I'd been 21 years boxing. I know fighters these days go on to 35 or 40 but one of the main things for me was that my hands just couldn't hold up, they were giving me serious pain. I had to have cortisone injections before virtually every fight in the later stages. They are no joke.
"Also, I really wanted to spend time with my kids while they were growing up. Thank God I have an amazing relationship with my three sons [Sami, 12, Adam, 10, and Sulaiman, four]. The youngest lad is the real fighter. If anyone's going to be a boxer, it's him. He can throw four, five, six combination punches, and he holds his hands right. I'm not kidding, the power that kid generates at the age of four is astonishing. I keep saying to my wife, 'I don't know where he gets it from'.
He has been married to Eleasha for 15 years, and they live in Virginia Water in Surrey. He has invested his ring earnings in property and is reported to be worth between £30-70 million. Adam, he says, is a budding golfer. Hamed, who plays at Wentworth, says: "I am a fair weather golfer. When the sun is shining there is no better place to be than on a golf course.
"Yes, there have been times when I've thought about fighting again, but I'm 36 and obviously it's too late now and I thank God I knew when to quit. So many boxers don't, but I knew in my heart I had come to the end.
"Sat here now in Surrey, in this lovely house, I am content with what I achieved. I don't look back and think 'I could have done this' or 'I could have done that', I just think I had a fantastic career and I'm happy with it. I've never officially retired but I've found there is a life after boxing.
"I'm proud to recall how much glamour and sparkle I brought to the game. I don't think I was involved in a single fight that was boring. Wherever I fought, people walked out with a big smile on their faces knowing they'd been entertained. Whatever they thought of me, they knew I was worth coming to watch. Whether they loved me or hated me, I'd like to think that I gave people value for money."
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