Boxing: Hamed's aura takes a knock

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The Independent Online
After being knocked down three times, Naseem Hamed showed great courage in retaining his world title in New York in the early hours of Saturday morning, but Harry Mullan believes the fighter still has much to prove.

Now we know the worst about Naseem Hamed and the best. The defensive deficiencies he displayed in his thrilling four-round victory over Kevin Kelley to retain his World Boxing Organisation featherweight title in Madison Square Garden were startling and confirmed what the sceptics had long thought: that when he was faced with an opponent of genuine world class, he would be found wanting.

Yet the pluses were considerable. The courage he showed in surviving three knockdowns was a mark of the quality which separates champions from the also-rans, and the punching power which got him out of trouble when he needed it most will carry him through even sterner tests than Kelley offered.

The New Yorker, a former holder of the World Boxing Council version of the title, was by a long way the best opponent Hamed had faced and he made that point within two minutes of the start by flooring the Sheffield southpaw. It says much for Hamed's strength of character that he was able to overcome such a disastrous start to his American debut and rally to win, and the thrill-a-second nature of his victory delighted the 12,000 crowd and his new backers Home Box Office, who have signed him to $12m (pounds 8m) six-fight deal.

Lou DiBilla, the HBO executive, who negotiated the deal, must have been even more anxious than Hamed's trainer, Brendan Ingle, as he watched his investment struggle to solve the problems Kelley set, but in the end he got what he had paid so much for and is already talking of a repeat engagement in January or February.

The suggested opponent is Arturo Gatti, an explosive puncher from Canada who fights out of New York, and Gatti's proven reputation as a crowd pleaser would almost certain guarantee a full house in the Garden. Yet this is a time for caution: Hamed's next opponent must be chosen with care, and Gatti's whose fierce left hook has frequently salvaged lost causes, looks the worst possible choice.

He has recently relinquished the International Boxing Federation super- featherweight title (9st 4lb) because he can no longer make the weight, and his last fight was in the light-welter weight division, a full stone heavier than Hamed scaled on Friday.

The Briton, as ever, has no reservations but Frank Warren, his promoter, certainly has. "I'll fight him at any weight he wants," Hamed told a packed post fight press conference. "I don't care what he weighs." "I don't know Naz - we'll have to see about that," Warren said amid laughter.

The more sensible option might be Kennedy McKinney, who knocked out Hamed's prospective opponent, Junior Jones, on the undercard to win the WBO super- bantamweight title in a fight almost as thrilling as the main event.

McKinney who bills himself "The King", was twice International Boxing Federation champion, and would be a popular and highly marketable choice. He has battled cocaine addiction since winning the Olympic bantamweight gold medal in 1988. More important, from Hamed's viewpoint, is that McKinney is vulnerable to heavy punches, and had to come off the floor to stop Jones.

Hamed's hard-earned win has made him box office where it matters most, but it raised disturbing questions about his ability to reign for long in a division bristling with dangerous contenders. "He's good, but he's got a lot to learn," Kelley said. "I should have won, but when I knocked him down I started thinking about being champion again, and focused on the future instead of the present. I'd love to fight him again, maybe in March, and then you'd see a different result."

The re-match is certainly viable, after a battle which one New York reporter described as "Hagler-Hearns in miniature" in reference to the epic middleweight title fight in 1985 which established Marvin Hagler's right to boxing immortality.

Hamed made no excuses for his shortcomings, but Frank Warren's claim that the pair had agreed at the weigh-in to abandon their boxing and go for a head-to-head trial of strength does not bear scrutiny. Hamed opened more cautiously than any on of his major fights, and was clearly affording Kelley the utmost respect as he jabbed his way through the first two minutes.

But when Kelley floored him, he suddenly found himself in a grim struggle of survival, and there were clear signs of apprehension in the second round.

Gradually, though, he came through the crisis and as Kelley realised that his best had not been good enough to keep the champion on the floor, one could sense the confidence draining from him.

It was, ultimately, a satisfying triumph for Hamed, but much remains to be done before his own high opinion of his talents is matched by his achievements.