Hamed confuses hubris with hunger by making banquet out of morsel

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The Independent Online

Few fighters have ever marked time as violently as Naseem Hamed here in the small hours of yesterday morning. He sent 22-year-old Augie "Las Vegas Kid" Sanchez to a local hospital in a ferocious climax to his 15th successful defence of a world featherweight title, knocking down the contender with a three-punch combination of left hook and crashing right hands to the chin and the temple that ended the fight two min 36sec into the fourth round.

Few fighters have ever marked time as violently as Naseem Hamed here in the small hours of yesterday morning. He sent 22-year-old Augie "Las Vegas Kid" Sanchez to a local hospital in a ferocious climax to his 15th successful defence of a world featherweight title, knocking down the contender with a three-punch combination of left hook and crashing right hands to the chin and the temple that ended the fight two min 36sec into the fourth round.

It was fresh and quite awesome evidence that the World Boxing Organisation champion has unique power among the featherweights, but it remains power without even the beginnings of any classic coherence. Despite week-long talk of the new Hamed, one at last getting down to the business of learning a trade to which he brings such startling gifts, it was the mixture as before.

It was, again, rather like watching a cannon, stripped of its of moorings, smashing its way across a sloping deck.

In the end its progress was devastating and there was widespread relief when Sanchez was released from the William Backus hospital after a neurological examination. But Hamed also received damage, physically around both eyes, and psychologically in the ease with which the young Las Vegan landed punches before being overwhelmed. Hamed conceded that a right hand from Sanchez had indeed knocked him down in the second round despite the ruling of referee Michael Ortega that he had been tripped. Sanchez, who came in with a record of 26-1 with 23 knock-outs, in the same round also landed a heavy left hook which clearly troubled theseriously unbalanced Hamed.

But if Sanchez had moments of hope they were undermined each time Hamed landed a punch, and the main intrigue of the night was inevitably not what he could achieve against the 8-1 on favourite, but what the Mexicans Marco Antonio Barrera and Erik Morales might in similar circumstances. Sanchez's trainer, the deeply experienced Miguel Diaz, had few doubts. "Either one of them would kill Hamed on this showing," declared Diaz. "Hamed is a showman - admittedly with some power - but the other two are real fighters. What do they have? They have more of everything that goes into making a real fighter. It is not just about technique. It is how you think as a fighter."

What Diaz could not take out of the equation, of course, was that power which erupts so astonishingly in such a small man.

When it emerged finally in the world's largest bingo hall located here in this Indian reservation gambling resort, the fear for a while was that it had done more than damage the immediate career prospects of his opponent. Sanchez attempted to haul himself up the ropes, but subsided, his face covered in blood and, having sat up for while, he murmured to a pack of helpers, "I have to lie down." The chief ring doctor, Michael Schwartz, reported "abnormal neurological responses, slurred speech," but later a hospital supervisor said, "Mr Sanchez has been released - it was not considered necessary to keep him in overnight."

That was the outcome Hamed said he was praying for in the first aftermath of the fight, but soon enough he was singing a familiar and, it has to be said, wearisome tune. "What you are seeing is a phenomenon," he announced, "and you guys have to click on. I'm waiting for Barrera and Morales to come out of hiding and step up to the plate like this kid did tonight. When I get knocked down I'm going to get up and knock you down - and I'm going to hurt you. I love it. You saw the world's greatest featherweight do his business in superior fashion." The trouble was we didn't. We saw him do something he has been doing since the first days of his professional career. We saw him knock down an opponent clearly unable to provide anything like an ultimate test of his resolution. Sanchez could point out technical deficiencies in Hamed, but he couldn't exploit them.

One result is the impatience for a "real fight" of Hamed's Home Box Office television paymaster, Seth Abraham, who said that while HBO had every intention of extending Hamed's contract beyond its remaining three fights he would have to take a "walk around the block" to consider the decision if the next three fights were against the likes of Augie Sanchez. Abraham added, "I've told Naseem's brother [and promoter] Riath, 'Your brother can really fight, you don't have to protect him. At the moment you're driving a Rolls Royce at 40 mph.' When one of our élite fighters takes a high risk fight we don't abandon him if he loses. Long ago, we didn't do that when Sugar Ray Leonard lost his first fight to Roberto Duran, nor when Riddick Bowe lost his second fight to Evander Holyfield. Oscar De La Hoya hasn't been cut loose because he lost to Felix Trinidad and then Shane Mosely. Great fighters have to take high risk fights. Naseem is being paid high risk money."

The implication of Abraham that Hamed's assertion that Morales and Barrera are running away, at least for the moment, is less than the full story was strongly disputed by Hamed's promoter, Barry Hearn, and his lawyer, Rob Davis.

Said Davis, "It is just not true that Naz is avoiding either fighter. They could have fought here tonight. They had the offers." Hearn said that both fighters had received offers of around $2m (£1.33m) to fight in the place of Sanchez, who was paid $400,000.

Nothing done in the ring, or said outside of it, disturbed a central truth.

It is that Hamed's time-worn rhetoric is now in desperate need of the irrigation of an authentic challenge. It is unlikely to be provided by his next scheduled opponent, the Hungarian Istvan Kovacs, who will meet Hamed in a mandatory defence of the WBO title in London in November. The first moment of genuine truth, it now seems certain, will come next April, probably in Las Vegas against Barrera.

Any delay of such a meeting will only confirm suspicions that Hamed is rather more partial to high-risk money than high-risk fights. The TV boss, Abraham, made no secret of the dance list he would like to see Hamed sign. It would start with Barrera, move through Morales, and, by way of climactic career definition, the World Boxing Council junior lightweight champion, Floyd Mayweather. "If Naseem takes that programme on, he proves himself a great champion interested in proving his greatness." The HBO matchmaker Kerry Davis, at Abraham's shoulder, helpfully provided his guess at the odds for the three fights. He said that Hamed would start a 2-1 favourite against Barrera and Morales and a 2-1 underdog against Mayweather.

"They would be immense fights," he added.

Immense in the way, suggests Davis, of the legendary featherweight Willie Pep's four collisions with Sandy Sadler, immense in what they would say to those critics who still insist Hamed's talk of joining the greats of boxing is unsupported by his choice of opponents. Certainly the provoking of great performance was beyond the Las Vegas Kid. What he inspired was Hamed's desperate rummaging for knock-out power. When it came it was prodigious, but before it happened Hamed was frequently embarrassed by the youngster's own roughlymarshalled strength.

After a tentative first round, Sanchez took the fight to his opponent with a boldness that could not have been imagined when he came into town apparently drained by sheer apprehension. He entered the ring in a glittering silver jacket to the sound of Elvis's Presley's "Viva Las Vegas", and his buoyancy was mightily supported by the right hand which put Hamed on to the canvas in the second round. Moments before the champion had been rattled by a powerful left hook. Later, Hamed conceded that he had been hurt several times, but he added, "You were looking at a warrior - and warriors love it when they have a fight on their hands." That the fight was essentially uneven was confirmed quickly enough by the sheer weight of Hamed's punching.

His own entrance was according to custom. Accompanied by exploding fireworks, he walked through an artificial wall into the arena after a long and plaintive call to Islamic prayer, and he produced a full backflip into the ring. His TV boss Abraham was less than overwhelmed, saying, "I was eating a hot dog and a diet soda at the time and I did not desist." The point was made lightly, but its meaning ran deep enough. Hamed has run the full gamut of showmanship. He has talked mightily about his deeds, and his eventual place in boxing history. But the men who pay his wages may just be wearying of the talk. They want more evidence of greatness than the crumpled figure of an Augie Sanchez, a brave but utterly outgunned young fighter who, as suspected, had been rushed into this fight, certainly before his time and beyond his capabilities.

Before Sanchez was dispatched, Hamed winked at his trainer, Oscar Saurez. It was no doubt meant to be another sign of absolute mastery, and in a way it was. But mastery of what? Of achieving the inevitable, of making a banquet out of a morsel. Hamed needs Barrera and Morales and Mayweather. Not just to make him a better champion but, perhaps, a better man.