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Naseem Hamed: ‘I won’t say arrogant. Let’s say I was extremely confident’

Naseem Hamed
Prince Naseem Hamed strolled into the Boxing News office and gave Matt Christie an interview every bit as compelling as his performances in the ring

IN January 2015, Prince Naseem Hamed was the guest on the Boxing News podcast just weeks after receiving news that he was to be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame later that year.

Mischievous and completely carefree, the old Hamed charm was evident the moment he strolled into our former office on Cannon Street in the City of London. The only clue to Hamed’s self-awareness was the arm he draped over his stomach from time to time in an instinctive effort to disguise the weight he’d gained as excited onlookers peered through the glass walls of the meeting room to get a glimpse of sporting royalty.

Mentally, Naseem Hamed was in pristine shape. He was delighted to discuss those famous nights when he swaggered and swayed before destroying his opponents with missiles launched with ludicrous aplomb. The stories he told flowed just as effortlessly, with relish and abandon and no sense of regret that so often distorts a fighter’s memory.

One subject, though, was not as easy to talk about as others. But that didn’t mean he didn’t want to talk about it.

This interview – never before seen in print and thought to be lost – was carried out three years before the death of Brendan Ingle, the mentor who oversaw Hamed’s passage from child prodigy to international superstar before they parted company in bitter circumstances.

Hamed’s desire to patch things up with Ingle was clear. The two would never be reunited.

Naz talked at length about the lone loss to Marco Antonio Barrera in April 2001 and explained why he turned his back on the sport following an unimpressive victory over Manuel Calvo 13 months later.

As well as the fights that thrilled the world, he focused on those that got away, against Floyd Mayweather, Acelino Freitas and Juan Manuel Marquez, explaining why they never happened and what he believed would have occurred if they had.

After the interview, the British boxing legend asked to see the Boxing News archives, where he spent a substantial amount of time reading the reports from his glory days with that smile still firmly on his face.

Let’s start at the beginning, before the world titles and superstardom. How did you get into boxing?
It was plain and simple for me because I lived just up the road, literally, from a boxing club and that was Brendan Ingle’s boxing club, St Thomas’. At the time, you had amazing fighters like Herol “Bomber” Graham and he was really the focal point of the gym, he was who the trainers looked at and said, ‘You’ve got to try and fight like this.’ We were all, really and truly, clones of Herol but some of us did our own thing and took it a step further and developed something else, which I did.

That was at the age of seven. By the time I got to 11, in my eyes, I was ready to turn professional because I’d been doing it for four years and I was that confident. In my first year as an amateur I won a British Schoolboy National title, so I was British champion at 11. I was up and ready to turn pro.

You must look back very fondly at those early days.
I don’t forget them. They’re quite vivid in my mind, with everything that happened as an amateur. It’s funny, I remember the seven national titles that I won and everything in between. From a very young age I was just wishing my life away to get to 18, just to turn professional. Suddenly, I became 18 and it was 1992. The year of the Olympics in Barcelona. A lot of people thought I should have stayed amateur for that but I just couldn’t wait to become a professional. I didn’t want anything to hold me back. I remember predicting at the age of 11 in a boxing magazine that I’d be a world champion at the age of 21 and a multi-millionaire.

Really and truly, I was disappointed that I didn’t fight for a British title. In my eyes, the best belt and what remains the best belt, is the Lonsdale Belt. It’s a beautiful-looking belt.

Despite that you made an almost instant impact. I remember in 1994, when you fought Vincenzo Belcastro for the European bantamweight title. You got some stick for that when you dropped him and stood over him, taunting him.
I got a lot of stick. In the whole of them times I was so different in the ring to what I was out. I was a monster in the ring. That’s what you needed to be. At that particular time, it was remembering what all the great fighters did in the ring, and it gets to a certain point in the fight, and you want to do what they did. I’d watched this video, a.k.a. Cassius Clay, every day for 15 years, and I mean every single day.

I won the European title at 20 years old. Imagine what that felt like. I hadn’t even fought for the British title but there I was winning the European title against someone everyone knew was world class. Through the fight I was – I won’t say arrogant – let’s say instead, supremely confident. When I came out in the last round, it looked like the first round because I had so much energy.

That fight gave people their first glimpse into the future you always knew was coming, that you were going to rule the world. When that moment came, a little over a year later when you challenged Steve Robinson, you were absolutely flawless. Any nerves that night?
I had people with me before that fight, throughout that day, very close people and people from the gym and my trainers, who knew I was going to become world champion that day. There was no doubts in my mind that crept in. That’s what was good about me. The minute you get those kind of doubts, any kind of doubts that just peer in, it’s not a good sign. I didn’t have anything like that, my mind was as a strong as anything, the self-belief, the will to win.

There was no doubt I was going to beat Steve Robinson even though I’d seen him on TV and thought, ‘He’s a big guy’. He’s cut to shreds, he’s very strong, he’s defended his title I don’t know how many times. Looking back on it now, it’s amazing that I wasn’t even a featherweight when I won the [WBO] featherweight championship of the world. I walked into the ring as a super-bantamweight and won the title in that fashion. I thank Frank Warren so much; he was the one who asked if I wanted to fight Steve Robinson. Of course I wanted to fight Steve Robinson!

At 21 I wanted to be world champion and I’ll never forget Frank Warren for helping that dream come true. It was unbelievable.

Most of us, at the age of 21, are just getting to grips with adulthood. You were a world champion and household name at 21. What is that kind of fame like to cope with at such a young age?
People talk about this fame aspect all the time. I personally never saw myself as this famous guy. Maybe it’s because I was brought up in a certain way and my feet were on the ground. Even today, people still come up and tell me I gave them great memories, that I was a superstar. But I’m not just saying this, I never really felt that the fame really hit me. There were all these celebrity bashes that I could have gone to but I had no interest in them. I still don’t. Some fighters will go to the opening of an envelope, but I’m cool in the gang doing my own thing.

It was a good feeling to get recognised, don’t get me wrong. How can it not be a good feeling to walk around the planet for five or six years as a world champion? Getting out of bed, every morning for years, not a couple of weeks or a month, but for quite a few years, waking up every morning and going to the gym, going on holiday or whatever, being with your wife and kids and know that you’re a world champion. It’s an amazing feeling and I’m sure that the fighters today who are world champions are feeling that. That can only last for a certain amount of time but for me it lasted for quite a while. I enjoyed it big time while it did.

Your feet are firmly on the ground now. Do you wish you had the maturity and wisdom that you’ve got now back then, or was part of the magic created by you being just 21 years old, a world champion, and full of confidence?
I’ll go with you there. I was that confident and I was so willing to let people know what I was going to do in the sport and who I was going to be. I think if I was a different person in any way I honestly don’t know if I could have been that person that achieved all them things. No, I was a guy full of spunk. I was ready and I was willing to show everyone.

Speaking of that confidence, how many times did you go arse over tit while you were practising your signature somersault into the ring?
[Laughs] Right. I’ll be honest now. Not very many! I swear to God. I struggled a little bit more with what I used to do before that, and there was a fight that was televised, when I did a vault over the ropes – similar to what Chris Eubank used to do – and I didn’t land properly. There was one time. I didn’t fall on my face but my balance was all wrong. But doing the flip over the ropes was a lot easier because all you had to do was stand up there on the side of the ring and get the right grip on the ropes. I couldn’t always get the right grip, though, because you couldn’t put your thumbs under the ropes because they were attached to the gloves, so it meant balancing with your thumb and your fingers and pulling the rope down to give you the force to do the flip over. Doing that was never a problem but bear in mind I was doing this in world title fights. I was taking the risk of falling over on my ankle or twisting my ankle and it going wrong.

So why put yourself under that pressure?
For me, it wasn’t a risk. I had to show the crowd, the viewers, that it was possible to do that. I was so confident of winning and that was just a small part of what I was about. I always tried to make the landing perfect but every now and again I’d need an extra few steps [to get my balance back] which would always take me in the direction of my opponent. That was always a good opportunity to get a good look into their eyes. I used to love looking into my opponent’s eyes before I started flinging fists.

Did you ever look into anyone’s eyes and feel anything other than confident? There must have been a fight where there was some nerves.
No, not at that stage. The only fight where I was even slightly concerned was obviously the fight where I lost [to Marco Antonio Barrera], but that was before the whole thing started, before training camp. It was an uphill struggle knowing that you’ve got to lose two-and-a-half stone in eight weeks. Knowing that you’re going to have no power. That night, I didn’t do a somersault into the ring. They changed the gloves. I didn’t get them until 20-30 minutes before the fight. Everything that could have gone wrong, went wrong.

So Barrera was a fight you felt you could lose?
Absolutely not. In my heart of hearts I felt I was going to win. Even though I was weak and I’d lost so much fluid and I knew it was going to be hard, I felt within me that, if I hit anybody, I’m going to knock them out. I said to myself, ‘Are you telling me you’re not going to hit this guy?’ And I did hit him but it wasn’t like normal. Even then, I thought that I was going to throw one kind of shot and it would catch him and he’d go. But then the 12th round came along, then there was only a few seconds left, and then I realised that
I wasn’t. I realised it was the first time in 21 years that I’d lost a fight.

That must have been crushing psychologically. You’d gone through childhood and adulthood as an invincible man. That was in your psyche, that invincibility was part of you. All of a sudden that had gone. How did you come to terms with that?
The minute that the fight ended, I was still on my feet. I never got knocked down. I mean, there were a few shaky moments, I’m not going to say there wasn’t [laughs]. But I never got knocked down. I never got cut. I never got smashed round the head where I thought, ‘Oh my god I’m in trouble’. So there wasn’t one moment in the fight when I thought, ‘I’ve really lost here’. Even when he got the decision right at the end, I didn’t feel like I’d lost. The only way you really feel like you’ve really lost in the sport of boxing, and I don’t mean losing on points, I mean losing, is when you get knocked the eff out. When you’re looking up from the canvas into the stars and you’re alone and you’re exposed. That didn’t happen to me. I went through my career without that. I even came back and won the [IBO] world title and said, I’m gonna chill for a bit. Honestly, I never thought, ‘How am I going to cope with this?’

I always said when I get beat by a guy I would put my hands up and say you was better than me tonight and tonight only. The fact is he [Barrera] was current, he was active – I wasn’t active – and he was on the way up where he was ready to take anyone. I had to lose two-and-a-half stone and I drained myself. That’s it, that’s the be all and end all. I was not saddened by it.

I lost one fight, I was still the same confident guy – I still am. I just had this sense of, ‘Who really cares, so what?’ He didn’t hurt me or knock me out. I’ve never felt sorry for myself. It always affected those people who wanted me to win so badly more than it’s ever affected me.

Looking back, do you blame yourself for the amount of weight you were left to lose?
No. I’ll be honest, when I got the call to say there was a date and an opponent, I said there and then to HBO, ‘This is going to be impossible to make the weight.’ Then in the next breath, ‘But if you give me more money then it’s going to be cool in the gang.’ You know what, I’d have fought King Kong for the money I was getting that night. That’s the thing in boxing, there’s always going to be that carrot dangled in front of certain fighters before every fight. It was hard, but I never got hurt.

Throughout your career?
Thank god I never got hit with one of those [singing] Oops up-side the head, say oops up-side the head kind of shots. And thank god I didn’t. I’m not going to say I never got hit with nothing because I did take my fair share, let’s be honest [laughs]. But that night that we’ve already talked about, against Steve Robinson, they said I was so good that night – and it was raining – that even the rain couldn’t hit me. I didn’t get wet.

There was talk of a fight with Floyd Mayweather when he was at the start of his career.
There were never any negotiations. He always moved up in weight. There was a glimpse of him at super-featherweight then he moved up to lightweight. Then he moved up again and kept moving up and moving up.
Me and him were good friends from back in the day. I used to see him when I was just in America in ’97 and he’d just turned pro. I’d been a pro for two years before I even met him. At the time he was like, ‘How the hell are you coming from your country into our country and on HBO and getting paid so much money and we’re not?’ But he was always really friendly. Then he took over the sport and all of sport.

Would he still be unbeaten if you’d met when he was at super-feather?
I can’t say that he would be, no. I was very confident, I was very powerful, I was very fast. I don’t know to be honest. He’s overly skilled, his skill is… immense. Those defensive skills, wow. And he developed those skills from when he was a kid.

Another opponent who got away was Juan Manuel Marquez. He was your mandatory for a long time.
Great fighter. He was my mandatory. For me, at that particular time, it wouldn’t have been that hard to beat him. I would have felt confident in beating him because he had that come forward style. I would have boxed him and hit him with the kind of shots he’d never been hit with. I was happy to fight him but my promoter at the time didn’t want me to take that route. I honestly feel that it wasn’t because he didn’t think I could beat him. Marquez wasn’t no name then. He weren’t world champion or regarded anything like he is now. But I do think he’s a great fighter.

Acelino Freitas?
We was trained by the same trainer, Oscar Suarez. He was an amazing trainer by the way. But directly after I fizzled out from boxing, Oscar had Acelino and did great with Acelino. As far as me and him fighting, that was never on the cards. He was heavier than me. A good fighter and a good puncher.

You mention Oscar Suarez and you were also with Manny Steward for a while. Before those of course was Brendan Ingle. The Ingles have said that you reached a point in your career when training wasn’t as important for you, that you would turn up to the gym late and demand to be trained late at night. What are your memories of that particular time?
[Pauses] At one point, if you’d have said to me, ‘Who was like your second father?’ I’d have said Brendan Ingle, because he spent a hell a lot of time with me.

I felt like he spent more time with me than with his own family. We were very, very close. So when I found out that he was writing a book, it really, really hit me. Someone you’ve been with a really long time, someone that you’ve put all your trust in, and they’ve wrote a lot of negative things about you and they’re not true, someone you regarded as family. I couldn’t make any sense of it. I’d made him proud. I’d made the gym proud. I was the first world champion from the gym. I’d made money for him.

But I’ll never forget the time he spent with me and what he taught me. It went two ways. He did so much for me and taught me so much. It wasn’t a one-sided thing.

I was really close to John Ingle. John was with me as a kid and as a professional through to winning and defending world titles. For me, I was getting focused by a mentor from Brendan’s side but John Ingle played the biggest part throughout the whole of that.
I’ve spoken to John. I’ve asked to come to Sheffield and make up with Brendan. Sometimes things are supposed to be left alone and this might be the case here. But I would to love to meet up with Brendan and apologise for all the things he thought I did wrong.

Was it true that the training became less important to you?
I don’t think so. Was I there a bit late? Maybe. But I don’t remember walking in late, not really late. I was always in the gym ready for sparring. I didn’t believe in warming up, I’d just go in the gym, get changed and go straight in the ring. All I wanted to do was fight.
I don’t believe I entered the gym too late to spar. I’m an honest guy, so would I say as I got older, as I was defending world titles, I wasn’t training as hard? No, I wouldn’t say that.

Did you get to a point where you took your skills for granted?
I realised at a certain age, a young age, that I had this immense punching power. No matter who I hit I was going to dismantle. It tells you a lot about a fighter that if you can knock guys out in the first round, the middle rounds or the late rounds. So I knew I had that power at any time but that shouldn’t take anything away from training. If I had my time again, I probably would change. I would be a bit more professional but, at the time, I didn’t always feel I was in a professional set up. It was the same gym I’d been in since I was a kid, and even when I was world champion, there was a lot of kids in the gym. It was always packed and I always felt like one of many. I was never singled out or given special coaching. Sometimes that helped but there were times when I felt like I should be going to a training camp and with world class sparring partners; I wanted to spar to the head. Leaving the gym was one of the best things I could have done at the time, simply because I then got that one-on-one training.

So there was no regrets about leaving the Ingle Gym? Some presume it was the wrong decision.
No, but I regret how we split up. I can’t stand the thought of that family not being able to look at me anymore or want to talk to me again. But I had to make a decision back then and I made the decision.

You mention that passion for fighting but that ultimately went away. There were rumours all the time about a comeback. How close was that?
I was never, ever close. The rumours were just to have people on and get people excited and people did get excited! Would I have loved to have come back? I probably would. It was something I was good at and people appreciated me doing it. But I knew I was not going to come back. I had reached that point of my life, I had stepped out of the ring at 28. But when did that passion stop? I don’t know but during the last few fights I could feel it creeping in, that feeling of doing the same thing for so many years. I wanted a rest from it. I always said when I get to 28, I’m going to be one of the smartest fighters and stop fighting. There might have been a lot more money out there but I was done, it was finished. I did exactly the right thing.

You were an astonishing talent, one who changed boxing in this country. Did the sport get the best out of you?
Yes, I think so. I think it had the best years out of me. Could there have been more? Definitely. But in my heart of hearts, at the age of 28, after losing and then taking a year out and coming back, I just felt it was the time. Every time I used my hands, they’d really hurt. I had to have cortisone injections in my hand every time I fought so I didn’t feel that pain. Doing that before every single fight, calling the doctor in and having cortisone injections in the back of your wrist with a needle bigger than this table is not right. I thought, at the time, I’ve done something in this sport of boxing that was enough to say, ‘Do you know what guys? I’ve had a great time, I’ve enjoyed myself in the sun and shined for many, many years. I’m out, yo, I’m out.’ But the whole thing of not having the passion, or not having the motivation to get out of bed once you’ve got money, or not wanting to go into a smelly gym, that wasn’t what made me stop. That wasn’t the case.

You seem very content. Sometimes you meet people who are spending too much time in yesterday and there’s no sense of that with you at all. No sense of regret – is that fair to say?
I don’t know if I can justify having regrets after all that I achieved. I don’t know if there’s anything where I can say to myself, ‘Do you really feel that bad that you regret that?’ I suppose I should have been wiser, in a way, before the Barrera fight. I should have known better. ‘You guys have been waiting and waiting for this fight. I’ve been offering you this fight for years.’ Barrera wouldn’t fight me. Then all of a sudden, they knew their time had arrived. I’d boxed Augie Sanchez, I’d broke my hand in the fight, it was a devastating knockout. I said before and after the fight I wanted to fight Barrera. But if I’d have been wiser and not allowed myself to be shoved in a corner because of all this money…

But I wanted to prove myself whatever condition I was in. I didn’t want people to accuse me of not fighting him, he was one of the best pound-for-pound fighters, a world champion. I felt I had to take that fight.

Then there was the wiser part of me saying, ‘I’m not going to make weight, I’m going to be drained, I’m going to kill yourself and have no ammunition. I have to say no.’ But of course I didn’t say that.

But the reason it’s not a regret is because it doesn’t bother me. Not in a way that I’ve ever lost any sleep over it or anything like that. I made that decision at the time. And you know what? I bet there’s a million fighters out there who would like to be sitting in my seat now.

Getting into the Hall of Fame is testament to that mindset and all that you achieved. What does it mean to you when I say, Prince Naseem Hamed, Inductee into the International Boxing Hall of Fame?
It means absolutely everything. You say it’s testament to all I achieved but I think it’s a bit more than that. I think it’s how I achieved it, I think it’s how I fought, it’s the kind of stuff I did before the fights, during fight week, at press conferences, how I used to react when fighters used to say certain things, it was the whole colourful character that was so confident in the sport at the time. I believe I was a breath of fresh air. When the Hall of Fame called me to tell me, they asked for a quote. I said, ‘It’s an absolute honour, it’s the phone call that every fighter would love.’ Not every fighter gets that call. To know that I’m going to be set in stone, that my name will live on forever and people will never ever forget how I used to fight. I made people smile and say, ‘I like that, I’ll watch him again.

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