Boxing: Long haul to victory for Naseem

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FEARS THAT Naseem Hamed had slipped off the rails only temporarily amid the confusion of backstage political battles last October cannot be allayed following last night's 11th-round victory here in the MEN Arena over the challenger Paul Ingle. The World Boxing Organisation featherweight champion had dropped Ingle in rounds one and six but the Scarborough fighter surprisingly kept coming. In round nine, he bloodied Hamed's nose badly and in the 10th the tiring champion tumbled to the canvas, providing a massive surprise. Hamed looked all but ready to go, the 11th round perhaps being the last of his 12-fight Championship reign.

But he pulled it out of the bag with the manner of heavy hitting that has made him such an attractive fighter to watch.

Ingle, the Commonwealth and European Champion, had suggested this fight might have come too early for him. But a purse of pounds 300,000 was too good to refuse. He may now find himself in line for another pay day as a rematch is most certainly in order.

Ingle provided value for money, but Hamed revealed that he had damaged his hand during the fight and after thanking God for seeing him through the fight, said he was going off for an X-ray.

Irrespective of how restricted he was by the hand injury, this peformance will not have been pleasing to Hamed's American paymasters, the Home Box Office subscription TV network. They were concerned by the knock-on effects of Hamed's lacklustre showing in his previous fight, and they hoped Hamed would produce another stunning finish with which to win back possibly disaffected fans in the world's most important market. They will be disappointed.

Multi-millionaire Hamed's dour and critically panned points win over Wayne McCullough last Halloween in Atlantic City was a crossroads. The atmosphere around the promotion was tense and damaging, as the power struggle between the Hamed family, the promoter Frank Warren and his former trainer Brendan Ingle came to a head. It was hoped that a change would be as good as a rest for a fighter who had looked to be going stale. It must have been with some relief that Hamed returned to a large crowd in a British arena last night. The mood in his camp had been good but the final product will not have pleased anyone involved in the promotion.

Under the spotlight will be his new trainer Oscar Suarez, a New Jersey- based Puerto Rican, who was hired amid suspicions that the virtual unknown was taken on merely because he came cheap. He is thought to have earned considerably less than the pounds 75,000 that Brendan Ingle's fee had been systematically reduced to as the Hamed faction fought to gain control of their own destiny. He may prove to be a false economy.

Emanuel Steward, the legendary trainer who made his name and established the reputation of his Kronk gym in Detroit through his work with Thomas "Hit Man" Hearns, was also helping Hamed as a corner advisor, but neither he nor Suarez appeared to be able to jolt Hamed out of a slack patch in the middle of the fight that grew worse. Hamed should not have needed a punch from the blue to save himself here nor should he have relied on Ingle to provide so many of the supporters in the crowd.

Paul Ingle's manager, Frank Maloney, claimed that his man brought 7,000 supporters with him and at the very start, the Ingle camp gave them a surprise. As the challenger waited for the champion to come to the ring Ingle's team vacated the fighting area after a period of six minutes, with no sign of the champion, had elapsed. All through the fight Ingle goaded and bated Hamed, showing no respect for the power that would eventually finish him. He now knows better.

Next for Hamed is likely to be New York's Junior Jones - a favourite of the Manhattan based HBO - who became a five-time world champion by himself coming from behind to stop the Coventry puncher Richard Evatt, also in round 11. Jones was down in the first round, had a point docked for mauling, and impressed no one. Jones is skilful but has a fragile of chin, which is no way to be when facing Hamed. Ingle can attest to that.

The previously unbeaten Ingle had himself enjoyed the benefit of Steward's advice prior to the American signing on with Hamed. But theory is one thing, reality another when you are faced with one of the hardest hitters in featherweight history. Unfortunately for Hamed, unless he can pull himself out of this slump, he will be remembered only as a puncher, and that does not a legend make.