ON this day 20 years ago, featherweights Naseem Hamed and Kevin Kelley produced a slugfest of the ages. Sheffield’s Hamed, then unbeaten and at his sizzling peak, was on a mission to conquer America. This fight was his first bout in the US.
Kelley, a former WBC 126-pound champion, was experienced and he resented Hamed coming to his “house” of Madison Square Garden to fight him on his New York turf. The two southpaws duked it out in a fight that was so good, HBO commentator Larry Merchant called it “a featherweight version of Hagler-Hearns.”
Hamed, then aged 23 and sporting a 28-0 (26) record, had won significant fights prior to his US debut, including his brilliant September 1995 stoppage win over Steve Robinson to win the WBO featherweight crown. But the defence against Kelley, who was 47-1-2 (32), marked a considerable step up in class for the cocksure “Prince.” Kelley, beaten only by incredibly tough Mexican Alejandro Gonzalez (in a war that saw both men hit the canvas before Kelley was pulled out by his corner at the conclusion of the 10th-round of a great action fight) was fast, powerful and mentally and physically strong. “The Flushing Flash” was certain he would take Hamed’s title.
The two had plenty to say to one another in the days leading up to the fight and once the bell finally rang (after a near five-minute ring entrance by the flashy Brit), neither man wasted any time attempting to stamp his authority on the fight. Kelley drew first blood, when he clipped Hamed with a hard right hook to the head. Hamed, who was leaning back with his hands held low, bounced up almost as quickly as he went down, but he had been shocked by Kelley’s power. Kelley went for the finish but Hamed traded.
In the next session, Kelley found massive holes in Hamed’s defensive game. A left hand spun Hamed around, while the follow-up right hook bent the visiting fighter over. It all happened so fast, with Hamed’s gloves touching the canvas, and Naz instantly jumping up and then getting tagged with the right which again forced him to touch down. Referee Benjy Esteves issued a count and Hamed’s American adventure looked like it might have turned into a disaster. But then, in an incredible round, “The Prince” returned the favour and decked Kelley. The two were trading bombs, Kelley again looking for the finish, but it was Hamed who took his turn to score. A cracking right hand to the chin put Kelley down and though he smiled as he got to his feet, Kelley was hurt.
The 3rd saw more caution from both men, although the fight had not turned into anything approaching a dull fight. Once again both men felt each other’s power, Hamed’s head being snapped back noticeably. Both warriors had plenty of respect for one another and the large crowd was in no way sure who would win the fight.
The 4th saw more knockdowns. Kelley was uncharacteristically swinging wildly and missing early on in the session, yet Hamed was unable to land any clean counters. Kelley then got home with two left hooks upstairs and once again Hamed had a somewhat concerned look. But then, showing all his firepower, Hamed smashed Kelley with two left hands of his own, sending the older man down and on his back. Looking groggy, Kelley nevertheless got up quickly, raised both arms in a show of defiance and resumed battle. Hamed was unloading everything looking to end matters, but Kelley had one more surprise for him. A right hand caught Hamed and his own right glove grazed the canvas, causing Esteves to dive in and rule a knockdown. Now it was Kelley back on the attack, for a brief spell. Hamed then landed a shuddering right hand followed by a left that sent Kelley south once more. This time it appeared as though Kelley would not get up and he didn’t, at least not in time.
Up a fraction of a second after the count of “10,” Kelley all but fell into the arms of the referee and the thrilling fight was over after 2 minutes and 27 seconds of the fourth-round. For the record, there were six knockdowns in total – Hamed going down three times, Kelley also three times.
There was almost instantly talk a of a rematch, so good had the fight been, but it never happened. Years later, Kelley, when speaking with Boxing News, spoke about the fight from 1997 and his belief that he made the fight happen. Kelley also spoke about how he wanted that rematch.
“I challenged Naseem Hamed, he didn’t challenge me,” Kelley stated back in 2012 when speaking with this writer.
“I went to England twice as I’d ran out of opponents in the U.S. I have respect for him and his career but he could’ve been a better fighter if he’d not avoided certain fighters. To be the best you have to fight everyone. I told him we have it tougher over here [in America] compared to than in Europe. I came up different to him. He was more awkward than powerful – I told him that the last time I saw him. He actually lost some of his power by leaping in with shots. By jumping up and leaving the canvas, he lost some of his power. Guys that plant their feet real well, and use all of the canvas, they generate power much more effectively. Guys like Gregorio Vargas, he shook your brain when he hit you. When Vargas hit me I didn’t like it at all! I didn’t mind it so much when Hamed hit me.
“I wanted the rematch, I think he did too. We tried to make it happen but for whatever reason, it never came off. I’m glad the fans, the fans in Europe and all over the world, enjoyed the fight.”
Kelley has no need to worry on that score.