Save for a tweet of congratulation from Amir Khan and generous acknowledgment from erstwhile promoter Frank Warren, Naseem Hamed’s election to boxing’s International Hall of Fame has barely caused a stir, controversial though it is.
The 40-year-old former world featherweight champion is a millionaire recluse, rarely seen at ringside having fallen out with most of those who nourished his career, most notably Warren and Brendan Ingle, the doyen of trainers who helped make him such a fabulous fighter.
“It’s so sad,” says Ingle. “Despite our differences I could not be happier to see him up there with the giants of boxing. I’m delighted but also disappointed because he could have been even greater and certainly more popular if only he’d listened to those who knew what they were doing.”
Ingle, 72, is celebrating his own milestone this week – 50 years since he opened the St Thomas Gym in Sheffield’s Wincobank which has been Britain’s most prolific conveyor belt of champions.
Scores of Ingle’s esteemed old pupils, including Johnny Nelson, Herol ‘Bomber’ Graham, and Junior Witter, gathered recently to honour the little guru at a gala dinner. But no Hamed. “The Naz fellah” as Ingle calls him was his flagship fighter but, alas, became engulfed by his own arrogance.
“Such a shame about Naz,” muses Ingle, who split with him in 1997 after nurturing him for five years from novice to world featherweight champion. They haven’t spoken since. “People never saw the best of him. I honestly believe he could have been a world champion at every weight from flyweight to middleweight.
“The way he treated people in boxing, like Frank Warren, who promoted his world title fights, it was scandalous. He couldn’t handle the wealth that came to him.”
There has always much more than boxing blarney about the veteran trainer who still opens the gym at 6.45 am every day, the old church hall reverberating until eight in the evening to the up-tempo beat of thudding fists and the exhortations of the little Irish guru to “dance and move, dance and move”.
Nearly all his fighters have been indoctrinated with the same Ingle philosophy: “I’ve always said the art of boxing is to hit and not get hit, like Muhammad Ali, fabulous. Boxing has brought me a wonderful life. It’s been a great craic –like winning the pools every day.”
Among the ex-champions paying tribute to Ingle MBE was Brian Anderson. “A right tearaway,” Ingle recalls. “When he walked into the gym 25 years ago someone said to me ‘that lad’s going to end up in jail’. He did too – as governor at Doncaster!”
Ingle had sorted him as he did with scores of other wayward kids, getting him a job in the probation service from where, after winning the British middleweight title, he became Britain’s first black prison governor. Ironically, Hamed, jailed for 15 months in 2006 for a serious motoring offence, was among his first ‘house guests’.
Some 1,000 amateurs and 200 pros have passed through the hands of Ingle and sons Dominic and John at an emporium which, despite its Christian heritage, has a wide ethnic mix and includes many Muslims.
“They come because they aspire to be another Naz or Amir Khan. We have open discussions on religion, no holds barred. I’ve trained Muslim kids for years, but there’s more to it than just boxing. I tell them how important it is to get a good education and to be a decent person.
“Yes, we’ve talked about terrorism, and I tell them about the IRA and how we lived through that. Sometimes they mention suicide bombers, though none of them say they condone them, and their belief about going to paradise. I say to them: ‘Do you know where paradise is? It’s here in Sheffield’.”
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