Steward stretches Hamed's talent

James Lawton
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Augie Sanchez, a still fresh-faced 22-year-old from Las Vegas who goes in with Naseem Hamed here tomorrow night, is having difficulty sleeping. He puts it down to pure excitement, a flood tide of adrenalin whenever he visualises his moment of victory.

Augie Sanchez, a still fresh-faced 22-year-old from Las Vegas who goes in with Naseem Hamed here tomorrow night, is having difficulty sleeping. He puts it down to pure excitement, a flood tide of adrenalin whenever he visualises his moment of victory.

Naturally, the bookmakers in their cynical fashion have yet to be convinced by Sanchez's vision, and still less by his insomnia, and even the most generous of them can do no better than offer his opponent at 8-1 on.

So far no one but Hamed has been callous enough to say that engaging the sandman will almost certainly be the least of Sanchez's problems come the first bell - and just a little evidence that the man making his 15th defence of one version or another of the world featherweight title has indeed checked a decline which was, both tactically and stylistically, beginning to resemble a leap over the cliff edge. But nor is there any other sense than that this is not so much a fight as a progress report.

The last time Hamed fought in America, a desperately achieved, ugly points win over the reigning World Boxing Council featherweight champion, Cesar Sota, in Detroit last October, he felt obliged to apologise to his American television sponsors, HBO. "I deserved all that criticism, and I couldn't argue when a lot of fans wrote to ask me when I was joining up officially with the World Wrestling Federation," he was saying here this week. "But since then I've got a whole lot better, and my defeat of Bungu [Vuyani], a former world champion who hadn't been beaten in eight years, was a very nice little package - I think it had everything - combinations, balance, breaking someone down to the body, and all that was down to my new, great trainer. When I fought Bungu everyone could see that Naz wasn't just bringing shots from the back of the hall trying to knock someone out, just relying on power. Naz held his hands in a great way and didn't just beat a guy who had gone eight years without losing. He chopped him up."

Hamed ended that statement with a whoop of relish. It was a rare rush of hubris in a week which has, as never before, left him at least on nodding terms with the value of a little self-analysis. Even though in one flight of fancy he talked of making himself the most fabulous title belt, something to transcend the "plastic" offerings of the various sanctioning bodies, a shining trophy studded with diamonds and rubies and properly reflecting his status "as the greatest, most powerful featherweight in the history of boxing," he has been mostly wearing sackcloth.

Typically, he is saying: "The Bungu fight was my transition into something better, a phase where I could show that I was working to improve my talent.

"It is really the first time I have been able to say that - even though I'm a few weeks away from celebrating a reign of five years as a world champion. I have many reasons to thank my trainers Oscar Saurez and Manny Steward."

His praise of the American duo, which is becoming relentless, will no doubt further sour relations with his former Svengali, Brendan Ingle, the man whose sharp-eyed observation of schoolboy fisticuffs in Sheffield first plucked Hamed away from his family's backstreet corner shop. Ingle took Hamed to a world championship, but the fighter is insisting now that it was a journey of increasing futility in terms of drawing more from his talent than its extraordinary, inherent power.

"When I first met Oscar Saurez," Hamed recalled, "I said: 'I'll tell you now I knew exactly what I should be doing - what kind of platform I should have been on with my ability. But I just didn't know how to do it. I wasn't even being trained before.' Every day I was going to the gym and doing my own thing. I was at a standstill because I didn't believe there was anyone to teach me. You can't teach yourself, though you can try."

Ingle might say that effective teaching requires two-way communication, but certainly Steward, the mentor of Tommy "Hitman" Hearns and the man who has played such a vital role in the spectacular resurrection of Lennox Lewis, claims that encountering the talent of Hamed for the first time in a gym was a bit like stumbling over the Dead Sea Scrolls in a dusty attic.

"There's no doubt his boxing was beginning to be exposed with virtually no professional training," says Steward, who also charges that Hamed's chronic problems with hand injuries were caused by incorrect wrapping before sparring and fights. One of the lowest points came in Atlantic City on Halloween Day two years ago, when HBO television wafted dry ice across the arena and had Hamed come down to the ring through rows of plastic gravestones. Unfortunately, it was the star, Hamed, quite as much as his game opponent Wayne McCullough, who seemed to be heading for boxing's Boot Hill. "But then when I heard of the training background of Hamed, heard that he had never even been to a training camp, I just had to scratch my head," said Steward.

"He was a world champion, maybe the heaviest hitting featherweight the world had ever seen, and he hadn't been to training camp. I put him in the gym with one of the world's leading lightweights, and I was just stunned by what I saw. I won't name the fighter out of respect for his reputation, but Naseem just broke him in two as if he was a baby.

"Naseem is moving on. He is beginning to grasp what he can do in the next few years. It is exciting to see a fighter finally realise all his potential. He is more confident about his ability now and in a year or so's time he will be just out on his own, like Lennox Lewis."

Steward's main ambition, apart from further refinement of punching power which he believes is, pound for pound, unique, is to talk Hamed into his "defining" fight; not with either of the fierce Mexicans, Erik Morales or Marco Antonio Barrera, but the super-featherweight world champion, Floyd Mayweather. "Naseem knocks out both the Mexicans early, and I think he also knocks out Mayweather, but it will be more of a challenge and that's what he has needed for some time now. This is the most vital time. He was a just a wild kid not so long ago. Now he's a world champion who's been around the block a few times - he has a duty to himself to really stretch his talent.

"Beating Mayweather would put him on another dimension in everyone eyes."

For the moment at least, Steward's project is facing a few problems. Hamed, focused on the Mexicans, is reluctant to surrender an advantage to Mayweather. He asks: "Why should I move out of the featherweight division when I don't have to? It's a great division." Mayweather's career is becalmed under the management of the rap celebrity and night owl James Prince, who is alleged to wake up when the rest of boxing, having done its deals, is going to bed. "Whatever the difficulties," says Steward, "some fights have to happen - and this is one of them."

What is not in doubt at this gambling resort in an Indian reservation in the hills of Connecticut is that having talked the talk for so long, and so forcefully, Hamed appears to accept that he is obliged to begin walking the walk in more seriously competitive company. "Don't worry," he says, "sooner or later, I'm going to chop up all these so-called great fighters."

In the meantime, while he can, Augie Sanchez is counting the sheep.