Sense of relief as Naseem prevails

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The Independent Online
In a snow-covered basketball hangar in a Scottish new town whose marketing slogan is "Life is for Living", boxing regained its composure on Saturday night.

After the downfall of Gerald McClellan last weekend, Frank Warren, the promoter behind the American's fight with Nigel Benn and Saturday night's encounter between "Prince" Naseem Hamed and Sergio Liendo, staged a nervous affair.

With McClellan still fighting for his life in the Royal London Hospital, Warren doubled the number of paramedics at ringside and ensured that the brain injuries unit at the nearest Edinburgh hospital was on standby. When Naseem knocked out the Argentinian with a devastating left hook which almost lifted him off his feet in the second round, doctors were crouched over his body within seconds.

As the 2,000-strong crowd at the Livingston Forum regaled Scotland's favourite Yorkshireman by singing "Flower of Scotland", Warren shepherded Britain's most promising young boxer to one side to avoid a repeat of Nigel Benn's ill-judged triumphalism after he knocked out McClellan last weekend. Television interviewers stayed out of the ring. After an anxious two minutes, Liendo staggered to his feet and was embraced by Naseem.

After the fight, the Sheffield-born World Boxing Council international super-bantamweight champion, who was so affected by McClellan's injuries that he visited him in hospital, said he was relieved. "I had to put the events of last week out of my mind. I went in to do a job and so did he. I did a good job. It was a good punch - a beautiful shot. I was waiting for my opening. I saw him drop his glove and that was it.

"I could see that when he went down he was breathing OK, so I knew he would get up. I did not want to hurt him, but boxing is boxing and there is always a risk. I was glad when he got up and I gave him a hug."

Naseem, his trainer Brendan Ingle, and Warren criticised the Belgian referee for not stopping the fight after Hamed's first knock-out punch. The champion finished off Liendo with a right-hander. "He should have called a halt after the first shot. I was quite concerned," Warren said. He insisted that Liendo be taken to hospital for observation.

But after a week in which he has fended off calls to ban boxing, Warren said the encounter was "a firm endorsement" of the sport.

"Look around you," he said. "The fight is a sell-out. Despite last weekend, people here in Scotland and from around the country have come to see a great fight. Last weekend's fight was a great fight, too, and what happened afterwards was tragic. No sport is 100 per cent safe but we have done everything we can to make sure that we have the best possible safety procedures. The public here have helped to restore faith in boxing. I am delighted."

Although Liendo forced Naseem on to the defensive in the first round, the champion's powerful second-round display overwhelmed the Argentinian. The 21-year-old's victory extends his unbeaten run to 17 fights and clears the way for a world championship decider with Wilfredo Vasquez, the World Boxing Association super-bantamweight supreme champion, in April or May. Negotiations between Warren and the Puerto Rican's manager are under way.

Warren praised Naseem's performance as "explosive", pointing out that Liendo had never before been stopped. The youngster of Yemeni extraction was "the best young fighter that I have seen in all my years as a promoter. He manages to get great power behind his punches and he is so enthusiastic. He would fight every week if I would let him."

Naseem, who delighted his Scottish fans on Saturday by wearing a kilt over his traditional leopard-skin shorts, added: "After tonight people can no longer say I am just a dancer or that I am fighting nobodies. Liendo came here to fight, he is a good fighter. Now I want to fight the best because I am the best." The showman went on: "I have a gift from God. I have said already I plan to be a legend, and God-willing, I will."