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The day it all went wrong for Naseem Hamed

Naseem Hamed
Thomas Hauser spent time with ‘Prince’ Naseem Hamed directly before his first professional loss and discovered a fighter with his priorities in the wrong places

YOUNG boxing fans today know Naseem Hamed is a corpulent occasional presence at ringside for fights. They may not remember when, two decades ago, “Naz” (aka “The Prince”) electrified the boxing world with his knockout power, sharp tongue, and gaudy ring entrances. Hamed was born and raised in Sheffield and turned pro in 1992 at age 18. At the peak of his career, he was high on most pound-for-pound lists and the preeminent featherweight in the world. He had exceptional power in both hands and an unorthodox southpaw style that gave opponents fits. The Prince won the WBO world featherweight title in 1995 and added the IBF belt to his trophy case. He was a sensation in England with fight purses and endorsement income that placed him high on Forbes magazine’s list of the world’s top-grossing athletes. On December 19, 1997, he fought in America for the first time – at Madison Square Garden against Kevin Kelley. HBO (then the most powerful force in boxing) was committed to developing Hamed as a major attraction in the United States. A 50-by-20-foot billboard in Times Square featuring a sneering Naseem was supplemented by advertisements on bus shelters throughout New York. There were promotional spots for Hamed-Kelley on television and radio and national print advertising; all designed to raise The Prince’s profile in America. During fight week, Michael Jackson showed up at one of Hamed’s training sessions.

It wasn’t easy to make a hero out of a 5-foot-3-inch featherweight with an arrogant persona and ears the size of Dumbo’s. But HBO gave Hamed every opportunity to make it big. Naseem understood his role and played it to the hilt.

On fight night, 150 seats were removed from Madison Square Garden’s normal seating plan so The Prince could dance down a 200-foot runway amidst flashing strobe lights and confetti before somersaulting over the top rope into the ring. That sort of thing wasn’t done then. Elaborately choreographed ring walks were in the future. But Hamed did it. Adding to the excitement, he knocked Kelley out in four thrilling rounds that saw multiple knockdowns by both fighters.

Over the next three years, Hamed’s footprint grew larger. His record improved to 35 victories with 31 knockouts in 35 fights, and he was hailed as the hardest punching featherweight ever. Then, on April 7, 2001, he fought Marco Antonio Barrera at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. On the afternoon of that fight, I had one of the more remarkable experiences I’ve had in boxing.

Naseem Hamed

I’d met Hamed in January 2001 when we had a three-hour sitdown in Sheffield. Like most people, I was familiar with his public image as someone who was loud, arrogant, flamboyant, and obnoxious. That was the part of his persona known as “The “Prince.” In Sheffield, I saw a different side of him.

“I created ‘The Prince’,” Naseem told me. “If all I did was sit at a press conference and say things like, ‘I’ve trained hard; I’ll do my best,’ no one would care. But when I’m loud and cocky, it makes people switch on their televisions and that means I’m doing my job. It’s the same thing with my ring entrances. When I started fighting on television, Sky Sports came up with a few ideas and I added to them and people liked it. It’s one of the reasons people come to see me fight. It sells tickets. There’s a show; there’s music; and then there’s a proper fight. And there are times when I like being The Prince. It lets me say things that are fun to say. But without a fight to promote, I’d tell myself not to go that far.”

On the afternoon of Hamed-Barrera, Naseem sat in his suite on the 29th floor of the MGM Grand Hotel and watched a videotape of a documentary entitled aka Cassius Clay. Occasionally, he sipped water that had been brought to him from an underground spring that runs through Mecca. Water from the spring is believed to be blessed. He had sipped a bit of it each day since his training for the fight began.

At 2:30pm, Hamed left his hotel suite. I went with him. Ten minutes later, accompanied by several family members and friends, he arrived at the MGM Grand Garden Arena and walked up through the seats to a point in the upper reaches of the arena where his ring entrance that night would begin. There, standing on a platform, he examined six signs that would be spotlighted for his entrance. Three of the signs bore the name of the prophet Muhammad. The other three bore the inscription “Allah.”

“How do I get up to this platform before the fight?” Hamed asked.

“An elevator lift will bring you up,” the man responsible for the technical direction of Naseem’s ring entrance answered. “You’ll be back lit. There will be smoke. Once the fog dissipates, you walk down two steps to this white-tape ‘X’ right here. Fountains will rise behind you and confetti will rain down.”

“I don’t want to get any confetti on my body.”

“No problem. It will be way behind you.”

“How do I get from here down to the ring?”

“You have two options. Option number one is a fly-rig. Once you’re strapped in, it will lift you off the platform. As it goes up, flame projectors will shoot out, and then you’ll fly down.”

Hamed crossed the platform to examine the fly-rig. Somewhat skeptically, he pulled at the two supporting cables.

“Are these little things all that hold it up?”

“They’re steel cables,” he was told. “Each one is capable of supporting 980 pounds.”

“Before I ride down in that thing, I want to see someone else do it first.”

“We can show you the pyrotechnics and fountains too.”

“I want to see the dangerous part first.”

A member of the technical crew sat down on the fly-rig, and a harness was strapped around his waist.

“Good luck,” Hamed offered.

The fly-rig lifted up off the platform, and Naseem watched intently as it descended one hundred feet to the floor below. Then he turned to the director.

“What’s Plan B if I refuse to do this?”

“You walk down.”

“That’s a lot safer, isn’t it.”

The remark was a statement; not a question. Hours before the biggest fight of his life, Hamed was deliberating whether or not to take the risk of flying on a thin steel contraption to a boxing ring. One had to wonder why he would put that extra pressure, perhaps even fear, on himself moments before the fight. The answer was twofold. First, he was aware of his obligations as a showman. The Prince was expected to be bigger than life. And second, in the past, Naseem had fed off the frenzy of the crowd.

Once again, Hamed stared down at the ring below.

“Maybe they should just put a rope up here,” he suggested, “and I can swing down like Tarzan.” Then, wordlessly, he walked down the arena stairs, climbed into the ring, and looked back up at the platform.

“All right,” he called out, standing in ring center. “Show me what it will look like.”

The director narrated the effects as the demonstration unfolded.

“First, there will be smoke and lights; then the effects. Effect number one will be an airburst with the platform empty. As you come into view on the elevator lift, ten flame-throwers will shoot up. That’s effect number two. Number three will be a six-second fountain.”

Then, suddenly, the demonstration stalled. There was no fountain.

“We’ve got a dead battery,” someone shouted.

The dead battery was not lost on Hamed. He was being asked to trust these people and their technology on a one-hundred-foot drop to the ring.

A new battery was inserted. The six-second fountain blazed. That was followed by effect number four – twenty sparklers flaming downward, creating the illusion of a waterfall.

“Have you added up how long the whole thing will take?” Naseem asked.

“The fly-rig will take a maximum of forty seconds from lift-off to the floor.”

“Not just the flight; the whole thing. I’ll want to get to the ring.”

“That depends on how long you spent on the platform before you take off.”

“Can the whole thing be done in under three minutes?”

“Absolutely.”

“I want to ride down on that thing myself,” Hamed told the director. “I need to know exactly how high and how fast it will go.”

Naseem walked back up the stairs to the platform, where his father was waiting.

Sal Hamed expressed concern over the safety of the fly-rig. Naseem had total respect for his father. If his father said, “Don’t do it,” most likely, he wouldn’t. But Mr Hamed left the decision to his son.

At 3:35pm, Naseem, was harnessed into the fly-rig.

“Let’s do it,” he said.

The flight from the platform to the arena floor lasted thirty seconds.

At 3:40pm, Hamed left the arena. He had been there for over an hour.

Outside, a light rain was falling.

“It means something when it rains on the day of a fight,” Naseem told his father. “A desert rain. Allah is bestowing His blessing upon us.”

That night, Hamed’s ring entrance went as planned. The fight didn’t.

MIKE FIALA/AFP via Getty Images

Barrera entered the ring with 52 wins, 3 losses, and 38 knockouts. He was expected to be the toughest opponent of Naseem’s ring career. But Hamed was a 3/1 betting favorite. The match-up was seen as the equivalent of a test for a gifted student who had studied hard and was expected to pass.

Barrera fought a brilliant tactical fight, counterpunching and getting off first when he wanted to. Hamed spent most of the night looking for one big punch and never found it. He might have been a great puncher, but Barrera exposed him as a less-than-great boxer. Naseem’s ring skills had never been so sorely tested. In round twelve, as a gesture of contempt, Barrera slammed Hamed’s head into the protective covering over a ring post, a move that led to a referee-mandated one-point deduction.

The 116-111, 115-112, 115-112 decision in Barrera’s favour was kind to Hamed. Emanuel Steward (who served as Naseem’s co-trainer for the bout) said afterward that he thought his fighter won three rounds at most.

The conventional wisdom is that the loss to Barrera destroyed Hamed’s confidence and took away his desire to fight. The conventional wisdom is probably right. Naseem fought once more, winning a lacklustre decision over Manuel Calvo of Spain a year later. Then, at age 28, he walked away from boxing.

Hamed’s life after boxing has been marked by peaks and valleys. In 2015, he was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota. On the negative side of the ledger, in May 2006 he was convicted on criminal charges after a car he was driving at 90 miles per hour collided with another vehicle, causing life-altering injuries to the other driver. Making matters worse, Naseem fled the scene as the injured driver and his wife lay trapped in the wreckage. He was sentenced to fifteen months in prison and released after sixteen weeks to serve the rest of his sentence under home detention curfew. Previously, Hamed had been banned from driving for one year after speeding at more than 100 miles per hour.

But another piece of the puzzle burnishes Hamed’s legacy a bit.

John Sheppard was born in London and moved with his family to Doncaster when he was two years old. In the mid-1990s, he was a computer systems analyst for the National Coal Board. He was also friendly with Riath and Nabeel Hamed (Naseem’s older brothers).

“To be honest,” Sheppard told me years ago, “I didn’t know who Naseem was. But Riath and Nabeel talked me into going with them to see Naseem fight Enrique Angeles [on May 6, 1995]. It was the first time I’d been to a fight, and my reaction to it was that the entire spectacle was barbaric and degrading. I sat there watching people punch each other in the head, wondering why they were doing it. It went on and on interminably for hours. I was sprayed with blood, getting more and more miserable, telling myself, ‘I don’t want to be here.’ And then, during Naseem’s fight, something clicked in my head. The subtlety of what he was doing, the genius of it all, became obvious to me. It wasn’t a disgusting spectacle anymore. It was art, and I found myself cheering.”

In 1999, Hamed launched his own promotion company, and Sheppard went to work for him.

“We had a matchmaker who I didn’t fully trust,” John remembered. “I started a little data base to track all the British boxers for myself as a way of keeping tabs on him. The Internet was taking off at the time. And I asked myself, ‘Why not put the data up on the Internet so everyone can use it?’”

In May 2000, Sheppard rented space on a server. “It was a hobby more than anything else,” he explained. “I paid for it out of my own pocket. Then I got an email from someone in America saying that he was a record-collector and wanted to help, so I gave him the password. After that, there were more emails from more collectors. Pretty soon, the people who owned the server complained that I was getting more traffic than the other six hundred sites on the server combined and that my traffic was overwhelming the server and they gave me the hook. So I bought a server and installed it at a data center in Manchester.”

Sheppard’s site – BoxRec.com – has grown exponentially since then. It’s now an indispensable tool for people in the boxing industry, a regular destination for fight fans, and the most heavily-trafficked boxing website in the world.

Thomas Hauser’s most recent book – A Dangerous Journey: Another Year Inside Boxing – was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism. He will be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame with the Class of 2020.

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