Boxing: Big ego lands in Big Apple

Naseem Hamed's boasts are threatening to alienate as many followers as his brilliant boxing has entranced; Harry Mullan fears winning over the American audience may be harder than the fight
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The Independent Online
In terms of public relations disasters, Naseem Hamed's claim last week that he could be a better fighter than Muhammad Ali ranks up there with John Lennon's declaration that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus; indeed, there are those in the fight game who would regard Hamed's boast as the more sacrilegious. Conservative Americans never forgave Lennon, and they are unlikely to be any warmer towards Hamed when he makes his US debut in Madison Square Garden, New York, on Friday. Early indications are that the show will fall a long way short of being a box-office smash, even though Hamed's opponent, the former WBC champion Kevin Kelley, is a popular performer with a fine record of just one defeat in 50 fights.

Hamed has been, in marketing terms, a hard sell for promoter Frank Warren, who is also making his American debut in the arena which in its many incarnations was for decades the sport's headquarters. Americans like colourful performers, and will even tolerate a little arrogance when, like Ray Leonard or the irrepressible Macho Camacho, the braggart is one of their own. But they will not tolerate arrogant foreigners, and Hamed has made little effort to win them over. That has always been his way: you like him or loathe him, and it makes no difference to him so long as you pay for your ticket. His talent insulates him from criticism, and his wealth - he is already British boxing's highest-ever earner outside the heavyweight division - breeds its own arrogance.

There have been sportsmen (Chris Eubank the obvious example) who made successful careers out of being "the man you love to hate", but the difference is that whereas Eubank set out deliberately to create this image for himself, Hamed has merely allowed his natural personality to flourish untrammelled by considerations of taste or civility. In the process he has alienated as many fans and writers as he entranced in his early days in the business, and the reservoir of goodwill he built up then is in danger of running dry.

The young Hamed was quiet, even shy, in company. I remember a lunch with him and his guru Brendan Ingle in a London restaurant early in his meteoric professional career, when he said scarcely a word in two hours, but listened avidly as we discussed the likely course his career would take. Significantly, not a single diner recognised him. Such anonymity would not be possible today, nor would he welcome it. He glories in his fame, even if he is too often less gracious than he should be to those who pay his wages at the box-office.

Neither he nor Ingle have ever discussed the matter with outsiders, let alone journalists, but I detect a change in their relationship in the last few years. It is as though Hamed, as a hugely successful world champion, is outgrowing the man who moulded his boxing style and his outlook on life in the years since Ingle first coached the seven-year-old prodigy at his gym in Wincobank, Sheffield.

Back when Hamed's talent was breaking through in the amateur game, Ingle liked to recount a conversation they had one night on the long drive home from a tournament. They were discussing the inevitable progression to professionalism, and Ingle recalls: "I said to him, 'You're making your pro debut. You get pounds 400 and I take a quarter - pounds 100.' He says, 'No problem'.

"Then I say 'It's two years on, you're fighting for the British title, you get pounds 4,000 and I get pounds 1,000 of that.' He says, 'Fine'. 'Now you're fighting for the world title. You get pounds 40,000 and I take pounds 10,000 of that.' Fine. 'Next, you're fighting in Las Vegas for pounds 400,000 - and I'll take a quarter of that, a hundred grand.' Naz goes quiet, and says, 'I'm not too sure about that, Brendan. One hundred grand is a lot of money.'"

These days, with Frank Warren doing the promotional deals including the $12m package with HBO which brought Hamed to America, and with the fighter's brothers looking after his commercial interests, Ingle is in danger of being marginalised even though he is still the manager of record and has unchallenged control of the champion's training. It is highly unlikely that he receives anything like a quarter of Hamed's massive earnings, even though without his wise counsel Hamed might not have reached his present plateau.

Billy Petrolle, a fine lightweight from the 1930s, felt this career was going nowhere and turned for help to Jack Kearns, the larcenous but well- connected rogue who steered Jack Dempsey and Mickey Walker to fortunes. Kearns stipulated that his cut was 50 per cent, take it or leave it. Petrolle protested, so Kearns asked him how much he'd made in the previous year. "Nothing." "And how much is 50 per cent of nothing?" Petrolle signed, and never regretted it. One's sympathies are instinctively with the boxer in any discussion of the percentage split between boxer and manager, but the Biblical precept that "the labourer is worthy of his hire" applies here as well.

The Hamed camp were right to let American interest in him build to the point where he is able to make his debut there on his own terms. It is an extraordinary promotional and managerial achievement, without precedent in British boxing history. Other men from these parts have conquered Madison Square Garden, but they have to build a reputation in the States first. The two Kids, Berg and Lewis, were among Britain's finest boxing ambassadors but were virtual unknowns when they arrived in America, and even Ken Buchanan, the Scot who captivated Garden audiences with his dazzling boxing in the 1970s, had to win the world title in Puerto Rico before he was invited to appear at headquarters.

New Yorkers fell in love with Buchanan, who was voted the 1971 Fighter of the Year by American boxing writers (ahead of Joe Frazier). Hamed's extravagant talent makes him as good a fighter in his era asBuchanan was then, but if he is to earn similar acclaim it will have to be by the sheer quality of his performance. Kelley, a southpaw like Hamed, is the perfect foil.

At 30 his best days are behind him, although he remains one of the best featherweights in the world and is the WBU champion. That belt is not at stake on Friday, though, since Warren does not permit any of his boxers to contest WBU titles. The talkative New Yorker has scored 32 inside-schedule wins in 50 fights (47-1-2), and performed impressively in his two fights this year when he floored the former world champion Jesus Salud and took out the durable Puerto Rican Orlando Fernandez with a single left hook.

Perhaps, like the IBF champion Tom Johnson (Hamed's best-known victim), Kelley is the right name at the right time. For all his hand speed and punch power, the challenger is vulnerable too: he took a savage beating when losing his WBC title to Alejandro Gonzalez in 1995, and was floored in subsequent victories over two lightly regarded opponents, Ricardo Rivera and Tommy Parks. I don't believe there is a featherweight in the world who can stand up to Hamed's power, and I expect him to walk through the American inside four rounds.

His real challenge this weekend is to win over the toughest fight crowd in the world, and that will take more than brash boasts. Beating Kelley could be the easy part.