Boxing: Naseem's Garden party

Three knockdowns apiece in Madison mayhem as the boy from Sheffield leaves New York gasping
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Just occasionally, you see a fight so enthralling it reminds you of what attracted you to boxing in the first place. Forget skill, technique or physical grace: great fights happen when men are stripped of everything but the will to win, when they lay out every ounce of their being andproduce a spectacle so intense that you feel heartbroken for the loser, and uneasy about the fact that you so enjoyed watching them go to places the rest of us will never have to visit.

Sadly, guilt is sometimes the only appropriate emotion. I have never seen two men strive harder for victory than Nigel Benn and Gerald McClellan - but the price McClellan will pay for the rest of his wrecked life as a result of his contribution to that epic constitutes a powerful argument for the sport's abolition. There need be no such reservations about Naseem Hamed's defeat of Kevin Kelley to retain his World Boxing Organisation featherweight title in Madison Square Garden on Friday night since both winner and loser walked away with their senses intact and their bank balances vastly increased.

It was a flawed victory, which raised many questions about Hamed's long- term future, but it provided irrefutable evidence on one issue: the man has a champion's heart, and all his crass boasting and often ridiculous posturing should not blur the memory of what he achieved in four frantic and often desperate rounds in the arena which had hosted his heroes but so nearly became the graveyard of his own dreams.

Only the rarest can survive such a test, and the manner of Hamed's win, in which he survived three knockdowns and countless other morale-sapping crises, was truly inspirational. He had been an eager participant in a $2m advertising campaign designed to project his own image of himself as one of the game's superstars, and did the job so well that 11,954 fans paid $820,217 to see if he really was as good as he has been telling us.

The build-up to the fight, and the atmosphere generated in boxing's best- known arena, was enough to tingle the nerves of the most hardened cynic, and Hamed milked every second of his 10-minute progress to the ring through a blizzard of confetti and a cloud of smoke. When you make an entrance like that, you had better be able to fight as well. The adrenaline surge the 23-year-old must have felt defies imagination - and so does the embarrassment he experienced when Kelley, a former World Boxing Council champion with just one loss in 50 fights, dumped him on his leopardskin shorts within two minutes of the first bell.

It was the pratfall for which all the millions alienated by Hamed's tiresome bragging had been praying, yet even so it was hard not to feel a tinge of sympathy for a man facing the immediate prospect of career- destroying humiliation. He had been floored before, by Daniel Alicia, but bounced up to win, yet Kelley, urged on by "USA, USA, USA", quickly proved that this was no flash knockdown.

He rocked him early in the second with a right hook from a southpaw stance and then floored the Englishman for the second time with a left. Hamed looked sick and groggy as he clutched and held on, and was almost floored again by another sweeping left, a punch to which he was disturbingly vulnerable throughout. But then he proved his fighting heart, firing back with a perfect short right which dropped Kelley. The American was up at five, and rallied so effectively that he had Hamed under pressure again as the bell ended a hectic session. The judges, like the rest of us, must have abandoned rational assessment to the fiery heat of the moment: two of them scored the round 10-8 for Hamed - ignoring the knockdown Kelley had registered, while the third marked it 10-10.

Another left staggered Hamed in the third and he looked chastened as the realisation was driven home that he was not facing another obscure Latin hand-picked from the lower reaches of the rankings, but a top-class performer who was asking him questions he had never before encountered. Maybe, too, Hamed was being forced to accept that conventional boxing teaching about never pulling back from punches with your chin in the air was based on painful experience.

But then, subtly and almost imperceptibly, the balance of power shifted. Now it was Kelley who was darting anxious glances towards his corner, as Hamed landed hooks and uppercuts.

Kelley's anxiety was even more apparent in the fourth as Hamed, feeling his confidence surging back, drove the challenger across the ring and floored him with two left hooks. Kelley rolled on to one knee and got up at six, as Hamed laughed exaltedly. Yet there were more twists in the tail. As Hamed rained blows on him, the New Yorker fired a countering right and Hamed's glove brushed the canvas as he steadied himself - technically a knockdown requiring the mandatory eight count.

It was Kelley's last, brave flourish. A crashing right and following left hook put him down for the third time, and this time he stayed on his knees as the referee Benji Estaves counted him out after 2min 27sec of the round. Kelley was beaten, but kept his pride and humour intact. "Hamed has a lot to learn," he said. "I told him he can be a great fighter if he stays focused, but he has to realise that there are a lot of hungry fighters in America. This isn't like in England, where you can fight tuna fish for two or three million dollars."

The last word deserves to go to Hamed, who showed more dignity and class in victory than has sometimes been the case. "Kevin was the biggest threat out there, the second best in the world after me," he acknowledged. "But I knew that when it got down to the trenches, I'd come out a winner. Tonight you saw the heart of a lion, and the heart and the fire of a champion." For once, this master of hyperbole was speaking no more than the truth.