ALTHOUGH you might find it hard to believe, December 19, 2019 marks 22 years since Naseem Hamed and Kevin Kelley combined to produce one of the most memorable nights in Madison Square Garden history.
This might come as a surprise to many, not least one of the protagonists. “20 years?” Kelley told Boxing News. “S***, people still come up to me in the street to this day asking me when the rematch is gonna happen.”
It was a rare moment when a classic modern match-up not only lived up to its huge build-up in New York city but actually exceeded expectations with high drama, twists, turns and three knockdowns apiece.
“Is it really?” said the man behind the fight, Frank Warren, when reminded that Naz-Kelley – dubbed Here On Business – is now two decades old. “I was the first Englishman to ever promote there at the Garden… We went out there and put the fight on eight days before Christmas, everybody said we were crazy, totally mad.
“They said ‘how are you going to sell out a show the week before Christmas in New York with a fight between a Yemeni guy from Britain and Kevin Kelley?’
“But we did it and it was a fantastic fight. It set the record revenue for a featherweight fight in New York. HBO got behind it and it was just a fantastic night and an exciting fight.”
It remains perhaps the most successful transatlantic promotion by any Brit, with the local man Kelley providing the perfect foil for the brash, cocky Hamed, who played up to his role as the villain during pantomime season.
HBO recognised the draw of the “Prince” and signed him up to a six-fight deal worth a reported £9m, aligning him with their stable of stars.
“Oscar De La Hoya, Roy Jones, Pernell Whitaker, Ike Quartey, go through the list,” Lou DiBella said at the time. “We are proud to say that the best fighters in the world fight here and we believe that Naz is one of the best fighters in the world.”
But not everyone in New York city was so convinced by the Prince. The local daily paper, the New York Post, wrote of the British import: “Kelley finds himself playing second banana and straight man to an English-via-Yemen featherweight who is yet to prove he can do anything more than dance and talk.
“You will love to hate this guy, with his overlong ring entrances and his utter lack of humility.”
Kelley had got a large dose of that in Sheffield two months earlier when he jetted in to sit ringside for Hamed’s victory over Jose Badillo. On the apron after yet another stoppage victory, Hamed put his arm round Kelley’s shoulder and said ‘I’m going to knock you spark out’.
Dominic Ingle, son of Hamed’s first trainer Brendan, recalls that night well. “I remember being in the toilets and Kelley and his manager came in,” Ingle says. “They didn’t know who I was and were talking. Kelley was just saying ‘they’re going to pay me a million dollars man! I gotta fight him!’ But all I remember thinking was how long his arms were. They were incredible, they seemed to reach his knees.”
‘You will love to hate this guy, with his overlong ring entrances and his utter lack of humility’New York Post
It was also that night in which Kelley uttered the famous words which Hamed has since revealed haunted him throughout his training camp for the clash. Kelley, having been warned of a knockout, simply replied: ‘I’m going to smoke your boots.” More on that later.
The face-to-face in Sheffield was just the start of a rampant promotion which reached fever pitch during fight week in New York as huge pictures of Naz stared down from the billboards in Times Square, and stoked up the emotions of the locals.
“All the Yanks hated Naz but loved the local guy,” recalled Warren.
It was a fact which delighted the visiting champion. “You haven’t got anything,” Hamed told Kelley. “After this fight, listen, I’m trying to create a nice job for you putting my posters up with HBO.
“After this fight, forget about boxing, you’ll have a full-time job, all you have to do is go to Lou DiBella who will give you a nice job promoting my ass in Times Square every time I come here.
“Put my posters up for me, make sure there are no creases in them. Make me look good, make me look fine.”
But, although the promotion centred on Warren’s champion, Kelley says the genesis of the fight from his end was rather different. “I was the only featherweight on HBO in ‘93, ‘94, and ‘95,” the New Yorker said. “I called Lou DiBella and he told me to find somebody to fight. I asked him who but he said he didn’t know!
“I was running the featherweights at the time but I needed a dance partner, I needed a mega-fight.
“I looked in a boxing magazine and I saw this guy Prince Naseem, I saw his numbers and thought ‘wow, this is my guy’.
“He was big over there in Europe but hadn’t cracked America. Obviously, they thought a fight with me would help that.
“It worked because it got the fans to dislike HBO and him enough to watch the fight. It looked like I was being blindsided, because I’m a New Yorker, but I wasn’t on the side of a building but he was.
“It created more animosity with New Yorkers who wanted to see him lose. It’s like Mayweather; you want to see this guy lose.”
Of Hamed’s prediction of a third-round knockout, Kelley responded: “When I hit him in the first round, he’s going to feel sorry that he even thought about the third round. Knock me out? Nobody can knock me out.”
In truth, 28-0 Hamed was the favourite against 47-1-2 Kelley, who was seven years older at 30 and who had lost his WBC world title against Alejandro Gonzalez a little under three years earlier. “The British press pack certainly had no doubt who was going to win,” said Colin Hart, who was in New York to cover the fight. “Kelley was allegedly shot or at least nowhere near as good as he was in his prime. We didn’t expect any major drama – we thought Hamed would outbox him for a couple of rounds then knock him out.”
Although that may have been the case, his credentials alone meant Kelley represented the toughest fight of the champion’s explosive career to date. “Naz had boxed decent kids but Kelley was a real fighter,” Ingle added.
“I remember telling Naz not to underestimate him, don’t get your timing wrong.
“But I don’t think for one minute Naz thought the fight would be easy but he had to exude that confidence. Kelley had only been beaten once, was a tricky southpaw and a good boxer. Naz studied the sport and always knew his opponents’ strengths.”
Away from his endless media commitments, Naz had fine-tuned his preparation in a Manhattan sweatshop and, in a clear nod to Kelley’s power, had spent time sparring with heavyweight Clifton Mitchell. But, although he tried his best to knuckle down, the magnitude of the fight meant that things were rarely normal that week in New York and even Michael Jackson had turned up at the gym to shake the champion’s hand.
“Pure posters up, pure billboards,” Naz had said. “HBO are looking at long-term investment, they’re not looking at Kevin Kelley. I’m gonna win, I’m gonna win in style and I’m gonna take over America.”
As well as his knockout power and showmanship inside the ring, much had been made of his penchant for a spectacular entrance to it. As it happened, challenger Kelley, who emerged first, had been warned that it may take Hamed 10 minutes to complete his walk. As Will Smith’s Men In Black played, Hamed danced behind a screen which showed only his silhouette.
“Is this a fashion show or a prizefight?” said Larry Merchant on the HBO broadcast before softening his stance. “It’s so silly, it’s kinda great!”
Pernell Whitaker, the brilliant ring wizard, stood on his feet at ringside, and simply shook his head incredulously. There Hamed danced for four long minutes as Kelley began to boil over in anger in the ring.
As it turns out, Hamed had never meant to dance for that long but had been waiting for a signal from a member of the HBO production team which never came.
It didn’t go down badly with everyone, despite the boos in the crowd. “I like this,” co-commentator George Foreman beamed. “I really like it. This is what boxing needs.”
However, the Prince encountered a problem once he had finally got to the apron and positioned himself for his trademark front flip into the ring. “When I got to the ropes I thought ‘oh my God, these ropes are bigger than me’,” he later recalled. “They are taller than me, how the hell am I going to do a front flip over the top rope? But I had to do it, and it was a good landing in the end.”
He told BN: “For me, there was no risk. It was about showing the viewers and the whole crowd that you could enter a ring like that because you were that confident of doing well and winning.”
As Michael Buffer announced the fighters, they unusually stood face-to-face in centre ring, and both appeared in good spirits, unaware of the chaos that was approaching. As is often the case after a big promotion, the opening exchanges were nervous and tense with Kelley, who enjoyed a six-inch reach advantage, trying to land his jab. Hamed, in his usual leopard print shorts, was happy to circle and slip.
He attempted a trademark jumping screw shot midway through the session but missed, which triggered in Kelley’s mind another phrase made famous by this bout. “In training camp we always said ‘if he leaps, he sleeps’,” Kelley said. “My trainer came up with it because he knew Hamed liked to leave the floor when he threw certain shots.
“But when you leave the ground, you have no balance and no foundation. When he leapt shots, lunging up, when he does that we will sleep him and that’s what happened.”
As the round entered its final minute, the champion backed Kelley into a corner but failed to land with an attempted three-punch combination. But, as he moved back, Kelley countered with a hard right hook which sent Hamed to the canvas.
“I remember after the Badillo fight he said something to me that night that never, ever left my mind,” Hamed explained. “It was on my mind from the time he said it until the time he hit me. He said to me: ‘I’m gonna smoke your boots’. I didn’t realise what he was on about until he hit me with a shot. It felt like a bolt of lightning that went from head to toe. I felt something in my boots. It felt like my feet were on fire.
“And the minute that I felt that I thought: ‘this must have been what he was talking about!’”
Hamed reached his feet and comfortably made it through to the end of the round but he touched down again in the second when Kelley crashed through a straight backhand inside an attempted hook which turned him round 180 degrees. He wasn’t badly hurt but he was clearly behind. Hamed responded by flooring Kelley with a check right hook but referee Benji Esteves curiously dismissed it as a slip.
There was no doubt, however, about the next knockdown as Hamed switched to orthodox and landed a sublime right hand after 1-13 of the second. Kelley looked up with a grin and pointed at the champion in acknowledgement of the shot.
‘It felt like a bolt of lightning that went from head to toe. I felt something in my boots. It felt like my feet were on fire’Naseem Hamed
The third round, which Hamed had predicted would be the last, came and went with Kelley still in control despite the heavy knockdown. In the corner, Brendan Ingle said: “He’s had his fun now you start giving it back to him.”
But everything changed in the fourth as Hamed’s power lived up to the hype. First, two quicksilver short lefts put Kelley down heavily, although the American managed to climb to his feet. Hamed was then overzealous as he looked for the stoppage and was put down again after overreaching with a flying right hand-left hook combination. The count mattered little as Hamed closed the show in style with 30 seconds left of the fourth.
As Kelley attempted to land a right hand, Naz defended it with his left before turning the block into a short hook, which sent the challenger to his back, staring up at the lights. He was up at ‘10’ but Esteves had seen enough and lead him back to his corner.
Hamed was swiftly to the American’s side, embracing his victim. “Blimey,” he said. “you can fight.”
The champion later evaluated proceedings succinctly: “I took his shots, but did he take mine?”
Such power is often described as the equaliser or erasure. The ability to wipe out anything that has happened before with a single punch. Naz had it.
“He is the hardest punching featherweight I’ve ever seen,” Hart added. “And don’t forget I was lucky enough to see people like Azumah Nelson, Jeff Fenech and Salvador Sanchez.”
Kelley, who did not appeal to Esteves about the stoppage, pined long and hard for a rematch. In a way, he still does.
“I felt the controversy of the stoppage warranted a rematch,” he said. “I would have done what I had to do but it never happened. In America, it’s about a trilogy. It’s Ali-Frazier, but that’s not something he wanted. I was too close to reality for him I think.
“You never know who your dance partner in life will be. I had 72 opponents and he is the one people talk about. I realise that now, I realise I needed that guy.
“I didn’t think so at the time, he was just another opponent but now I know I should thank him. I realised there are no such things as great fighters but just great fights. Who is Ali without Frazier? Who is Sugar Ray Robinson without Jake La Motta?
“Our fight had a life of its own. It turned into one of the greatest four rounds in Madison Square Garden history.
“In 2008, 10 years later, he calls me out of nowhere. I didn’t know it was him. He was annoyed by a few things I said in the build-up but I didn’t mean it.
“Now we call each other brothers. Right there is my brother. I love him and he loves me. We didn’t know of each other, from different sides of the world and have an age gap but we shared something that night. We connected.”
The fans who had bought into the fight that night had hoped for something special and it had been delivered. Foreman, still beaming, summed it up perfectly. “This guy is beautiful,” said the big legend. “He’s the prince of entertainment. I’ve enjoyed myself tonight, I’ve never seen anything like it.”
And, in many ways, we haven’t seen anything like it since.