Prince Naseem Hamed, 36-1, 31 KO’s. I have to be honest – I couldn’t stand him. I would rather put my hands in a blender and switch on than sit and watch him box. Was he the greatest boxer that England has ever produced? Now well respected English boxing commentator, Steve Bunce thinks so.
Asked who was the greatest boxer England had ever produced it was Hamed that came to his mind. Even recently after the weekend of boxing in Liverpool with the cream of the new British crop of boxers Nathan Cleverly 21-0 10 KO’s, name checked him seconds out of the ring having won the interim WBO Light Heavyweight title, having endured a frustrating time against a late replacement. He said, “That was frustrating. This guy was a mover, so awkward, hardly seen videos of the guy and before I know it he’s moving round like Naz”
Who am I, therefore, to think that this guy who every time he entered the ring I prayed he would trip over the top rope, was unworthy of any attention? Nobody – that’s who.
Naz turned pro in 1992, aged 18, at flyweight and started to make a name for himself almost instantly climbing from obscurity to a European title at Bantamweight within two years. His trademark was knocking people out early. He was an explosive fighter, a hyperactive presence and a force with whom to be reckoned. His style brought many to the ringside whilst many who had spent time there and studied the noble art found plenty at which to tut.
He had style and a style. The style was based on strutting and being the biggest peacock in the ring. He wanted to be noticed and his style of goading his opponents, smiling, holding his hands down and dancing round the ring was exciting. He found new followers amongst people who had never thought themselves boxing fans. They flocked to the show and admired the man who appeared unbeatable and un-put—down-able. He rewarded them with win after win after win.
He rewarded their faith with a show that mocked the opposition before knocking them out of his way. His way was always the only way but it lead him down roads that ultimately is a lonely existence. The “Clown Prince” wanted to be the King we all admired and with a legacy that would live long in the memory.
His move up to Featherweight laid the foundations of that build. In his finest year – 1995 – he raided the Welsh capital – Cardiff – to take the WBO off their champion Steve Robinson. On the night the Heavens opened at the Old Cardiff Arms Park and down from the heavens came the new Featherweight Champion – Prince Naseem Hamed.
He was only 21 years old. How could a young man develop from this pinnacle of a career hardly started? Is it possible that this rise from nowhere was possible because around him there was nobody worth fighting? Let’s look at some of his defenses – Manuel Medina destroyed; Tom “Boom Boom” Johnson dropped and saved by the referee; Kevin Kelley – out in 4 at Madison Square Gardens. None of them were journeymen when Naz fought them.
He came into the ring against Johnson on a throne; he travelled to fight Kelley on Concorde and was forced to abandon the hands down style against Kelley that had cemented this arrogant persona. He was Box Office and it was his fight against Kelley that brought him his next challenge; the one for many European boxers that is the Holy Grail – conquer America.
It was only politics that stopped him being the holder of four belts in one division and perhaps that started to sicken his desire for the sport. When he had to relinquish the WBC version of his Featherweight belt to continue as WBO Champion he vowed to leave those politics behind him. His first and only defeat happened in Las Vegas. Let’s be honest if you are going to lose, are known as a bit of a style guru then holding a unique event can only happen in one venue – The MGM Grand, Las Vegas. On the 7th April 2001 he entered the ring against Marco Antonio Barrera as World Champion and left it without his belts. It was a devastating defeat. Barrera was more versatile, threw better combinations and won a unanimous decision.
They often say that a fighter is tested not on the way up but when he first tastes defeat. Nas was to fight only one more time. He successfully took the IBO Featherweight title which had, ironically been vacated by Barrera. His absence from the ring was shrouded in confusion, not least thanks to Naz himself. Firstly it was claimed that he left for family reasons.
There had already been rumors that the training camps had been punishing for him and he had, at times lost focus and concentration during them. Then he told of chronic hand problems for which he had been taking pain killing injections which had worn him down.
Whatever the reason any fighter who blossomed on our stage at the tender age of 18, fought in 37 fights, lost only once and won by way of knockout on 31 occasions making us sit up, pay attention and delight at his antics or throw tantrums at the performances cannot be ignored. His legacy is not however cemented through his behavior in the ring. Since leaving it he has ended up in court, been convicted of various driving offences, spent time in prison and been stripped of his MBE – an award granted by the Queen for his services to boxing.
Like all retired boxers the lenses through which we remember our fighters are current and not in the past. The name is enough to draw out the media and the stories of the present troubles always dwarf the memories of the glory days. His record is impressive and seeing him box again has always been part of the rumor mill whilst people can picture the arrogant strut and the dances round opponents. For me though, I still think he was a boxer whose career was cut short by his own arrogance.
He was bored after winning so readily and having a legacy has been replaced by having a reputation that could have been so much more. Frank Warren – the UK boxing promoter and I are at one on this – he could have been great and could have been so much more.