Boxing: Naseem's broader canvas

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The Independent Online
There was a beery night in Las Vegas a couple of years ago when I extolled the merits of Naseem Hamed to a group of local boxing fans in a casino sports bar. They listened with the kind of glazed politeness they would have shown to a dissertation on the qualities and deficiencies of Scunthorpe's back four: they had never heard of Hamed, and probably doubted they ever would again. But times change, and opinions move with them.

The latest issue of the prestigious American monthly KO features Hamed on the cover and acclaims him as the best featherweight in the world. Considering that the Sheffield 22-year-old holds only two of the many versions of the world title, that is a considerable compliment, as is the fact that he is the only European the magazine acknowledges as No 1 in any of the 17 weight divisions.

Beating the veteran Tom Johnson for the International Boxing Federation title in February gave Hamed's transatlantic profile a hefty boost yet there are still those in Britain who argue that he has yet to establish himself as the best featherweight in his own country. The dissenting voices usually speak with a Tyneside accent and advance the claims of Sunderland's Billy Hardy, who they say is the only European capable of asking Hamed serious questions. That opinion will be put to the test in Manchester on Saturday when Hardy challenges Hamed in the main event on the Nynex Arena extravaganza.

It is a tribute to the Sunderland veteran's toughness that Hamed admits he has taken the fight only because he was obliged to since Hardy has been the WBO's mandatory challenger for over a year. Hamed, of course, does not acknowledge the possibility of defeat - that would be too much to expect - but he accords his challenger the respect due a man who has been a world-class campaigner, and a champion, across two weights and 14 hard years in the game.

Hardy, 32, was an outstanding bantamweight who held the British title for four years and came heart-breakingly close to taking the IBF title from the brilliant Texan Orlando Canizales in Sunderland seven years ago. Canizales won a split decision but settled the argument emphatically by stopping Hardy in eight rounds of their rematch in San Antonio a year later. That defeat prompted Hardy to move up to featherweight, where he has won the European, British and Commonwealth championship.

Few British fighters can match his level of experience. He has won 14 and drawn one of his 18 title fights, achieving the near-impossible by taking the European title from a Frenchman in France and retaining it against an Italian in Italy, both on points. That really is doing it the hard way. His last fight saw him outscore the former WBO champion Steve Robinson in defence of the European belt, but since Hamed dismissed the Welshman so effortlessly to become WBO champion in September 1995, that performance is a negative rather than a positive factor.

Hamed, as he never tires of telling us, is a fighter marked for greatness, a boxer of instinctive genius and thrilling originality. He is ready to move on to a wider stage than Britain can offer, and his next appearance is likely to be a bill- topper in Las Vegas against the WBA champion Wilfredo Vasquez, with three titles on the line. He will be going to Vegas on his own terms, having stipulated he was not interested in playing a supporting role even to giants such as Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield, and the best efforts of a worthy pro like Hardy will not be enough to spoil that script.