Boxing: Hamed survives the pain

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The Independent Online
IF NASEEM HAMED is not in decline as a fighter, then the 25-year- old World Boxing Organisation featherweight champion is certainly in a slump. Worse still, his career is threatened by a hand injury that has hampered his performance for the second fight in succession.

Last Halloween in Atlantic City, `Prince' Hamed was able to coast through 12 dull but safe rounds against Wayne McCullough after hurting his left hand - traditionally the power purveyor of a southpaw - early in the fight. In Manchester last weekend, the injury showed itself to be a serious long- term threat.

Hamed seemed in control in the early stages of his defence against Scarborough's Paul Ingle at the MEN Arena in Manchester on Saturday. Ingle, an unbeaten European and Commonwealth champion, was floored in the first and sixth rounds. But then, says Hamed, his hand began hurting and his effectiveness was reduced to the point where Ingle took control and Hamed, with no meaningful deterrent to ward off his hyperactive challenger, had to save himself with a knock-out punch - delivered by the ailing hand - in the 11th round.

"Around the sixth my left hand really began to hurt," said the champion. "I just wanted to throw it, but I couldn't. This is doing my head in. I've got to get it sorted out."

Hand injuries are the bane of big punchers and Hamed proved, if nothing else, that he still belongs in that category. This was his 29th stoppage win in 32 unbeaten fights. But it is impossible to ignore the flaws that have developed in this prodigiously talented Yorkshireman who has promised, verbally and in reality, to deliver so much. Without wishing to denigrate the challenger, future boxing legends should not have life and death struggles with the likes of Ingle.

But the aura of Hamed the all-conquering destroyer is nearly gone. Ingle baited him at the end of rounds, goading the goader. And his psychological warfare had begun earlier in the evening, when Ingle vacated the ring, as he had promised he would if Hamed's entrance lasted longer than six minutes. Which, of course, it did, Cadillac, firework display and all, with a bit of rapping thrown in for good measure. It was Hamed whose head was toyed with on this occasion.

Hamed's state of mind has been a concern for some time. His estranged trainer Brendan Ingle, no relation to Paul, has claimed that the featherweight (championship limit nine stone) blows up to around 11 stone between fights, indicating a lack of dedication. Ingle and Hamed have conducted a war of words through the media, but one can be sure that such criticisms from the man who taught him to box as a child will have hurt Hamed.

To his credit, the champion has trained hard for his last two contests and has made the weight with ease. Perhaps too much so, however. There is a distinct possibility that Hamed has overtrained, resulting in two of the least satisfying performances of his career.

His American paymasters, the Home Box Office subscription TV network, claim they are unworried by the poor performances, however. "Whatever you say about him, he's still the biggest one-punch hitter in the sport, and that makes for exciting television," said the HBO executive Lou DiBella.

Unwittingly, Oscar Suarez, the little-known Puerto Rican who has replaced Brendan Ingle, may have added to the demise.

Suarez apparently is a believer in a harsh fitness regime which may be too much for Hamed to take after years without so much as a training run. Suarez at least improved the Prince's shocking sense of balance, but it would be unrealistic to judge him on the evidence of one fight.

Examining Hamed's career, however, it is difficult not to believe that he is steadily, perhaps irretrievably, going downhill, which is where the fortysomething Detroit legend Thomas `Hit Man' Hearns has been for some time. Hearns is the only fighter to win world titles in six weight categories and he added another belt on the show's undercard, the IBO cruiserweight title. But his 12-rounder with the unambitious American, Nate Miller, both left him dissatisfied and all but emptied the arena. He now knows that his dream of a shot at the light-heavyweight champion Roy Jones and then retirement is highly unrealistic.