Hamed driven by fierce desire to fulfil destiny

World featherweight champion accepts need for defining fights against Barrera and Morales to achieve legendary status
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The Independent Online

First, a brief burst of pure "Prince" Naseem Hamed, a strident announcement that his opponent here on Saturday night, 22-year-old Augie "Las Vegas Kid" Sanchez, will be "taken out, dismantled the moment I choose," and a sweeping dismissal of local charms in this casino development set in the wooded hills of an Indian reservation.

First, a brief burst of pure "Prince" Naseem Hamed, a strident announcement that his opponent here on Saturday night, 22-year-old Augie "Las Vegas Kid" Sanchez, will be "taken out, dismantled the moment I choose," and a sweeping dismissal of local charms in this casino development set in the wooded hills of an Indian reservation.

"I'd rather be in Sheffield - I'm not interested in Connecticut or Indian reservations or anything like that," he says. "I can't wait to fight, and when I've done it I'll fly straight back to my wife and kids."

But if this is workaday Naseem cockiness, those who say that, at 26, he is beginning to hint at previously hidden depths of purpose, and an understanding of what it might take to inject a little more substance into years of showy talk about his instant, self-appointed status as a boxing legend, are not without a little supporting evidence.

Most promisingly, Naseem accepts his need for two defining fights against the vaunted Mexicans, World Boxing Council super-bantamweight champion Erik Morales and the man he controversially outpointed in a superb collision earlier this year, Marco Antonio Barrera.

"I'm already financially secure, I could walk away anytime I wanted," Naseem says, "and being away from the family is the hardest part of my life, but I'm building something, you know, and in years to come my wife and I are going to look at each other and say, 'look, this is how well we did, we have money, the kids have a great education' and hopefully they are going to pass it down to their kids, and I'm talking about generation after generation. If you guys want to call it old money, new money, I don't care. I just want generations of my family following me to be treated well and have a good start in life."

The aspiration may not be original, but Naseem reveals an unsuspected intensity of feeling about the makings of his life when he tells you that long after moving his parents and brothers out of a tough district of Sheffield, the shop where his Yemeni-born parents "tried to make money from selling penny-sweets and newspapers and cigarettes," remains a small but vital part of the family empire. "I would never sell that," he says. "I want to remember where I come from. I lived above that shop. I just wouldn't sell that building. It's me. However many millions I make, that place is mine and my parents are happy to have the history of it.

"I don't have any choice about carrying on as a fighter. I have to carry on, I can't just say, I've already made my mark by bringing sparkle into the game, being a showman. I have to prove myself against the likes of Morales and Barrera, those so-called great fighters. I think they are great fighters, but I want to see evidence of that against me - I want to see what they have against me.

"People keep telling me that they are Mexicans, and the greatest fighters to come out of that country since Chavez and Salvador Sanchez, and they come from very hard places. I can relate to them coming from a hard place, and even better than that... I've been back to the village where my parents were brought up in Yemen. I'm not even talking about roads, no clean water, no electricity. The Mexicans can't tell me how hard they were brought up and impress me. Your upbringing, how tough it was, is a big, big matter, but at the end of the day when they talk about all that stuff they forget that what really matters is getting in and out of the ring on a certain night and having the goods."

As he talks, Naseem is being filmed for a Channel 4 documentary and so inevitably there is an element of gallery-playing. He rebukes a reporter for waving a pen in front of the camera and strokes his neatly shaved goatee beard with a touch of the old narcissism.

Most of his preparation was done on Big Bear mountain in California, at the palatial, custom-built training centre of boxing's former Golden Boy, Oscar De La Hoya, who recently slipped to a second career defeat, at the hands of the fast-rising star Shane Mosley, having earlier lost a close decision to Felix Trinidad, and if Naseem was grateful for the hospitality of his host he could not resist hinting that the fall may have been preceded by a little bit too much of the good life. He laughs and says, "He said I could use his camp any time, but being honest with you that wasn't a training home in which you could easily keep yourself focused on a fight. There was a jacuzzi seating 10 and I knew that house wasn't just for training. That looked like a love palace to me. Oscar came to visit me and said that I had already spent more time there than he had because it had just been built. So there I was in this house with the jacuzzi, the steam room, the Henry the Eighth bed and a carpet as thick as I don't know. I didn't have to go to the movies, I was in one."

But the training, his longest ever stint of nine weeks, was accomplished with a fine edge, he insists. He admits that before linking up with his new trainer, the New Jersey-based Oscar Saurez, he was "standing still". His relationship with his old mentor Brendan Ingle, the break up of which was messy and public, had dwindled, Naseem admits, to the point where he was showing up for training three weeks before a fight. "That couldn't go on, I realise that now. I had to ask myself what I was doing. I had to decide if I just wanted to coast along - or really make a mark, and I told myself, 'You ain't finished yet. You have a lot more work to do'. Working with Oscar, and having Manny Steward, who is fantastic in the corner, coming in for the fights, has given me a whole new lease of life. In the past when you said I wasn't going anywhere in the ring, your eyes didn't lie to you. But look at me now. There's a couple of things you see in me. One thing is that you don't see me broke, you see me 'multi'... and you don't see me punchy. You see a guy who is on top of his trade, the best featherweight in the world, maybe the hardest-hitting featherweight of all time, and all the other guys know it too."

Naseem, perhaps inevitably in such a lengthy self-appraisal, is sailing in more familiar waters now. He is caught by that old wind which blew him, offensively for so many old boxing hands, into the game as an awesomely gifted young fighter who talked shrilly of joining Muhammad Ali in the hallway of legend. But it is, it has to be reported, on this day at least a relatively brief reversion to a particularly brazen arrogance. He speaks respectfully of his "friend" Lennox Lewis's new status as the "baddest" man on the planet", saying, "I've told Lennox that in my opinion fighting your way to undisputed heavyweight champion of the world after being knocked out is one of the greatest achievements in all sport. I didn't get knocked out, but I got my warnings and I realised, like him, that I had to work harder than ever before."

He reflects for a moment and then his face brightens and he says, "So it means that I can go one better than Lennox." A new, more substantial Prince of the Ring? Maybe. A new paragon of modesty? Perhaps not.