Prince born to be king

close-up: Naseem Hamed The boy who was groomed to rule the world is ready. Owen Slot talks to the fighters who have fallen under his powers
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LONG before Naseem Hamed became famous, even before he was old enough to throw a punch in an amateur contest, he was well-known on the boxing circuit. A well-known joke, that is. From the age of eight, at promotions all over Britain he would appear, a fragile Asian huge in confidence and miniature in build, mixing with the boxers, learning their tricks and telling them, if they cared to listen, that he would one day be world champion.

The man he picked to drive him to the fights was Brendan Ingle, the trainer who was, at that time, setting Herol Graham on his way to success. Hamed walked into Ingle's gym in Sheffield when he was seven and a year later he was Ingle's permanent companion. Wherever Ingle's boxers fought, Hamed would insist on going too. Ingle would do the driving with two boxers in the back and Hamed in the front, chatting incessantly.

"He went everywhere with us," Ingle said. "Always very entertaining, very inquisitive. And everywhere he went, he'd make friends. He would tell people: `You watch me for the future.' They would look back at him and, with him being so light and small, they used to laugh and be amused by his confidence. Now, as he goes up and down the country, he sees these people and says: `I told you'."

Now 21, and 19 wins into his 19-fight career, Hamed has fulfilled all his predictions bar winning the world title. That will come on Saturday in Cardiff, believes Ingle, who has overseen the destruction of all Hamed's opponents.

The 20th man to face him in the professional ring will be Steve Robinson, the World Boxing Organisation featherweight champion. In a gym in Cwmcarn outside Newport, however, plans are being laid to prevent Robinson becoming another triumphant statistic for Hamed. Five sparring partners ranging from flyweight up to middleweight take him on in every training session, first a light then a heavier opponent, alternating until they have all been one round, and then the same again. Only that way can Robinson find a match for the combination of speed and strength that Hamed provides. "It's a bit unorthodox. But so is Naz," said Dai Gardiner, Robinson's manager. So rare, in fact, is Hamed that he can box southpaw and orthodox and interchange the two. Which explains why Robinson's sparring partners are a variety of southpaw and orthodox fighters.

Not one of his past opponents has come close to passing the unique boxing examination that Hamed sets. Gardiner is fully aware of that and has consulted a number of them to try to give his fighter an advantage. "I've gone right back to his early days," he said. The tales they tell are not likely to cheer those who face Hamed in the future.

Opponent No1 was Ricky Beard on 14 April 1992 in Mansfield. "I'm supposed to be the hardest-hitting flyweight in the country, I'd been fighting 15 years and he made me feel junior and inexperienced," Beard recalled. "He came straight at me and gave me a flash knock-down in the first. It was a combination, three punches to the chin; the speed and power did me. Never before had I been nailed in the first. The next round I thought I'd play him at his game and let him come forward. I stepped one way, about to throw a punch, but simultaneously he stepped the other and threw one right up my thorax. I doubled over, really surprised, it was so hard, I really think it would have pulled Bruno down. No one could have thrown a more perfect punch. End of contest."

Six months and four fights later, Hamed fought the veteran Des Gargano. "I knew Naz quite well," Gargano recalled, "from when he used to watch the fights with Ingle. Anyway, he gave me a torrid first round, his head right in mine but impossible to catch. He faked a lot: looked to his corner and at the same time threw a punch, and when he wound up for a big one, I covered up and he got me with a lot of little ones. He'd winded me several times, but it was in the fourth that he put me down with a body shot. That last one doubled me up, I got up but still couldn't breathe after the ref stopped it. I've fought 108 fights, a lot against champions and I take great pleasure in going the distance. Until then I thought I was indestructible."

Opponent No6 and also No10 was Peter Buckley, who saw out the full six rounds in his first fight with Hamed and was invited back for a return. "Because I'd been the only one to go the distance with him," Buckley recalled, "he came out to take my head off. He's so fast you don't see the punches and he throws them from the most awkward angles, you don't know where they're coming from. And those tricks: he stares at your feet and when you look down he'll throw a punch. I wasn't fooled by that and I tried a trick of my own by treading on his toes. He said: `I know that one' and then trod on mine and threw a shot at the same time. The trouble is there is no one like him, so you can't find anyone to spar against. And I tell you, he's come on a lot since I fought him."

For Ingle, Hamed's best fight was in May last year when he won the European bantamweight title. Pockets of Sheffield had criticised him for pitting his brilliant 20-year-old prospect too early against the calibre of the likes of Vincenzo Belcastro, a veteran of 14 championship fights. Yet Hamed, as Ingle likes to recall, "stood Belcastro on his head", so much so, in fact, that in the last round, Hamed danced around him, dropping his hands to offer Belcastro free shots, taunting and tearing strips of dignity from the crumpled champion.

And the result is that Hamed has won both admiration and controversy, the precociousness of the eight-year-old looking ugly in a man now equipped to bring childish promises to fruition. Yet Ingle is unconcerned. This, he stresses, is a prospective champion who has still never drunk, never smoked and still lives with his family above his father's shop in Sheffield. "When he's in to fight, it's Naz the showman. When he's not fighting, he's jut Naz: an easy-going, likeable kid. And I don't mind the showboating because I've seen fighters with no self- belief get licked. You've got to be mentally hard. Take the heavyweight Floyd Patterson, he always had a bit of a complex about himself and his difficult up-bringing. Even though he had become the world champion, he never had that supreme confidence and it was a plague all the way through his career. This kid's got something different to anything I've ever seen."

Ingle believes that we will continue to see it for years to come -10 to 15 more - and the ambition is to win titles at four or five different weights. So high is Hamed's confidence that he has taken to predicting during which round his opponent will fall. Normally he is spot on, occasionally he is one out. Even Ingle is blase. If the beating of Belcastro was, to him, when Hamed has looked his best, when has he looked his worst? "Never," Ingle said, "He's never even looked in trouble. They can't even hit him."

Prince Naseem's pearls of wisdom

Naseem on his chin: "If you get hit, you get hit. I've taken some good shots so it's all right. I've got a good chin."

On finance (1): "I'm not in it just for the money. I'm in it for the buzz, the glory. I want to be great."

On finance (2): "I want to be a legend. A rich legend."

On his gifts: "That power I've got is awesome. It is a gift from God. I do not think many of you yet realise how great I am."

On world titles: "I might win five. I want to set records. I will become world champion this year. I won't go berserk. I have the speech ready."

On his opponents: "I hate them so much I destroy them mentally. When I look in their eyes I can see the despair. I can see the tears. They know they can't win."

On Eubank: "I taught Eubank all his moves . . . he made a fortune from my style. Anyway, I will be better than Eubank. In fact, I'm already better than Eubank."

On royalty: "I am the prince who will soon be king."