Boxing: Hamed seen as a small potato in the Big Apple
Thursday 18 December 1997
The cabbie who drove me to my hotel a block behind Madison Square Garden had never heard of Naseem Hamed, who makes his American debut at Madison Square Garden tomorrow night against Kevin Kelley. There is nothing unusual in that, of course: New York cabbies are so notoriously ill-acquainted with their own city that some of them may not even have heard of the Garden itself.
But when the same level of ignorance is encountered amongst barmen, for whom enclyclopaedic sporting knowledge is a professional essential, it is clear that tomorrow's World Boxing Organisation featherweight title defence is a hard sell for the self-styled Prince and his promoter, Frank Warren.
Hamed is a big name in Britain, but has yet to scratch the surface of American sporting consciousness. His mentor, Brendan Ingle, did his best to put a brave face on it when he flew home at the weekend to work with his middleweight Ryan Rhodes who lost in Sheffield to Otis Grant for the vacant WBO middleweight title.
Ingle insisted that Hamed had made a big impression in New York and would draw well against Kelley, a popular local fighter with a fine record and a crowd-pleaser's reputation, but the proof is in the advance ticket sales. Barring an unexpectedly walk-up at the box office on Friday the 20,000- seat arena is likely to be less than half full.
That will be a blow for Warren, who reportedly paid pounds 750,000 to hire the stadium for his US promotional debut. He is a seasoned player in a high risk game and will understand the necessity to speculate to accumulate, but Hamed is not used to being snubbed. It must be a blow to an ego of his dimensions to encounter apathy rather than adulation, but it may be some consolation to reflect that better-known men than him have failed to fill the Garden.
Big-time boxing is now so rare an event in New York that the market - which once sustained regular weekly shows in the old Garden, the third to bear the name and the predecessor of the current arena - has moved on and only ice hockey is now a guaranteed seller here. New York, and specifically the Garden, was once viewed as the game's headquarters, but then the Las Vegas casinos realised the punter-pulling potential of the sport and, within a couple of years, had taken it over.
The city slipped so far down the promotional pecking order that my first assignment here in a near 30-year career including over 50 American trips was not until 1991, when I watched Terry Norris pound Sugar Ray Leonard into yet another retirement. The arena was less than half full that night too, and if one of the best marketed boxers in history could not draw the crowds back to the Garden, it is asking a lot of an unknown Englishman to succeed where he failed.
HBO, the TV company who signed Hamed to a $12m (pounds 7.3m) deal, have done their best to project him and allocated an advertising budget of pounds 1.75m. There is a 50-foot billboard of him at the Lincoln Tunnel, strategically sited to catch the eyes of the commuting thousands, and his image is also displayed in Times Square. But New Yorkers have lost the habit of going to the fights, and it will be a real achievement for all concerned if Friday's show is a commercial as well as artistic success.
Hamed, as ever, has talked a good fight and the New York press coverage has been generally sympathetic and encouraging. Press conferences have followed the now traditional pattern of boasting and bad-mouthing, but it is all rather unconvincing. Kelley, a 5-2 underdog, is an intelligent and mature 30-year-old who has lost just once in 50 fights, and he looks faintly uncomfortable spouting the ritual insults.
He is, though, genuinely aggrieved that his $500,000 purse is a mere fraction of Hamed's, although he is the local fighter with proven pedigree, including a two year spell as World Boxing Council champion. "Every time I hit Hamed, HBO's pockets are going to feel it," he says.
"I don't know if the Garden crowd will boo him, but I know that if he tried that act in the streets of New York, guys that couldn't kill him with their bare hands would shoot him. Anybody that has to tell you their great. It means they ain't.
"He says he's going to knock me out in the third, but he's got to get past the first. The difference between us is that when he knocks them down, they get up. When I hit them, they're unconscious."
For once, that is not idle boasting: Kelley's last fight ended with a spectacular one-punch knock-out, and Hamed would be well advised to accord him much more respect privately than he has been showing for public consumption. Buddy McGirt, a former twice world champion who is now one of the house trainers in Hamed's New York gym, the Blue Velvet, pronounced the champion's power to be "awesome" after watching him go through a work-out on the pads with assistant trainer, John Ingle. Yet he gives his fellow New Yorker a good chance, "so long as he can black out being in his home town and doesn't try trading punches with him."
Michael Jackson, a rather less expert witness to the Hamed work-out, was also hugely impressed - but as the New York Post's Wally Matthews commented wryly "hand pads don't hit back," Kevin Kelley will.
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