by Jonathan Hucker
Madison Square Garden, New York, arguably the world’s most iconic boxing venue, is packed full of expectant fans. Some have travelled across the Atlantic to be here for this moment. Others have made the trip from around New York City. All of them are in full voice and ready to cheer their fighter to victory.
A long catwalk stretches through the arena from the boxer’s entrance towards the ring. The lights dim and a silhouette appears behind a white curtain. The man behind it, who begins to dance to Will Smith’s ‘Men in Black’, is a British featherweight superstar about to make his American debut. The year is 1997, and the featherweight is ‘Prince’ Naseem Hamed. He is about to fight – and knockout – New York native Kevin Kelley in the fight of the year.
At that point in his career, ‘Naz’ was a British boxing sensation. He was 23-years-old, undefeated in all his 28 professional fights and was the reigning WBO featherweight champion of the world.
The Kelley fight marked a high-point in Naz’s career. He had shot to stardom with his concussive power, unorthodox style and flamboyant ring entrances. His pre-fight predictions and post-fight interviews were laced with a tongue-in-cheek arrogance. Naz made bold claims and backed them up in exciting fashion.
The lower weight classes are typically overlooked in boxing; but Hamed changed this. He paved the way for the sub-welterweights to thrive. His appealing style drew in the masses not only to the smaller fighters, but to boxing in general. He was a crossover star.
After defeating Kelley in a back-and-fourth shootout, Hamed continued on his American invasion – fighting in Atlantic City, Detroit and Connecticut – returning to a hero’s welcome with fights in Manchester and London in between. Whilst he remained a household name, Naz was facing problems in the fight game. A fallout with long term trainer Brendan Ingle and Hall of Fame promoter Frank Warren amplified some sub-par performances. It seemed that the ‘Prince’ was losing interest in sport he had come to dominate at such a young age. It couldn’t have come at a worse time. On the horizon was a Las Vegas mega-fight with Mexican boxing, Marco Antonio Barrera.
Naz entered the ring against Barrera in April 2001 as a heavy favourite; but his famed swagger seemed to desert him on the night. His elaborate entrance was delayed and when he did make his was to the ring – on a ‘floating’ seat suspended from the MGM Grand’s ceiling – he was covered in beer thrown from a fan in the crowd. He didn’t do his signature front-flip over the ropes, and he was wobbled by the Mexican in a humbling opening round.
Hamed lost for the first time that night on a unanimous points decision. In an atypical post-fight interview, the Brit accepted the loss with grace and promised to be back. He did return to the ring in an underwhelming points victory in 2002 against the unheralded Manual Calvo. And just like that, we never saw Naz fight again. He was 28-years-old.
It’s a shame that Hamed had his final fight in the prime of his life. For normal fighters, their 28th year would signal the start of their peak. But Hamed wasn’t normal. He was a precocious talent the likes of which we haven’t seen since. His unique punching power and a natural tendency to entertain propelled him to superstar status years before his prime. Whilst some may wonder if we ever saw the best of Naz, it would be foolish for us to take for granted the spectacular years of enjoyment he provided. No one will forget the Prince, and nor should they.