Boxing: Beaten but unbowed, the little lord of the ring searches for crowning glory

The Naseem Hamed interview: Hype melds with humility as the preening self-publicist raises curtain on the inner man. Alan Hubbard talks to both
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The Independent Online

There was hardly a wet eye in the house when Naseem Hamed lost his world featherweight title and his hitherto unsullied nine-year, 35-fight record to the Mexican Manuel Antonio Barrera in Las Vegas just over a year ago. Certainly not in the jubilant media room at the Mandalay Bay Hotel, which surely resembled the Old Trafford press box on Wednesday night when Sir Alex Ferguson's ship went down. Like the Manchester United manager, Hamed is not someone who attracts sympathy in the hour of a comeuppance.

Yet, uncharacteristically, Hamed's acceptance of the comprehensive defeat which saw him end the fight with an almost sickly smile of resignation brought from him a grace we have never seen before. But, as he approaches his delayed comeback bout against the European champion, Manuel Calvo, next Saturday, there is a touch of the Fergie about him again, as he insists that, whatever the scorecard might have shown, he is still the best featherweight in the world, and certainly better than Barrera. The number of fans who buy tickets at the London Arena or fork out their £14.95 for Sky Box Office will determine whether the little man from Sheffield who so abjectly lost the plot in Las Vegas, has also lost his audience.

The Goliaths of the glove game have been holding court recently: first Mike Tyson in Hawaii and last week Lennox Lewis in Pennsylvania's Poconos Mountains. Hamed, as you would expect, still puts himself up there with the giants, and his turn to talk up a storm came as he lounged back, arms stretched along the bottom rope of the ring, at his new gymnasium in aless than salubrious setting in the Attercliffe suburb of Sheffield.

It was an afternoon packed with paradox. Hamed insists that we do not really know the real him, that he actually yearns to be loved by the fans (he could not give a toss about the media) and that he does not want to be remembered as a preening prat, a persona which that excruciating television documentary chronicling the build-up to the Barrera fight did little to disarm. But while doing his best to convince us that Nasty Naz has now been transformed into Prince Charming, he never strays far from unsolicited bombast.

Thirteen months on from his first taste of defeat, any humble pie is still heavily flavoured with hype. At 28, he is still full of himself, and so is his gym. His silver Ferrari (1 NAS) is perched on the forecourt outside, and inside, along the pristine white walls, all the adornments seem to constitute a monument to the ego he claims he does not really have. Half-a-dozen of the exotic shorts he has worn, from leopardskin to tasselled loincloth, are arranged in frames, and of the score of fight posters and photos, only one does not feature Hamed himself: like his yellow sweatshirt it portrays his idol, Muhammad Ali.

"I've been boxing now for 21 years, since I first started as a kid," he says. "I thought it was about time to have a nice little place of my own to train in. I wanted somewhere that was suited and booted just for me. And that's just what it is. It's just down the road from where I live. It enables me to come down and train all year round between fights. People see my car outside and come up to me and say, 'You must be doing a lot of training', and I tell them that's why the gym's there."

Some gym. It used to be an old carpet store, and is surely the poshest place ever built for practising pugilism. Hamed will not say how much the conversion cost but estimates start at around half a million, or about one sixtieth of the fortune he is believed to have earned. "I really don't want to talk about money," he says. "Just about boxing. I hate it when people talk about what they they've got and what they've accumulated. There's people out there that can't even dream of stuff like that. I don't want to put that kind of vibe across. I never have and I never will.

"I might have things that they know about but I don't want them to think, 'Yeah, he's bragging, he's this and he's that'. I'm not like that, I've worked very, very hard for what I've got and to go around shouting about it is not me. It's private."

The back injury which caused the seven-week postponement of his scheduled return was, he says, a recurrence of an old problem, requiring a lot of manipulation and rest, but the whispers are that he was grateful for the extra time to get fighting fit again after his longest-ever absence from the ring.

The infrared heaters over the ring give the gym the traditional sauna-like atmosphere. He says he has been getting some good sparring, although there is no sign of a spar-mate in this afternoon's session. He looks in shape, but there are stories that he has grown overweight and is having to boil down to the nine-stone limit.

The gymnasium is exclusively his. "My little indulgence. I would love to open it up to youngsters, but I am a one-man band in here. I see it as a place that's really, really comfortable for one man, me – plus my trainer and the family. I've had a say about everything that's in here. Every little thing is where I want it, where I've put it." He is coy about giving anyone a conducted tour, though the showering and dressing- room facilities look sumptuous. He has his personal bathroom, and somewhere he can disappear privately to pray. He is a devout Muslim.

Interestingly, he did not mention Allah once. There have also been whispers that his American television backers, HBO, were uncomfortable with his promotion of Islam and wanted to put a respectable distance between his deferred comeback and 11 September. Unlike other Muslim boxers Hamed, whose parents are from the Yemen, has always flaunted his beliefs, boldly declaring his faith on his shorts, with his overstated ring entrances, Arabic incantations and a mullah's call to prayer before the Barrera fight, which was edited out by HBO.

His invoking of the will of Allah so annoyed ringsiders in Las Vegas that one scribe murmured irreverently as vanquished Hamed walked in for the post-fight press conference: "Must have been Allah's night off." If Hamed heard, he did not bat an eyelid. He has never broadcast the fact that he part-sponsored a promotion in New York for the Twin Towers victims, but the word is that any religious proselytising will be "toned down" in future.

Neither, in a 45-minute discourse, did Hamed mention his upcoming opponent Calvo, a 34-year-old Spaniard with a sound enough record (33 wins in 38 fights) who has never been knocked off his feet, but who does not possess the punch to disturb the former world champion. They contest one of those silly so-called world titles (International Boxing Organisation) that no one except television cares about, and Calvo is as much a designer opponent as any of Audley Harrison's hand-picked patsies. While no stooge, he should enable Hamed quickly to recapture the feelgood factor.

In the months after his defeat, he insists he did not mope around but had a relaxing time with his wife and two children. "Basically I just chilled out. Then I got this place and I went back into training non-stop until the injury. Now I'm really confident about fighting again." He says the pressure on him is no greater because he is coming off a loss. "If anything, it's less. All eyes were on me to get beat and once that happened the pressure's off. There were people out there who couldn't wait to see me get beat, and it's always been like that, even in my amateur fights. I don't even blame them. Wanting to see me lose puts money in my bank. If they didn't really care or didn't want to know, that's when I'd have to worry.

"But deep in my heart I know I can beat Barrera. In fact there isn't a featherweight out there I couldn't beat, basically I'm gunning for them all, although Barrera is my main goal. I want revenge, one hundred per cent. Revenge.

"I think I've got a few years left yet in boxing, and although I'm content with what I've achieved, I still want to go down as one of the greats. I believe I'm just as much or even more hungry now than I've ever been. You see me here now relaxed and smiling in my own gym with my Ferrari outside, but you can't see what I feel inside or know what I want. I want more from me. I need to pitch myself at an even higher level."

The magic-carpet ride may be over, but in a perverse way Hamed seems to think that now he has been beaten, he will actually become more popular. "Look, I'm not comparing myself to Ali. You remember how when he first started out, everyone couldn't wait for him to get beat. Then when it did happen, it all changed. Now everyone loves him."

He obviously yearns for similar affection. "When you're on TV doing your job, people get an impression of you that may not be accurate. They don't know me, don't know what surrounds me, don't know what I do, don't know how I live. There's a side to me outside the sport, but part of my job is to get everyone to watch me and that's the whole reason I come across the way I do. There isn't a better promoter in the business than me."

So it's all an act, then? "Well, I wouldn't say that exactly. But what do you want me to do? Get up on a stage and say, 'I've trained really hard, fellas, I don't know if I'm really going to win or not, but I'm going to do my best'. I don't know anybody who wants to hear that. You've got to get people to say, 'I'm going to watch that fight because I want to see him win or I want to see him lose'. So no, it's not an act, but after the fight I'm a different guy and I don't walk around in everyday life saying, 'I'm going to do this and I'm going to do that'."

Have we ever seen the real Naz? He ponders. "To be honest? I don't really know, and it doesn't really matter. But I don't want people to think about me, 'He's an absolute you-know-what', because I'm not. The first thing I ever heard about me was, 'This guy is arrogant, this guy is cocky, this guy is bombastic, this guy is this, this guy is that'. Cocky, that's the word I really don't like. I don't think I'm cocky. It's confidence, not cockiness. But you can say what you want, because as long as you're watching me, I'm fine. I can tell you I'm not arrogant or cocky, but what's the use? You've got your opinion, and that's it.

"I just hope people have a different perception of me now and surely realise I'm doing it this way for a reason. And I've told you the reason. My bank manager wouldn't be as happy as he is now if it wasn't for that. I'm laughing all the way to the Leeds, me."

Biography: Naseem Salom Ali Hamed

Born: 12 February 1974 in Sheffield.

Family: Married with two children.

Height: 1.60m. Weight: 9st.

Professional record: 35 wins, 1 defeat.

Turned Pro: 1992, beat Ricky Beard KO 2.

Trainers: Emanuel Steward, Oscar Suarez.

Major titles: Former WBO, WBC and IBF featherweight champion.

Career in brief: Won WBO featherweight title in his 20th fight. Made four defences before winning IBF crown. Seven more defences before capturing WBC version. Two more unified defences before losing on points to Marco Antonio Barrera, a first career setback, in April 2001.

Style: Southpaw, with concussive power in his hands. Fine reflexes, good chin. Confident and a strong counter-puncher.