Colombian has ability to ask questions of Hamed

Ken Jones assesses tonight's test for the Sheffield showman
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The Independent Online
The problem in making matches for Naseem Hamed is the one that a revered observer of boxing, A J Liebling, addressed profoundly in his Sweet Science.

"In any art the prodigy presents a problem," wrote Liebling. "Given too easy a problem, he goes slack, but asked too hard a question early, he becomes discouraged. Finding a middle course is particularly difficult in the prize ring.

"The fighter must be confirmed in his belief that he can lick anybody in the world and at the same time be restrained from testing this belief on a subject too advanced for his attainments. The trick lies in keeping the fellow entertained while enriching his curriculum."

As any number of fighters have discovered to their pain, the trick is not always performed perfectly. At an important stage of Sugar Ray Leonard's develoment, after 21 straight professional victories, the famous trainer, Angelo Dundee, matched him with a puncher, Marcos Geraldo, who entered the ring with an 8lb advantage. Geraldo had Leonard in serious trouble before losing a 10-round decision and Dundee almost lost his job. One of Mickey Duff's few errors of judgement was to match Frank Bruno with James "Bonecrusher" Smith.

At the time, Smith had no reputation to speak of, but in contrast to the succession of learning devices brought in to beef up Bruno's unbeaten record, he was ambitious. Capitulation never entered Smith's head. Finding himself well behind on points, he knocked out Bruno.

Matchmaking is not a precise art but Hamed's opponent over 10 rounds at the Royal Albert Hall in London tonight, Juan Polo Perez, appears, at 31, to meet the criteria Liebling identified. A former International Boxing Federation super-flyweight champion, the Colombian is competent, experienced, and after 49 professional contests a bit ring-soiled.

Considering that two of Perez's 12 defeats have come since he challenged Wilfredo Vasquez unsuccessfully for the World Boxing Association super- bantamweight title last October, it can be presumed that he is moving in the opposite direction to the 21-year old from Sheffield, who is being advanced toward a championship contest later this year.

If there is irritation with Hamed's flamboyant style and the ludicrous entrances that appeal to boxing's television paymasters - one Chris Eubank is more than enough - there can be no doubt that he is an extremely gifted fighter with quite remarkable reflexes.

Understandably, however, there remains a degree of scepticism. So far Hamed has been able to outclass moderate to good opposition with fast, pure punches thrown from unexpected angles and often when he appears to be off balance. Old-timers who wince at this refusal to observe tenets they hold sacroscant should remember the words of Dundee when he first went to work with a young Cassius Clay. "A bad habit is only a bad habit if it doesn't work," Dundee said.

Obviously, a hard blow to the head is the biggest question asked of a fighter. "If my guy ever gets knocked down he'll bounce right up," Dundee said. Ali did. Leonard came through a bad experience against Geraldo. Hamed has yet to come under heavy fire. Neither has he met anyone with enough ability and will to crowd him.

If Perez goes to the ring with the air of detachment he displayed at a press conference this week and is as cagey as his record and unblemished features suggest, Hamed may well get the sort of test that his manager, Brendan Ingle, and the promoter, Frank Warren, have in mind. Ten rounds against a veteran pro would benefit Hamed more than the quick knock-outs he has grown used to.

Encouragingly, Perez gave no indication that he has grown weary of the hard trade he took up as a teenager in the Colombian coastal town of Bolivar. "I've heard that Naseem is a good fighter and a great showman," he said. "But I'll be doing the boxing. I'll either win by a knock-out or get knocked out."

Hamed is at what sensible trainers call the "improving phase". Unfortunately, television does not allow for steady development. The greatest pound- for-pound fighter in history, Sugar Ray Robinson, had 73 professional contests before he fought for and won the undisputed welterweight championship. Bearing that in mind, it seems slightly premature when Hamed is referred to as a genius.

The No 1 challenger for the World Boxing Organisation version of the super-bantamweight title held by talented Marco Antonio Barrera, of Mexico, he may need more time.

Trouble is that if Hamed makes it an early night, Sky television will want Warren to come up with a title contest. If so, Warren should cast around the other alphabet organisations.

According to computerised ratings, Justin Fortune, the Australian who is fighting Lennox Lewis in Dublin tomorrow, does not figure in the top 150 heavyweights. A mismatch by any standards.

Lewis has taken the contest, by all accounts for just training expenses, to get networked television exposure in the United States. "Fortune resembles Mike Tyson," Lewis said. Only in height and volume.