THE SPOTLIGHT tracked him intently as boos cascaded down from the hostile crowd, drowning out the insouciant braggart’s entrance theme. Strutting along as if he had not a care in the world, the 20-year-old Naseem Hamed rotated his head, first left then right, taking in his surroundings, appearing to derive equal pleasure from the smiles and the sneers. Unbeaten Laureano Ramirez was the designated victim that November 2004 evening, but the contest was notable more for its ominous setting. Cardiff was the hometown of Naz’s rival and probable future opponent, then-WBO featherweight champion Steve Robinson, and, in destroying the Dominican in three exhilarating rounds, Hamed made an indelible impression upon his rival’s partisan countrymen.
Meanwhile, throughout the nation, countless teenagers stared wide-eyed at their TV screens, fiercely battling tiredness while drunk on a cocktail of freedom and vicarious rebellion. I should know; I was one of them.
The Welsh fans’ antipathy would have little negative effect on the Sheffielder’s unshakeable confidence; Hamed would return to Cardiff five fights and 10 months later to decimate and dethrone the local hero, clowning and scintillating his way to a widely anticipated coronation.
In the years that followed, as the crowds swelled ever larger and the reactions grew more impassioned, I often wondered just what it must feel like to be the focal point of such an event, to be the epicentre of a perfect storm.
“It’s hard to describe a feeling that was like a dream,” Hamed tells me, his tone infused with the ethereal glow of nostalgia. The register is deeper, the delivery slower and more pronounced, but the old spark is unmistakeable. “It was realising that you were the main attraction of that night and everyone was tuning in around the world. Putting some music on and knowing there’s gonna be people jumping out of their skin in enjoyment, and setting the whole mood, giving the crowd that lift, that feel-good factor. I wanted to entertain and I wanted them to feel that ‘He gave us it all and more’. There wasn’t a feeling in my life like coming out to sell-out crowds; it was an incredible feeling knowing that you had the ability, confidence and self-belief to dance all the way to the ring or even come down on a magic carpet, do a front-flip over the ropes – and then take somebody out. I wanted to give something I would have wanted if I was watching boxing.”
We used to mimic Naz on our council estate, my childhood pals and I, in a similar vein to other kids of our generation pretending to be Ian Wright or Robbie Fowler. We would dance and canter and shadow-box in clumsy homage to an impish idol just seven years our senior. The effect of his wilful disregard for the opinion of the fans, and the dazzling audacity he showed both in the ring and out, were intoxicating for a 13-year-old boy with a keen interest in boxing. Naz unknowingly kindled a small fire and cultivated in its place a roaring blaze. Thanks to the precocious prodigy, I fell in love with the sport, hopelessly and for life.
Possessed with youthful exuberance and a naivety that could be, in turn, both endearingly charming and offensively charmless, Hamed remained a teenager at heart, way beyond his 20th birthday. We could relate to him as a kindred spirit, yet he also inspired us. Speaking to him now, this Peter Pan figure who inconceivably turns 40 next month, it is interesting to observe that he too was heavily affected by a slightly older role model.
“Herol Graham was the biggest influence, at the time, of my life,” Hamed recalls, regarding his early years at St Thomas’ Boys and Girls Club, Brendan Ingle’s gym in Wincobank, which he first entered aged seven. “We all wanted to box like Herol ‘Bomber’ Graham, because he had the success. He did really well as an amateur and also as a professional. I honestly believe that we was all clones; everyone was told who walked in the gym, ‘Copy him.’ So that’s what we did.”
While Graham, with his defensive grace and domestic championships, offered a compelling illustration of the skills and spoils an unorthodox approach could bring, Muhammad Ali also played a pivotal role in Hamed’s development, albeit through the medium of video. It wasn’t long, however, before the confident pupil began educating himself.
“Even though I was really frail and skinny, I had speed, and speed was power,” Naseem remembers. “I had my first fight aged 11, and within 10 fights, I was the National Schoolboy champion.
“From the age of 11 onwards I started to be very creative with my own style, very confident. Even though I loved Herol’s elusiveness, and the way Ali danced around, avoided shots and would counter in a certain way, I honestly thought that I had something very, very special and very effective. Timing became the essence in the sport and I realised it from a very early age, timing and balance. I realised that my style was actually better than Herol Graham’s. I could avoid the shots, I could dance, but then I could rip in three, four, five-shot combinations. From the age of 11, 12, I realised, ‘I can do this’ and it felt and seemed really easy to do. I realised from an early age I’d been blessed with a gift from God.”
Hamed was blessed with a unique talent, one carefully nurtured by the Ingle family – Naz credits Brendan’s son John as a major aide in his formative years. Though many pundits cite the up-and-down New York thriller with Kevin Kelley as the fulcrum of the Yorkshire Yemeni’s outstanding pro career – the point where it began to descend downhill – identifying the absolute zenith is a much tougher task. Hamed looked incredible in many of his 19 paid contests before he usurped the unfortunate Robinson, and the night the “Prince” became king was an undeniable highlight. Yet there were a further eight bouts between his WBO title victory and the abbreviated war with Kelly at Madison Square Garden, Hamed dazzling in many of them.
“I was very happy with my ability, confidence and self-belief the night that I boxed in Sheffield, 1997, against Jose Badillo,” says Hamed, alighting on his eighth WBO defence in October of that year, a brief IBF reign having been curtailed by boxing politics. “I can’t put a finger on a name of a fight when the peak was, but this is when I felt really good and my hands weren’t in a really bad state. But I felt good loads of nights. In 1997, we was dying for the biggest fights – your [Marco Antonio] Barreras and [Erik] Moraleses, but they wouldn’t fight then.”
It’s notable that Hamed employs the pronoun “we”, rather than “I”, when reflecting on this period. There would be three more triumphs post-Badillo, before the infamous split from both Brendan Ingle, his mentor and someone who had long guarded him from increasing criticism, and long-time promoter Frank Warren. Naseem would go on to work with cornerman Oscar Suarez and the legendary Emanuel Steward, but it is often theorised that leaving a system into which he had been indoctrinated and had rapidly become synonymous with, was the mistake that determined his eventual downfall. While Hamed rejects any suggestions of this nature, insisting he improved as a fighter after leaving Ingle, he relates a keen sense of loss at their parting and continued estrangement.
“We was very, very close,” Naz imparts, ruefully. “After 18 years, I realised that we really had a special relationship. He used to possibly see me more than any of his children or his wife.
“Things was going a bit pear-shaped but the last thing I thought he would do was write a book, and when the book came out, realising there was a lot of lies in the book.”
A modicum of clarification is required here. Ingle did not himself author the tome in question, but instead contributed – heavily and in a manner often critical of his charge – to Nick Pitt’s enlightening exposé, The Paddy And The Prince. Hamed perceived this as a devastating breach of confidence, an unforgivable betrayal, and this, combined with brother Riath’s growing role in the camp and the fighter’s own desire to reduce Ingle’s percentage of his earnings – purportedly to reflect a reduced part in the team – led to their irreconcilable division.
“The book didn’t reflect me in a good light,” Hamed continues, keen to validate the necessity of a decision, the impact of which still pains him some 14 years later. “I found that amazing because I was the biggest success that ever came out of his gym. I couldn’t get my head round it, after all those years, becoming the first world champion out of his gym, that he would do such a thing. It just destroyed the whole relationship. He was the highest paid trainer on the planet but he wasn’t happy with what he was getting. One of the hardest things I had to do in my career was to leave the environment I grew up in. I loved that environment, it was an amazing time for me.”
Hamed’s condemnation of Ingle is mild compared to quotes attributed to him immediately after the split. His indignation at Brendan’s part in Pitt’s book – and the pair’s other differences – is perhaps tempered by maturity and the contentment he has found in family life following his retirement from the ring. No longer the reckless scamp of years gone by, the married father of three has mellowed and thawed with the passing of time and his thoughts turn far more often to rapprochement than rancour.
“I’ve been in contact with his son John, who was my trainer from the very beginning, and he was more upset than anybody that I left,” Naz reveals, a sadness detectable in his sharp twang. “I’ve said to him numerous times, ‘I really, really want to make up with your father, even if it was to tell him I was in the wrong, and to apologise to him if I offended him in any way.’ With all the time he spent with me, all the days we went out walking in the cold for hours, everything that he ever taught me, I want to thank him personally and face to face. I want to say, ‘Let’s not hold onto anything that’s ever happened… who knows what will happen tomorrow.’ Maybe after he reads this, he might think twice. Us burying the hatchet is the main thing.”
Hamed refuses to concede the acrimonious separation from Ingle contributed to his decline, but the ex-featherweight does point out several factors he insists led to the second half of his 10-year pro career failing to fulfil the limitless promise of the first. A naturally small man with the punching power of one much larger, Hamed unsurprisingly suffered recurrent hand injuries throughout his time at the top. As his physical ailments intensified and weight-making became an onerous chore, Naz’s motivation dipped and his focus began to shift to a future without boxing; a worrying mindset for an active fighter.
“When you get a guy opposite you saying, ‘Look, hands weren’t made for hitting’, but that’s my profession and what I did best, it was really, really hard,” Hamed explains, his voice faltering a touch. “If you go into battle with a broken gun, it’s no good to nobody. I had rocket-launchers but sometimes they were damaged. I was thinking, ‘I don’t want to have, before every single major fight, a doctor in the room and I’d be having a cortisone injection in my hands to numb the pain and I’d get out the fight and the hands would be bigger than my gloves.’ They were a big part of it.
“There was also a bit of a weight issue. It wasn’t a massive struggle but my nutrition wasn’t the best it could be.
“As years and years were going on, I wouldn’t say I was slowly falling out of love with the game, I was just getting to a point where I didn’t know 100 per cent if I wanted to carry on fighting.
“I absolutely loved it and had an amazing run. I like the way Sugar Ray Leonard says, ‘I had my day in the sun’, and I had mine. It got to a stage where I started thinking about what I was gonna do when I stopped. From my early 20s, I always said that, come 28, ‘I’m not gonna be like these fighters, still fighting, punch drunk and slurring their words. I’m gonna be one of the smart ones.’ And I believe I made the right move.”
I reply that Naz’s health, lucidity and complete retention of his faculties and memories, certainly support that belief. “And I’ve still got all me money!” he hits back in a flash, laughing uproariously and offering a brief but tantalising glimpse of the old, impudent “Prince” who still resides within.
Hamed never officially retired, and jokes (I hope) that he is merely on “a long break” from the sport. His glorious run was lengthy but came to a rather disappointing denouement. A year before a regrettable swansong saw him labour to outscore Manuel Calvo in 2002, Hamed, looking woefully off his game, had fallen by clear decision to Barrera. He takes pride from his only pro defeat, however.
“They waited until I’d been out of action with a broken hand [suffered in his previous bout, a brutal knockout of Augie Sanchez], then the fight came on,” he bemoans, with wry resignation. “To get two-and-a-half stone off in eight weeks is a massive mission. I started boxing at seven and stopped at 28 and I lost one fight on points in 21 years and that’s simply because I couldn’t make the weight [while retaining strength]; I was drained, I was weak, I had no liquid in my head or my body and still went 12 rounds with a guy that was considered, possibly, at that time, the pound-for-pound best in the world, or one of the best.”
Even now, many people forget the Calvo match – in their defence, some may have slept through it – and assume he called it quits after losing to Barrera. The victory over the Spaniard was supposed to herald a new beginning for Naz, but with those celebrated reflexes visibly dimmed and his once-fervent desire appreciably diminished, Hamed was greeted by muted boos, instead of hearing the mixed, but always passionate, reception to which he had become accustomed. Those fans knew what he knew, deep down: his time, memorable as it was, had gone.
“After Barrera, I didn’t wanna quit and I didn’t know 100 per cent if I was gonna quit after the Calvo fight,” Naseem notes, without a hint of regret. “I took about a year out after Barrera and the training didn’t go unbelievably well. I had a few injuries and my hands weren’t that good. I postponed the fight with a lower-back – L5 – injury. Even training wasn’t feeling good anymore. I seemed to get injured earlier on, but I wanted to fight. I just thought, ‘Why put yourself through something when you don’t need to anymore?’
“They always say, ‘Leave the party while it’s still good’, so you can remember that party. I was content and financially secure so they are reasons why I didn’t go running back.”
Some will always contend that Hamed underachieved. He dominated his division and lit up the entire sport for several years, but given his immense ability, capacity to learn and destructive power, perhaps he should have, as Brendan Ingle memorably predicted, marched dominantly through the weight-classes, and stayed forever undefeated. But perhaps the greatest testament to Naz’s legacy is that almost 12 years after his last fight, boxing fans and the wider public still talk about the sensational switch-hitter with awe and reverence. If not unbeatable, he has proved unforgettable and irreplaceable.
“In my eyes I put a stamp on a sport that was one of the most amazing sports ever,” he affirms, his voice imbued with pride. “When you become a world champion and you can remain one for over five-six years, and defend your title 15 times, I thank God so much that I had a great career. I’m really content with my career.
“I still don’t believe there’s been anybody that’s been as colourful, that’s been more entertaining, that really delivered the goods too. Everybody knows what I brought to the sport; the drama, the excitement. I cannot believe that for over a decade, nobody has come along and filled that gap. I see too many sportsmen today – and it’s not bragging – that are made, they’re on that conveyor belt. Real stars stand out, I can’t see them anymore, Dan the man; where are they? I wish that somebody comes along to entertain me, like me.”
I barely make out the last sentence. “Prince” Naseem Hamed has just addressed me as “Dan the man”, as if we are mates, co-conspirators, and the 13-year-old me, delirious with joy, pounds his fists against the inside of my chest. Professionalism demands I maintain a level of decorum, at least outwardly, but I will always be, in part, a Naz fan. And, I’m far from alone in that respect. As one of the most watched fighters of the modern era, Hamed inarguably repaid that support with ample entertainment and gratification, but he still demanded the opportunity to thank his followers.
“The one thing I’ve probably not said on interviews is how grateful, how happy I really was with all the support I got from everybody in this country,” he says, radiating warmth. “I want to thank every single person that loved watching me fight, whether they watched it on the TV or they came and bought a ticket.
“When I was a kid, I used to lay in bed at night – a bunk bed, as there were four of us in my room – thinking; the minute I shut my eyes, my whole mind used to open up into a world of its own, and that was just dreaming about becoming a world champion, visualising my whole career in sound, colour and vision. They say, thoughts become things. And I did it.”
Hamed lived that dream to the fullest. And nothing – not even a Hall of Fame omission – can ever take that away from him.