Boxing: Fiasco on Jersey shoreline as Hamed touches down

Saturday's world featherweight title bout has been tainted by an atmosphere of suspicion.
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The Independent Online
CEDRIC KUSHNER spends so much time brokering fights across time zones that the telephone call he took sleepily at 4am New York time on Monday was not in itself unusual. Then he heard Naseem Hamed speaking in the urgent tones of a crisis. It was 9.30am in London and the World Boxing Organisation featherweight champion was calling from the American Embassy in London.

Sloppy organisation on the part of Naseem's immediate advisors meant that he still had not obtained the work permit required to defend his title against Wayne McCullough in Atlantic City on Saturday. "I had to get moving," Kushner said when we spoke on Monday evening.

First, Kushner called an attorney, Ray Duva (no relation to the Duva boxing family), who managed to get Naseem's application through a Vermont- based immigration authority. Cleared to fight by 6.30pm, Naseem arrived in Atlantic City before noon on Tuesday after flying from London by Concorde.

By then Kushner, an amply proportioned South African with a reputation for survival in the shark-infested waters of American boxing ("see these chapped lips, that's from kissing arse," he once said), had become the pivotal figure in events that had threatened the collapse of Saturday's contest.

Problems that arose when the assets of Frank Warren's company, Sports Network, were frozen - pending his appeal against the High Court ruling that upheld Don King's claim to equal partnership - came to a head last Friday when Warren's attempt to promote in the United States under the banner of Sports International Inc foundered.

Subsequently, Kushner was called in to promote with Warren, taking the role of consultant. Kushner also agreed to guarantee the $450,000 (pounds 280,000) purse McCullough is getting to challenge Naseem.

MCullough's refusal to leave Las Vegas until he received a concrete assurance further angered the American cable network Home Box Office, which is putting out the contest to pay-per-view subscribers. If it was not one thing it was another. First, the "unprofessional behaviour" that left Naseem stranded in London; then McCullough's refusal to show up until he felt confident of getting his money.

Lou Di Bella, of HBO, has never known a championship fight unfold in such ridiculous circumstances. Throughout the events of Monday he was furious, still waiting for the contestants to put in an appearance. McCullough finally arrived in Atlantic City at 1am on Tuesday morning. "We're not pleased with them," Di Bella said. "I just can't believe Naseem's people left it so late before applying for a permit or why McCullough felt it made sense to stay in Las Vegas until things were cleared up."

Kushner, of course, is happy to be of service. He gets a promotional fee and can now call in a favour. "I'd like to think there will be one or two," he chuckled.

Even after everything appeared to be in place, McCullough, who left Belfast six years ago to set up home with his future wife Cheryl in Las Vegas, remained suspicious that it had all been a stunt to undermine his confidence. "I know enough about this guy [they almost came to blows in Dublin two years ago when Hamed made slighting remarks about Cheryl during the weigh- in for the WBO champion's defence against Manuel Medina] not to put anything past him," McCullough said on Tuesday.

Reached on a mobile telephone in the car that was taking him for a pre- fight medical, McCullough added: "One of the reasons I delayed coming here was the thought that all this hassle was phoney, just more of the nonsense Hamed goes in for."

Even when it was made clear to McCullough that Hamed had indeed run into a problem with the US authorities, he still did not sound convinced. If suggesting a touch of paranoia he thinks it an advantage to be left with only three days in earshot of the champion. "I just want to settle in and relax," he said.

Initially, in the role of her husband's manager, Cheryl had been against the idea of our conversation. Nothing personal, simply that she believes that all but promotional obligations should now be avoided.

It is still in their minds to be sure of getting the purse money. "It baffled me when HBO didn't guarantee my purse," McCullough said. "I know about the problems caused by Warren's dispute with King, but I'm entitled to be sure that the money will be there."

In response to Di Bella's curt statement that boxers get paid (usually on presenting a letter of credit) after they fight, McCullough said: "The trouble is nobody has given us any proof. I'll be looking for it before getting into the ring."

McCullough insisted that none of this has affected his optimism. It seemed best kept from him that Hamed had trailed a banner declaring "Atlantic City Or Bust" from a window of the car in which he travelled from Kennedy airport to the Jersey shore after forecasting precisely the moment of his 31st victory - 2min 28sec of the third round.