A short, rotund father of three was recognised in one of the great rituals of his trade this weekend, 13 years after he last threw a punch. It is an irony of sorts that Naseem Hamed should have his name pinned to the Hall of Fame honours board in the upstate New York village of Canastota while the ceremony went largely unnoticed in the country of his birth.
Hamed was the archetypal boxing supernova, burning bright then gone at the age of 28. The brash exterior of his ring persona was not matched by the teetotal private figure, who parked the bravado at the gym door on his way out. Had he passed among us in the free-to-air television age, Hamed would have been a household name, up there with Cooper, Stracey, Magri, Bruno, Benn and Eubank.
That he made it to the back pages from behind the paywall of subscription television is a measure of his mesmeric talent. Indeed, I recall the Daily Express holding the presses for an interview he had pledged before his American debut with Kevin Kelley, which turned out to be a fight fit for the ages, if not for the reasons any, least of all Hamed, expected.
The Express was edited in those days by a chap called Richard Addis, who was never seen at the sporting end of the office but loved the Prince. Through the auspices of the sports editor, pressure was applied to get an exclusive. Hamed promised he would call but did not declare his nocturnal habits. It was gone 10 at night when my phone rang and a voice at the other end said in rich Sheffield brogue: “Garside, is that you?” He might just have saved a man his job that day.
Only the indefatigable journeyman Peter Buckley and the European bantamweight champion Vincenzo Belcastro went the distance en route to his first world title, claimed at featherweight. Belcastro was floored in the first and 11th rounds but held on. Buckley went early in their second meeting.
A combination of sledgehammer power and lightning reflexes made Hamed a compelling sight in full flow. I can still hear the sound of Billy Hardy’s nose disintegrating under the weight of a concussive right hand in the first round of Hamed’s defence of his WBO and IBF featherweight titles in Manchester. Hardy, from Sunderland, was old school tough, but was back on his stool before he had landed a blow.
Hamed was the product of the Wincobank school of Brendan Ingle, who loved his fighters to pounce from distance and sway out of range. You had to have the reflexes of an alley cat to make it work. Hundreds tried but only a handful perfected a technique likened to limbo dancing by the critics.
The estrangement of Hamed from Ingle as his career developed was one of the sadder schisms in British boxing. Hamed, his head turned by fame and fortune, briefly lost sight of his boxing roots. The big money knocked out of the park the percentages model of payment relied upon down the ages. Ten per cent of £100,000 to the trainer is manageable in the mind of a fighter, but when the numbers reach seven figures a renegotiation is sought.
Hamed regrets his treatment of the old sage, but Ingle can’t forget how he was spoken to by a kid in whom he had invested love as well as effort.
By the time Hamed reached New York for his American debut against Kelley in 1997, he was beginning to understand the power of his brand. The man who guided him to world domination and great wealth, promoter Frank Warren, would in time also feel the cold blade of Hamed the empire-builder.
But while it lasted the Hamed/Warren/Ingle triumvirate put on arguably the greatest show British boxing has seen across a two-year period, from his world title ascent in Cardiff against Welshman Steve Robinson to the barnburner in Madison Square Garden that marked his unveiling in America.
Kelley had Hamed over for the first time in his career in the first round. Both were down in the second and again in the fourth, Kelley twice, the second time terminally. It was a featherweight remake of Hagler/Hearns, an unremitting orgy of Twenty20 boxing.
Hamed made an impression all right but Kelley exposed his flaws. The mantra of unbeatability that underpinned the Prince’s aura in Britain was never bought in America. A legendary Mexican was licking his lips in anticipation of the day they would inevitably meet, and when they did, in Hamed’s only fight in Las Vegas, it was Marco Antonio Barrera who emerged victorious, his technical mastery condemning the unorthodox Briton to his only defeat.
Hamed fought once more, against Manuel Calvo in London, but the party was over. The fans, many of them booing, left the ExCeL Arena early. Yesterday boxing remembered the good times.Reuse content