Boxing: Passionate prince of self-belief: Harry Mullan talks to Naseem Hamed, the fighter making an art out of single-mindedness

Click to follow
The Independent Online
SHEFFIELD, 3pm Wednesday: It is unlikely that Marvin Hagler or Roberto Duran ever pulled out of an interview because he wanted to go home and see his mum, but Naseem Hamed has done just that. He's the European bantamweight champion, eight hours away from facing a tough and seasoned Italian called Antonio Picardi in his first title defence, but at 20 he's still more boy than hard man.

'We're a close family,' he explains. 'I like to see my parents, to reassure them that there's no doubts in my mind. I reassure them, but they also reassure me. My mother asks me what round I'd like to win in, and she prays for that. Tonight it's going to be the third round, and when I come out for the third I'll be thinking of her. She won't be there, though: she never comes to my fights, but she likes to watch me on television with some of the family. I prefer it that way: I don't want to be nervous on her behalf.

'That sounds selfish, but that's the way I am and have to be. I'm not selfish before a fight or afterwards, but for the time of the fight itself I have to think totally of myself. Nobody's going to help me when I get in that ring. That's how I like it: the responsibility's on me, and whatever happens is down to me, nobody else.'

It is a responsibility which he has happily embraced since, as a seven-year-old, he was introduced to boxing by Brendan Ingle. Under Ingle's guidance he became the worst-kept secret in British boxing, the child prodigy who would one day be a mega-star. He was moving around in the sparring ring with champions like Herol Graham, Brian Anderson and Johnny Nelson before he was old enough to box competitivelyas a schoolboy, and the confidence such experience instilled has earned him a world ranking after just 12 pro fights.

That icy self-assurance has always been his trademark. We first met in Sheffield City Hall in February 1986, the night Graham took the European middleweight title from Ayub Kalule. As I walked towards the dressing-rooms a swarthy, solemn boy stopped me. 'I thought it was time I introduced myself,' he said gravely. 'You will be hearing much more about me. My name is Naseem Hamed, and I will be world champion.'

There should have been something faintly ridiculous in such a pronouncement from a child who would not celebrate his 12th birthday for another week, but he said it with such calm conviction that the memory stayed with me.

Glyn Rhodes, recently retired after a 15-year, 65-fight professional career, remembers Naz's coming to Ingle's gym as a precocious seven-year-old. 'I've known him for as long as he's been in boxing and he's okay, is Naz,' Rhodes says. 'He doesn't have to do any of that old fanny with people he's known that long. A lot of it is an act for the benefit of people he might be trying to impress, but he does genuinely believe he's unbeatable. He's not, of course: nobody is.'

IT IS 6.30pm, and Hamed is sprawled on the narrow bed in the hotel room which has been his base for the last few weeks. Dressed in a grey tracksuit and squeaky-white trainers, he looks so much smaller and more vulnerable than he does in the ring under the lights. It's a curious phenomenon that winning fighters seem, against all logic, to grow and expand as they dominate an opponent: Desmond Morris probably has a theory about it.

'I normally go away for the last two weeks before a fight, away from the family and everybody,' Hamed says in that soft voice which, with the Freddie Trueman accent, is so ill-matched to his exuberant public persona.

'I cut myself off completely. My mind is just full of the job of training, of getting ready for the day, ready for business. Now the work's all done, and tonight's the night I shall perform. This is my chance to show people my art. I thank God that I've got this ability, and I'm looking forward to showing it to the people on television.

'I feel no apprehension at all about all those people watching me on TV. I've just got to go out there and do my business and I can't be concerned about what they're thinking. I've always been strong- willed, strong-minded about it. This is my job, my livelihood, my life.

'I don't need to concentrate or meditate before a fight. I'm the kind of guy who'll be having a laugh in the dressing-room 10 minutes before the fight - that's me. I'll be totally relaxed, because I know myself, what my strengths are, and what his weaknesses are. I feel like I've won already. I can't honestly imagine losing, but if I ever did it would only make me stronger and more determined. I'd be straight back in the gym, to make sure that I never lost again. There's only winning and winning in my mind, not winning or losing. I'm not a negative guy: that's how I've been brought up.'

In the corner of the room, by the wide window with a sweeping view of his home town, is a set of expensive, state-of-the-art electronic scales. They are frequently used: Hamed, like so many fighters in the lower weight divisions, counts his ounces as scrupulously as any jockey.

'First thing when I got up this morning was to check my weight. I was half a pound under. I had a glass of cold water and an orange, and my weight came back up to eight-six and my stomach was already full.

'I check my weight constantly, maybe five or six times a day. I know what I am, to the ounce. I know the difference that everything I eat or drink will make, and I check my weight again every time I go to the toilet. I'm a professional, and I don't leave things to chance. If my weight goes up or down I don't need to blame anybody, only myself.

'I had planned to go back to my mum's after the weigh-in at 12 o'clock and eat the rice she'd made me, but I was so hungry I had a sea-food hot pot, chicken burger and chips. I had a glass of Coke because I needed an energy rush, to get some sugar into my system. All I've been drinking for three weeks is pure water, to flush the system out, but the Coke was so sweet I couldn't drink more than half of it.'

He muses about his relationship with Ingle, the white-haired Dubliner whose unique coaching philosophy and style has made him infinitely more successful as a trainer than he was as honest-trier middleweight more than 20 years ago. Brendan And The Boy: it is an endearing idea, but we've been through it before with Ingle and Graham, and that tempestuous 16- year partnership ended in disappointment and coolness.

'I went to the venue this afternoon because I like to check out the ring, how the ropes are fixed. I check out the changing-room, how cool it is and what conditions are like all around. I've learned all that from watching Brendan over the years; I've listened to him, and learned.

'We're very close, and I can't imagine ever leaving him behind. Maybe the time will come when he'd have to sell my contract or something, but he will always be my trainer. I've been listening to him for 13, 14 years now. He's not always right - sometimes we disagree, like normal people do, but he's always done the best for me. He's so knowledgeable about boxing, but he doesn't rush into decisions. He always gets advice, and weighs it up. There's no thoughts in my mind of making so much money and leaving him. I couldn't do that. I'm totally loyal.'

HILLSBOROUGH Leisure Centre, 10pm: He'll be in the ring in 45 minutes, but Hamed is still hamming it up for the photographers' benefit, cart-wheeling and somersaulting around the exercise mat which takes up most of the floor area in the large changing-room. As the show's star, he does not have to share facilities with lesser performers.

By 10.15, the serious warm-up is under way. He shadow-boxes vigorously, watching himself in the full-length wall mirror, and then goes into elaborate and intricate dance movements in time to blaring rap music. There's no clowning now, and little talking.

Earlier, he took off the gold Rolex wristwatch, a gift from the Yemeni president when he went there on an exhibition tour last year, and passed it to his brother for safe keeping. He enjoys the symbols of success, but draws the line at paying for them: 'I don't want you thinking I'm the kind of guy who'd spend pounds 10,000 on a watch.' Tonight he aims to collect another bonus: Andy Ayling, press officer for promoter Frank Warren, has bet him a pounds 170 pair of black-and-white Versace shoes that he can't finish Picardi inside the predicted three rounds.

IT IS 11pm, and Naz is giving the performance of his life against the brave but utterly bewildered Italian. Picardi has been in with world- class men before, but nobody has ever outclassed him so thoroughly. The British super-bantamweight champion, Ritchie Wenton, a fascinated ringsider, is keen to test his wits against Hamed's. 'It would be a thinking man's fight, a real boxing match,' he says. 'Look at him - look how he's staring at the floor and still hitting the guy flush. It takes immaculate concentration to get away with that, but if you can break his concentration you'll break him.'

Maybe Wenton could, but Picardi certainly can't and, halfway through the third, a perfect straight left, driven hard and accurately from the southpaw stance, knocks the last of the fight out of him. He beats the count, but a quick flurry puts him down again in a corner and Hamed is already somersaulting in celebration before the Danish referee Knud Jensen spreads his arms wide to signal the finish.

It has been a flawless display, but Hamed is the least excited man in the changing-room afterwards. 'I can only give myself nine out of ten for that, because I'd predicted the round,' he says. 'My hands are sore - nothing broken or anything, just sore. But I suppose overall I'm satisfied with the job. I did.'

He may be hard to please, but there's no question that Hamed is enjoying being successful. 'It's what I dreamed of all the way through my amateur career. I'd look at fighters who'd made it and think 'One day, that'll happen to me', and now it has.

'I've worked hard for whatever I'm taking out of boxing. Nobody gets there easy. You do it on merit, and hard work. But I haven't fulfilled my dream yet. This is like a big roller-coaster ride, but I have to try to keep my feet on the ground, not let the temptations of life get hold of me. I've never been in love, and I don't want to be in love at this age. I can't afford to be in love, because I'm planning to make so much money. I've always told girls, 'I can't give myself to you because I've got my job to do.' They agree, because they know what boxing means to me.'

Outside the dressing-room door, in the middle of a crush of autograph seekers and stage-door johnnies, the manager of a preliminary fight loser is asking plaintively: 'Is this the paying-out room? Is this where we come for the money?' His managerial commission on the purse will come to less than the cost of the Versace shoes Naz has just won from Andy Ayling. Million-dollar dreams and harsh reality, only a door's width apart.

(Photograph omitted)