By Olly Campbell:
Anyone who has been following my articles on this site [http://www.boxingnews24.com] will know by now that I am primarily concerned with representing British boxing in all forms, past and present.
If the refreshing remarks in my comment threads are anything to go by, it has been proven to me that even many American fans are now sick and tired of the whole Mayweather/Pac Man debacle and the constant “next Floyd opponent” rumblings propagated by the attention seeking element of this page.
Some of the more favorable comments I have received have been regarding the historical pieces I’ve published on best fights and fighters of a particular era. With it being such a quiet time domestically, these pieces at least give some of the more nostalgic among us something more to discuss than what Mayweather had for dinner last night. With that in mind, I have prepared a trio of articles on fighters I consider to be amongst the best the UK has had to offer in my lifetime as a fight fan. Today, sees my assessment of one of the best fighters ever to grace the lower weight classes from any country, a man whose short but remarkable career is already etched upon the pages of the history books; “Prince” Naseem Hamed.
From an incredibly young age, Nas was a rising star, marked out as something special from the moment he set foot in Brendan Ingle’s Wincobank gym in the old steel city of Sheffield as a young boy. Then home to one of the best Brits never to capture world honours, in Heroll “Bomber” Graham, the young Hamed quickly soaked up the hands down, switch hitting style that became synonymous with Wincobank fighters, particularly the Bomber himself, and not only mastered it, he adapted and perfected it, encompassing it alongside his seemingly unnatural power and innate awkwardness to create something incredibly unique in such a small and skinny fighter.
As soon as Hamed turned professional at the tender age of 18, he immediately stamped his authority on anybody he faced, beginning at flyweight and then moving through bantam and super-bantamweight, winning himself the European bantamweight title with a handy stoppage of Vincente Belcastro at the age of just 20 in only his twelfth professional contest.
Amongst boxing fans, his reputation was becoming established, yet on 30/09/95, the Prince Naseem rollercoaster was to hit new, very public heights, when he challenged then WBO featherweight champion, Steve Robinson in the Welshmans back yard, the Welsh city of Cardiff, in front of a baying partisan mob, desperate for Hameds blood to be spilled. The young, brash challenger from Sheffield, still just 21 years of age.
In his first fight at the weight, Hamed seemed unaffected by what most would consider to be enormous pressure. Robinson, who had previously never been stopped, was making the 8th defense of his title in front of his home fans. Vastly more experienced than the younger Hamed, his pre-fight demeanor suggested he felt this may be just another routine defense. He fully intended the belt to stay in Wales, yet as we know, the Prince had other ideas.
Part of Hamed’s allure was his gift for showmanship, his extreme confidence or arrogance and his totally unorthodox fighting style. These were qualities the huge American market would later buy into, but that night they were being debuted to the general British public, the casual fans, for the first time. And didn’t Hamed know it!
Anybody doubting the subsequent performance was anything but a masterclass against a skilled and proven champion, really needs to go to Spec Savers!. We witnessed the flashy style, the lighting fast reflexes and punches thrown from crazy angles, that would all eventually become Prince Naseem trademarks. Oozing confidence and sporting a contemptuous smile for much of the bout, Nas broke the teak tough champion down over 8 fantastic rounds to kick start the legacy that makes him one of my “Great Brits”.
I genuinely believe that in nearly ALL of his subsequent world title bouts, Hamed had only a couple of so-called “soft defences”, which is what makes him such a great champion in my opinion. The most ridiculous are possibly the domestic clash with Billy Hardy and his first defence against Austria- based Said Lawal, both of whom were blasted out inside a round, though Lawal had only one professional blemish before his clash with Nas.
Hamed took on all comers his first two defenses after Lawal against unbeaten Daniel Alicea, (W-TKO-2), who inflicted Hamed’s first professional canvas tasting with a flash knockdown in the first, and hard as nails Manuel Medina who was an ex world champ in his own right. Hamed fought that night with a heavy cold but still won by 11th round TKO.
A massive test, and one that gave the Americans a taste of his talent was his 8th round destruction of highly rated IBF champ Tom “Boom Boom” Johnson, who was at the time supposedly the #1 featherweight in the world. A quality operator without doubt, it didn’t take Hamed long to get the American champ going, wobbling him in the third and fourth, turning the Americans legs to jelly. By round seven Hamed had turned the heat up full blast, coming at Johnson from crazy angles, breaking his heart and destroying his will to fight. Just a round later, in the 8th, Nas closed the show. Goodnight Johnson, goodbye IBF title. It was a destructive display and Johnson, only beaten twice before this, faded away a shot fighter, beginning a horrible string of below par losses, never to challenge for top honors again.
And so Hamed took British boxing to new heights. After an impressive 8th defense against skilled and highly regarded Jose Badillo, it wasn’t long before the Americans and their massive TV market and huge paydays came calling. Ringside after Badillo was native New Yorker and fellow loudmouth, Kevin Kelley, who called Nas out on live TV. Sat next to Kelley as he laid down the gauntlet, Nas just shook his head and said.
“I can’t wait. I can’t wait to beat you up.” And so it was on.
Madison Square Garden, one of Americas most iconic and legendary venues, welcomed the Prince on 19/12/97, and all us Brits watching back home were hoping for an early Christmas present. We got it, but not without some heart-in-mouth moments.
Kevin Kelley was not a joke. I won’t accept excuses he was shot or old or any of the other occasional Brit bashing comments that occur when American pride is dented. He was 30 years old, 47-1-2 at that time and highly dangerous. I will concede the fight could have gone either way but the simple fact is, through such a great fight, Naseem was the one with the power. Excepting the first knockdown where Kelly caught Nas flush as Hamed had him backed in the corner, the other knockdowns against the British fighter were dubious cases of a glove touching down. A glove, is all. Yes, under the rules of boxing that gets a count, BUT, when Kelley went down, he bit the dust hard, even though he Tried to shake it off by raising his arms to show his fans he wasn’t hurt. Us Brits were not fooled though, and nor was Nas, who achieved great things on his American debut, winning him a huge following from the US public afterwards as he sent Kelley’s senses into orbit in the fourth, ensuring the New Yorker was in no fit state to continue.
With his stock rising Nas continued on with victories over recently stripped WBA champ Wilfredo Vasquez, who he also beat convincingly. Unbeaten Brit Paul Ingle was next in a competitive show of spirit that saw him survive until the 11th after knockdowns in rounds 1 and 6. With the late Manny Steward now co-trainer, Nas returned to the states to fight the most ugly and perhaps ridiculous fight of his career, in Detroit, Michigan, against Cesar Soto. The suplex he performed upon Soto mid ring would have done Triple H or any of the WWE superstars proud, and avoiding the DQ, Nas was once again the victor. Not, however, his best fight.
Lastly, before what became a very bitter pill to swallow for Hamed fans, were impressive victories over Vuyani Bungu, who like others before had never been stopped until he felt the dynamite in the Princes hands, and prospect Augie Sanchez, who were both stopped in 4. However Sanchez earned the distinction of being one of the few men to deck Hamed.
Which brings us to the only banana skin in the illustrious career of Sheffields finest. Mexican legend, Marco Antonio Barrera, one of the modern all time greats in ANY division. I’m going to be very careful making excuses, because the fact is Hamed LOST the fight, by deserved UD. However the facts in his mitigation are certainly more credible than David Haye and “toe-gate” after the Klitshcko loss.
Hamed had been out of the gym for months due to injury before signing for the fight. The vacant IBO clash appeared to be something of a money fight for Naseem who, according to Manny Steward was worryingly out of shape in the build up to it, even as much as 3lbs over the day before. Now, I KNOW I’m making excuses for Hamed, but making weight when he wasn’t in condition DRAINED him, the rehydration period, insufficient. His sparring partners, Mexican novices by comparison, were outclassing him and Barrera was in the condition of his life. Yet make no mistake. The better man won that fight, and Barrera is a fighter I’ve long admired and worthy HOF material. I just feel it wasn’t Nas in there that night and as supporting evidence, you only need look at his entire career prior to that bout.
Regardless, it was the only stain on a legendary career, and I don’t wish to taint this piece with sore loser-esque excuses. The uneventful fight that followed Barrera, a decision victory to a fighter I forget even the name of, was a sad and premature ending to one of the brightest careers us English fans have seen in decades. The curtain came down on a 36-1 highlight reel, with an 83% KO record. Magic in numbers alone.
Growing up as a teenager watching Naseem Hamed fight, I shall always hold a special place in my heart for him. He was a hugely talented, unorthodox and charismatic fighter, the likes of which has not graced a British ring since, and most prob shan’t for a long, long time. Truly a very SPECIAL fighter.
As always, thanks for reading. I will be publishing parts 2 and 3 of my Great Brits series, very soon.
I’m contactable on email: email@example.com or on Facebook, Olly Campbell, Olly.Campbell.666.
Take it easy…