Boxing: Prince poised to fulfil his American dream

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The Independent Online
If Naseem Hamed is as good as he thinks he is, he will beat Kevin Kelley tonight and become the most famous British boxer in America for more than a generation.

Harry Mullan in New York expects him to do both.

Back in 1995, when I was editing the sport's trade paper Boxing News I was summoned from lunch to the office by a receptionist, a lady who did not approve of the ways of boxers (or journalists). "There's somebody waiting for you who says he is the world's greatest featherweight," she said struggling to keep the disdain from her voice.

The visitor was not, as might be supposed, Naseem Hamed but Kevin Kelley, the New Yorker against whom Hamed defends his World Boxing Organisation title tonight in Madison Square Garden. It is a measure of how their fortunes have changed in the meantime that Hamed, then, would not have dreamt of challenging Kelley's right to that self-bestowed superlative, while Kelley now would have to concede the Prince's entitlement to the label.

Hamed, at 23, stands on the edge of greatness while Kelley, at 30, contemplates a past which never delivered as much as it promised - and a future which is likely to be bleaker by Saturday morning.

This is a moment of genuine significance for British boxing. It looks increasingly that Hamed really is as good as he believes himself to be, in which case he is poised to make the biggest impression on an American audience by anyone from these parts since the days, more than 25 years ago, when Scotland's Ken Buchanan was King of The Garden. Buchanan entranced New York with a succession of dazzling performances here in the early 1970s, making such an impression that he was voted Fighter of the Year by the American boxing writers in 1971. Since that was also the year when Joe Frazier beat Muhammad Ali in the Garden, Buchanan's achievement was enormous.

Hamed, though, is unlikely to feel bowed by the weight of history. His is a narrow world, focused on himself and his own future. Such self-absorption might be unhealthy and even objectionable in a layman, but for a fighter it is a positive asset. He is already wealthy enough never to need to box again, but has always been driven by his ego rather than financial imperatives. He has created a whole new market for boxing in Britain, a young crowd who would never have dreamt of paying to watch Frank Bruno but have been drawn to the sport by Hamed's extravagant showmanship and unabashed exaltation in his own prowess. Now he has outgrown that market, and looks to conquer America.

His brand of brashness does not sit well with American fans, who prefer their heroes to be - at least for public consumption - quiet and modest boys who love their mom and marry their high school sweetheart. Selling Hamed has been a challenge for promoter Frank Warren, who spent $750,000 (pounds 450,000) on hiring the Garden, and for Home Box Office, the TV company who have signed the Englishman to a $12m (pounds 7.2m) six-fight deal and invested almost $2m (pounds 1.2m) on an advertising blitz to introduce him to New Yorkers.

The success of the operation will be determined not by the attendance tonight, which is likely to be around half the Garden's 20,000 capacity, but by the figures for his next American appearance and specifically the take-up for the pay-per-view transmission. HBO have gambled hugely on his potential, while Warren has played his part by producing exactly the right opponent to make the gamble pay off.

Kelley could have been designed by computer to be Hamed's ideal opponent. The 30-year-old, home-loving father of four has a lifestyle far removed from Hamed's recreational pursuits, which centre around flash cars and nightclubs, and while retaining a healthy respect for his own abilities, he is no longer the chest-thumper he was in his prime.

He was World Boxing Council champion (a more prestigious title then than the WBO's) for almost two years, and his record of 47 wins and two draws in 50 fights is impressive. The solitary loss cost him the WBC belt, when he absorbed a bad beating from the Mexican Alejandro Gonzalez, but he has come back well and scored stylish wins in his two previous fights this year. He is a crowd pleaser, never afraid to take blows in order to land his own, but that is a suicidal strategy against Hamed.

The Sheffield southpaw is the hardest punching featherweight of recent years, and the power is enhanced by the unorthodoxy of his delivery. He can land telling blows from the most improbable angles and positions, and at times seems to defy the law of gravity as easily as he flouts the hoary old boxing conventions like never pulling back from punches with your chin in the air, or never dropping your hands within your opponents punching range. Hamed does it all with bewildering speed and an unshakeable self-belief which has survived potentially embarrassing moments in defences against Daniel Alesia and Manuel Medina.

He won and then relinquished the International Boxing Federation version of the title, and is very much the "flagship" fighter of the WBO. His success, and his loyalty to the organisation, has had beneficial results for British fighters - so many of them have contested WBO titles in the past two years that cynics might suggest the initials stand for Warren's Boxing Organisation - but whatever belt he holds, Hamed is beyond challenge as the best at the weight.

He should dispose of Kelley within four rounds, although the American's courage and considerable hitting power could make it an explosively exciting affair while it lasts. After that, Las Vegas is surely the next stop. The Prince and the city were made for each other, and it was only Warren's difficult relationship with his former partner Don King which stopped Hamed making his debut there at least a year ago.

King wanted a degree of control which Warren was not prepared to relinquish, hence King's unwillingness to match Hamed in the unification fights with the rival champions under his wing.

Warren's lucrative alliance with HBO has sidelined King, and so long as Hamed continues to deliver viewer-pulling performances it may have changed the whole power base in the sport. Warren no longer needs King to deliver opponents when there are HBO fighters readily available. Junior Jones, a loquacious and gifted New Yorker who defends his WBO super-bantamweight title on tonight's show, could be the next in line for a fighter with a new world to conquer.

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