Hamed's sting gives Vegas Kid butterflies

James Lawton in mashantucket, connecticut
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The Independent Online

Something embarrassing happened to Augie "Las Vegas Kid" Sanchez as he walked with his young wife, Dawn, to a first meeting with Naseem Hamed before tonight's World Boxing Organisation featherweight title fight here. They were going through the casino of the resort complex in the Indian reservation where the fight will be staged. A security man stepped forward and demanded identification. He pointed out that you had to be 21 to step into the gambling premises.

Something embarrassing happened to Augie "Las Vegas Kid" Sanchez as he walked with his young wife, Dawn, to a first meeting with Naseem Hamed before tonight's World Boxing Organisation featherweight title fight here. They were going through the casino of the resort complex in the Indian reservation where the fight will be staged. A security man stepped forward and demanded identification. He pointed out that you had to be 21 to step into the gambling premises.

The couple had to return to their hotel room to collect their documents. There were two consequences. One was that Sanchez, who is 22, arrived 15 minutes late for his "head-to-head" with Hamed before the media. The other was that he was so nervous he could scarcely speak. Hamed, never slow to exploit the perceived weakness of an opponent, grabbed Sanchez in mock concern and pressed his face close. "How come you're late, mate?" he asked. "How are you doing Augie, you look nervous. You all right?"

Naturally, none of this dissipated confidence in the bookmakers' decision to install Hamed as an 8-1 on favourite to make his 15th successful defence of one version or another of the world title. As Sanchez sat, dry-mouthed, Hamed indulged himself in some standard bombast, saying: "Augie Sanchez is coming against a fighter who has held his reign for five years. He wants to come against the best. All the other guys turned this fight down. Augie stepped up to the plate. I give him that, I really do, even though he's going to get a beating. I'm going to take this guy out clean. Saturday night will be exciting because you know I always bring drama, excitement and knock-outs. I'm looking to stretch someone."

But then, as Hamed continued to preen and boast, something strange happened. The Las Vegas Kid found his voice - and a little nerve. As he spoke, scarcely audibly, Hamed began to heckle and Sanchez said, "This is my time. Get in your place."

Later, he announced, "The butterflies have gone. I admit I was very nervous when I arrived in the room, but that doesn't worry me. It'salways the same.

"I think about a fight. I worry about it, and then I see my opponent for the first time and everything is all right." Well, almost always. Unlike Hamed, he has a long amateur record (186-11) and one of his few defeats was controversial, a points loss to the current super-featherweight champion, Floyd Mayweather, whom he had beaten at an earlier stage of qualification for the Atlanta Olympics. In disgust, he joined the pros. Sanchez, who was groomed by his late father, Juan, to whom he has dedicated the fight, is 26-1, with 23 knock-outs. His one defeat was to Edgar Garcia, two years ago, by knock-out.

But Sanchez had already knocked Garcia down twice and he explains, "I got a little excited and left myself open. These things can happen when you're very young. If you are learning your trade properly you only make that kind of mistake once.

"I'm not intimidated by the Prince, not now I've met him. I understand his approach to everything. He shouts like he does because he needs to. It's part of his nature. I don't need that. I know who I am and what I can do.

"I've looked at some video and I can see how his new trainers are trying to change his style, give him a bit more balance, but that's fine because I know you can't really teach an old dog new tricks. When I put some pressure on him, when he realises I haven't come just to take a beating, he will revert to type. And when he does that he will be really hittable. He probably expects me to be overawed, and a little cautious, but that's not going to happen. Everybody talks about his power. But I have power too and he will discover that when I give him a taste of it. Hamed is strong but he is a bully, and bullies don't like it when somebody really stands up to them. There is another encouragement for me. Hamed doesn't like to be hit, by no means. He's been knocked down quite a few times."

There is no doubt that Sanchez possesses a degree of power, especially in a quickly thrown left hook, but even though his composure level rose so visibly after the first confrontation with an opponent who some believe to be arguably the heaviest hitting featherweight of all time, it is not hard imagining a return of the butterflies, and perhaps in a flock.

There is no doubt about Hamed's desire to induce their reappearance. He says, "I admire the kid for facing me at this point in his career. It shows he doesn't lack courage, but he's still got to face the reality of facing me in the ring after I've made one of my most wicked entrances. Man, that's going to be so intimidating. I don't overestimate or underestimate him. I will treat him as I would anyone, Marco Antonio Barrera, Erik Morales, Floyd Mayweather, you name anyone. They're all out there to be stretched out by me."

Lou DiBella, the former HBO television vice-president who is now serving as Hamed's American adviser, underlined the potential value to Hamed of a spectacular "stretching" when he reported that he has already shaken hands with the Barrera camp for a November fight which could provide Naseem's United States debut as a pay-per-view performer. DiBella acknowledges that a handshake in boxing is not always, as Sam Goldwyn might have said, worth the paper it is written on, but he adds, "There is no doubt that there would be a very big market for Naseem-Barrera, as there would be Naseem-Morales. Obviously it is important that Naseem looks good tonight."

This is particularly so in view of Hamed's last two outings in America, when he looked tactically bankrupt against the game but light- punching Wayne McCullogh and engaged in an ugly wrestling match of a points decision over the defending World Boxing Council featherweight champion, Cesar Soto, in Detroit last October.

Hamed insists that the barren phase is over and cites his fourth-round defeat earlier this year of the former South African world champion, Vuyani Bungu, a fourth-round stoppage which marked Hamed's cleanest hitting in several years. "That was the turning point for me," says Hamed. "It showed how much I'm learning under my new trainers Oscar Saurez and Manny Steward."

Young Augie is going to be catch a little bit of hell on Saturday night."

Sanchez, however, is promising an impact of his own, including a ring entrance that will modestly challenge Hamed's showmanship. Sanchez is an Elvis Presley fan and has been known to enter the ring in the clothes of The King and to the sound of "Viva Las Vegas". No doubt this will leave The Prince decidedly unimpressed. He suggests he will return the Las Vegas Kid to his status as Kid Butterfly. All the evidence says that he will, probably around the fourth round.

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