Boxing: Showdown of the showmen

Eubank-Hamed rivalry turns personal as the old stager keeps stealing the limelight from the young champion; Bob Mee suggests Britain's finest boxer is being given a lesson by a master
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BOXING is as bizarre as it is dangerous. The coming weekend's Nynex Arena spectacular featuring the twin talents of Naseem Hamed and Chris Eubank threatens to be highly amusing - unless of course you're one of those taking punches.

It is fair to say that, for now at least, Hamed and Eubank are not the best of friends. If the ring were as harmless as the stage, then we would have a classic scenario: the fading star, condemned to a supporting role, simply cannot resist stealing a scene from the callow youth who has replaced him as lead.

Eubank has changed for the better over the years. When he was Hamed's age - 24 - he was pompous, humourless, misunderstood. Now he has grown up, there is a twinkle in his eye. He has developed a sense of mischief, and learned how best to use his wit and perception.

Perhaps he inspires more affection now because he has proved over the years for all his behavioural oddities he did care about others, and about the world in general. His lofty proclamations about world peace may have seemed ridiculous, but nobody who heard them could doubt they were made with the best of intentions. The same goes for his much-criticised walkabout in Moss Side, Manchester. Misplaced? Possibly. Good- hearted? Certainly.

Eubank can now make us smile. The one-time street kid from Dulwich parodied wealth so beautifully with his monocle and jodhpurs, his outlandish toys like the monstrous truck he had flown in from the United States and his immaculate Harley Davidson.

A journalist once asked him how he felt about boxers being exploited by ruthless promoters, and he paused, before saying solemnly: "I'm the wrong person to ask. I exploit promoters."

When in Belfast, he was forced to listen to some rhyming doggerel from his opponent Ray Close at a press conference. He sat frowning, and let him finish, then sniffed: "Not exactly Rudyard Kipling, are we?"

There was a glorious story, perhaps apocryphal, but you hope it isn't, of his performance at a Barbra Streisand concert a few years ago. Miss Streisand would never begin before all the front-row seats had been filled, but with a packed house waiting, a single VIP place remained glaringly empty.

Then Eubank appeared at the back, suitably monocled and caned, made a regal descent to the front and paused long enough to tell a flunky: "Please inform Miss Streisand she may commence."

There have also, of course, been the moments of recklessness and tragedy. Michael Watson was left brain-damaged after their 1990 fight, a road worker was killed when Eubank lost control of his car on the way to Gatwick airport, and more recently two women were seriously hurt when he held an illegal fireworks party on Brighton beach.

Hard times, which have included the loss of his world championship to Steve Collins in 1995 and the tax problems which have persuaded him to box on, and, no doubt, moments of self-reproach have humbled him. He must know that at the age of 32 he is now taking risks he would have preferred to avoid.

In October he trimmed himself down to his old fighting weight of 12st and lost a thrilling battle for the World Boxing Organisation belt, floored twice but never subdued by the rising Welsh star, Joe Calzaghe.

Now he flaunts boxing tradition by moving up two divisions to cruiserweight (13st 8lb) and challenging Carl Thompson, a sincere man who lives quietly in Bolton with his wife and son. As his wife works shifts, Thompson is prone to turning down celebrity work on the grounds that he has to babysit.

Eubank has largely ignored Thompson, who will probably beat him, and concentrated instead on taking the play away from Hamed. Their rivalry has developed as their fortunes have altered, and has become ridiculous.

Hamed used to claim that he invented the vault over the ropes which Eubank used as the climax to his ringwalk. This would irritate Eubank, who denied it.

Now the roles are reversed. Hamed is the star, with millions in the bank and a world championship belt as tangible proof of his ephemeral talent. Eubank is on the outside.

They appeared on the same show in Sheffield last October, which the promoter Frank Warren called "The Full Monty", and which was billed as Hamed's farewell British performance before his American adventure.

Eubank stole the show at the weigh-in, which appeared to annoy the Sheffield featherweight, who was after all in front of his own people.

The next night, after Hamed had staged his own masterclass in demolishing a competent Puerto Rican named Jose Badillo, he returned to ringside and baited Eubank during his fight with Calzaghe. At one point, Eubank was so annoyed that he actually stepped back from his opponent to call out: "Shut up, Naseem."

After the fight they had a childish altercation in the VIP section at Heathrow, and since then they have stepped things up. Or, more precisely, down. Hamed has laughed at the size of Eubank's nostrils. Eubank has said he would not stoop so low as to accuse Hamed of having big ears.

So, what is this - Big Nose and Big Ears, or world championship boxing?

Hamed would be best advised to ignore Eubank and concentrate on the serious job of defeating Wilfredo Vazquez, the 37-year-old Puerto Rican, who has held titles at three separate weights.

The self-styled Prince, who has rare talent, cannot hope to match Eubank's wit or ability to analyse life. It would be smart of him to shake hands and wish him well.

Whatever the reason, Hamed did not appear to settle in New York in December. In the fight, he was floored three times by his opponent, Kevin Kelley, but showed his mental toughness by knocking out the American in round four.

There is talk of a rematch in July, assuming he deals with Vazquez, who is now so slow that, providing Hamed boxes sensibly, the job should be one-sided and may even be quick.

Meanwhile, Eubank knows this may be his last opportunity and, at least until the bell goes, he will be determined to go on stealing what scenes he can. And who can really blame him?

Once a star, always a star.