Boxing: Arrogance may yet rob Prince of his kingdom

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The Independent Online
Unbeaten, dual champion, big hitter, admiring public, darling of the tabloids, the prince of his shrewd promoter's boxing kingdom: what can prevent Naseem Hamed from achieving international stardom in the ring?

In a word, arrogance. Even Frank Warren suggests that he is touched by it. "The kid drives me mad sometimes," he said after Hamed brought Saturday's world featherweight unification contest against Tom Johnson to a brutal conclusion in the eighth round. "He takes so many chances. But that's what helps to make Naseem so exciting. When people in the United States see the fight [it was recorded for prime time viewing] they are going to want more of him. By the end of the year, chat shows, everything. He's going to be one of the biggest names in boxing."

Well, that's one way of looking at it. From the score of Evita - "high flying adored". An apt analogy is Hamed as movie star rather than legitimate actor. But how good? To suggest, as someone did yesterday, that it is time Hamed's talent was recognised without reservation ignores flaws in his latest victory and the philosophical negativity that came through in Johnson's preparation for his 12th defence of the International Boxing Federation championship.

A veteran of 32 years and 48 professional tussles, lacking the power to make it feasible that he could win inside the distance, struggling probably to make the 9st featherweight limit, Johnson was a perfect opponent at this stage of Hamed's spectacular career. Don King's representative, Bobby Goodman, who was formerly director of boxing at Madison Square Garden referred to Hamed as "one tough little mother with plenty of power" but added: "The Johnson of four years ago would have been a different proposition. They got him at exactly the right time."

The problem in making fights for up and comers, even one so richly talented as Hamed, is one that that most eloquent observer of boxing, A J Liebling, addressed in The Sweet Science. "In any art the prodigy presents a problem," he wrote. "Given too easy a problem, he goes slack, but asked too hard a question early, he becomes discouraged...

"The fighter must be confirmed in the belief that he can lick anybody in the world and at the same time be restrained from testing this belief on a subject too advanced for his attainments. The trick lies in keeping the fellow entertained while enriching his curriculum."

It would be unfair to regard Johnson purely as a learning device but although Warren predicted that it would be a tough contest for his young tiger it is extremely doubtful that either approached it with any great trepidation. "Let's see what this young guy has got," Johnson said last week. He discovered that Hamed has got plenty, more natural power than Johnson probably imagined and quite remarkable reflexes. "I think he's a good champion," Johnson added afterwards, "but he would have to win a re-match for me to be sure."

Having picked up six times more than his previous best purse of $175,000, Johnson should forget it. What Hamed should have learned is that the further a man gets in boxing the more dangerous it is to take liberties. For example, just before the bell to end the third round Hamed was caught by a solid right hook that wiped an irritating smirk from his face and put his knees on the canvas.

A good question is how Hamed would fare against a opponent who, to use an expression employed in boxing, keeps in his face, and has the punch to stun him? Jay Larkin of the US television cable network, Showtime, that put out Saturday's contest said: "Hamed has grown immeasurably since his last contest. He came out for the first round with his hands up and got down quickly to the business of boxing. I think his reign has only just begun. And once you get past all that brashness he is an endearing young man.

"We are already in discussions with Don [King] about bringing Naseem to the United States. It's high on our priorities because he's very marketable. He deserves an easy fight after what was a pretty tough contest but there is a chance that he could be on the bill next May when Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield are re-matched."

Hamed's praise for Johnson may have been in contrast to tasteless remarks he made before the fight, remarks that may yet require an appearance before the British Boxing Board of Control, however the more cynical among us recalled, legitimately I think, that it was a trick of Muhammad Ali to commend most of the men he defeated, especially those who were unable to give him any serious problems.

An interesting thing about Saturday's fight was that some of the rounds, those in which Hamed adopted a more cautious approach, showing respect for the quality of Johnson's counters, took place in comparative silence. What you sensed was that, largely, the following Hamed attracts does not have any great feel for boxing. Excited by his personality, mainly from his own generation, they were puzzled when Hamed failed to quickly finish off Johnson. "Naseem represents a different era," Warren said on Friday when we took part in a BBC radio discussion.

Maybe, but the fundamentals always apply in boxing. Launched from a platform of sound technique there may be no limit to what Hamed can achieve in the weight range with his power, speed and punch resistance. But some of his work against Johnson, the wild lunges, the openings he left when holding his left hand low and cockily inviting head shots, spoke of continuing immaturity.

And it was only when the strength drained from Johnson's legs - I had him only marginally behind after five rounds - that Hamed took full control of the contest, connecting with so many hard blows in the eighth that the referee, Rudy Battle of New Jersey, should have jumped in sooner.

It does Hamed no favours when people rave about this performance and put out the word that he will prove unbeatable up to light-welterweight. As for him sometimes driving his promoter mad, there is still room for less theatrics and more boxing.