Friday, March 24, 2023  |


Khan-Malignaggi evokes memories of Hamed-Kelley


Madison Square Garden. The aging-but-still-world-class, loquacious New Yorker defending his home turf. The 23-year-old Brit of South Asian descent fighting in America for the first time.

Six knockdowns in four time-capsule rounds? We can certainly hope.

How Amir Khan vs. Paulie Malignaggi will actually play out in the ring on Saturday night remains to be seen, but the prefight similarities to Dec. 19, 1997, when Naseem Hamed and Kevin Kelley captivated the boxing world for 11 minutes and 27 seconds of canvas-kissing craziness, are undeniable.

And the Hamed connections, for both current junior welterweight contenders, are considerable.

Malignaggi, the sneering, much-rooted-against Brooklyn braggart who has unexpectedly turned into a sentimental favorite of late, was a 17-year-old kid who’d only started boxing six months prior when Hamed vs. Kelley took place. He was just getting hooked on the sport, caught wind of the Hamed hype and cobbled together $25 to be there at the Garden. He was short the $2 surcharge, so he relied on his gift of gab and flashed the puppy-dog eyes, convincing the woman in the ticket booth to let the two bucks slide. That night, his career path and professional personality were forever altered.

“It was like, wow, this guy Hamed has got everybody eating out of the palm of his hand,” Malignaggi told me in an interview in 2007. “I actually went there to root for Kevin Kelley, because he was a gym mate of mine at Gleason’s Gym. But I was very curious about this guy Hamed because he was so entertaining and I could see how he gripped the whole cityÔÇöI mean, there was a big banner of him in Times Square. And boxing doesn’t get those big banners ÔǪ He left a big impression on me, that fight left a big impression on me and I left there saying ‘I want to be here in this building some day fighting for a championship.'”

Khan’s connection to “The Prince” is more direct. From the moment Khan became one of the biggest stars in British boxing by snagging silver as a 17-year-old at the 2004 Olympic games, he was compared to Hamed based on the accent of his voice and the color of his skin. Hamed quickly became a Khan supporter.

“It’s good to see a Muslim brother come out and do his thing like he do it,” Naz bellowed in the ring after an early Khan victory.

Hamed offered a fair helping of praise after Khan rebounded from a shocking knockout loss to Breidis Prescott to claim an alphabet belt against Andreas Kotelnik in July ’09 (though The Prince was also conscious to speak supremely highly of himself at the same time): “Amir’s a great fighter and he’s got mad hand speed,” he told the Daily Mirror after the fight. “He’s got crazy hand speed, hand speed not a lot of fighters have got, but can I see a bit of me in him? I don’t know. I was super great. I was special. Amir Khan is Amir Khan. He’s a great fighter, he’s got great attributes. But Prince Naseem brought something completely different to any other fighter in the whole world ÔǪ But now just look, the man came back [from the Prescott fight], he beat Marco Antonio Barrera. He beat the only guy who beat Prince NaseemÔÇöthat alone is fantasticÔÇöand now he is world champion.”

Of course, when it comes to being labeled “world champion,” there’s a difference between having a belt and being regarded as a top-five guy in your division, as Khan is, and being the indisputable number-one guy, as Hamed was at featherweight for four years.

And the differences don’t end there. Stylistically, Khan isn’t much like Hamed. “King Khan” can punch, but not like Naz, who was arguably the best single-shot artist of his day. Khan’s technique is more or less textbook; Hamed’s was anything but. Khan is an orthodox fighter, Hamed a southpaw.

And Khan’s name doesn’t mean as much in America on the eve of his Stateside debut as Hamed’s did, which is the main reason that Saturday’s fight will be in the smaller WaMu Theater at the Garden, as opposed to the “big room” that housed 11,954 for Hamed-Kelley.

“Hamed was a consummate showman,” said Lou DiBella, an HBO executive back in ’97 and Malignaggi’s promoter now. “He danced into the ring, he was brash, he had a bigger-than-life personality. He was tremendously adept at promoting himself, he was tremendously adept at entertaining people. He had a sense for the theatrical. This kid [Khan] is just a nice looking kid who knows how to fight. The buzz is clearly not the same as it was for Hamed.

“Hamed was undefeated and his punching power was almost legendary for his size, before he ever fought in America. Khan got blitzkrieged by Breidis Prescott and doesn’t have the untarnished record. I’m not denigrating the kid, he’s a tremendously talented athlete, he’s fast, he’s got a big punch, and he’s got a very good corner with Freddie Roach. But it’s a huge difference. We’re selling very, very well and we have a very good chance to have a sellout or to come close to it. But, again, we’re not in the big room. Hamed came to the United States and headlined the big room at the Garden.”

So it’s fair to call Khan-Malignaggi a poor man’s Hamed-KelleyÔÇöwhich is by no means meant as an insult. This simply isn’t as big an event. Khan isn’t the superstar Hamed was.

At least not yet. If he and Malignaggi put on the kind of show Hamed and Kelley did, that could change.

“That was one of the most electric nights I’d ever experienced in boxing,” DiBella said when asked for his memories of Dec. 19, 1997. “I remember Kelley standing on the ring ropes, getting pissed off, while Hamed spent 10 minutes dancing into the ring. I remember at first, the crowd at the Garden was hostile toward Hamed, but then when they saw the kid dancing around, all of a sudden the crowd started dancing, and then it was like the room was rocking. Then in the very first round, Kelley drops him on his ass and the place goes nuts. And then it became a classic fight in which there were six knockdowns and Hamed ultimately knocked him out.”

If we’re lucky, Khan and Malignaggi will put each other on the deck three times apiece this weekend. But that’s probably a stretch; Hamed vs. Kelley was the sort of unexpected thriller that will be nearly impossible to duplicate.

So maybe we should just be happy that this Saturday’s bout is at least stirring up memories of that great Garden rumble from 13 years ago, and view any thrills Khan and Malignaggi provide in the ring as a bonus.


ÔÇó This week’s Rants are somewhat limited because I was out of town over the weekend and didn’t get to view any of the televised fights yet. All I know for sure is that my trip was more enjoyable than Kermit Cintron’s. (Rimshot!)

ÔÇó Normally, I despise fighters trash-talking about how they’re going to “kill” their opponents because, in a sport where people do occasionally die, it’s in horrible taste. However, if you’re going to do it, at least make your wording hilariously bad, as Paul Williams did at the final press conference for his fight with Cintron: “I’m going to try to kill him to death.” Definitely the boxing quote of the year so far.

ÔÇó Thanks to all of you who wrote in with your overwhelmingly positive responses to last week’s “running diary” column. I intend to bust that format out again in the future, just as soon as Wapakman is available on DVD.

ÔÇó In case you missed last week’s Ring Theory, you can still access it here. This particular show was 42 minutes long, which, if I’ve done my math correctly, is exactly 42 minutes more than the amount of quality audio produced by Lennox Lewis in his entire tenure at HBO.

Eric Raskin can be reached at [email protected] You can read his articles each month in THE RING magazine.