Editor’s Pick: The day it all went wrong for 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.

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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