Hall of Fame: ‘Prince’ Naseem Hamed
HALL OF FAME 2015
‘PRINCE’ NASEEM HAMED WAS KING WHEN IT CAME TO ENTERTAINMENT
Before Naseem Hamed began his professional career in 1992 with a second-round knockout of Ricky Beard, he was paraded around Fargate shopping center in Sheffield, on a busy Saturday no less, by his trainer and mentor Brendan Ingle. The Irish pied piper wore a sandwich board and carried a poster promoting Hamed’s debut as the unsure boxer trailed behind. Shoppers inevitably looked his way, for Ingle whooped and hollered and used a megaphone to proclaim the boy’s greatness while Naseem, 18 at the time and a mere flyweight, shrugged his shoulders and bowed his head, a diminutive frame shrinking under the interrogation of baffled locals.
Yet fast-forward to April 14, the night of his pro debut, and Hamed was unequivocally “The Prince.” He walked tall, he vaulted the top rope, he wore leopard-skin attire, he performed an extravagant forward flip when introduced, he smirked, he snarled, he broke all the rules and a crippling body shot folded Beard in two rounds. Gone was the shy teenager in the shopping center.
“Naz” was at home.
“Who was really interested in a small Yemeni kid who had a good amateur career but did nothing spectacular?” said Dominic Ingle, son of Brendan, who was around Naz for much of the former world featherweight champion’s career. “He had to create interest. He knew that. My dad showed him the way and he saw the method.”
Ingle had once taken Herol Graham, a former European middleweight champion, on a tour of Sheffield’s working men’s clubs on Sunday afternoons in the hope of drumming up interest in the awkward switch-hitter’s career. These appearances led to Graham play-fighting with brave locals and showing his vast array of tricks. And it worked. He’d sell tickets off the back of being so accessible.
We’d wear pads that would go over your wrist and Naz would hit you somewhere between the palm of your hand and your wrist. By the time we’d done three minutes, my arms were dead.
– Dominic Ingle
Years later, Ingle would guide Hamed and his friend, Ryan Rhodes, toward many of the same smoke-filled, beer-drenched pool halls and continue the flogging process.
“Back then Naz wasn’t as flash, arrogant or flamboyant as he grew up to be,” said Rhodes, who joined the Wincobank gym at 6 and met Hamed two years later. “He was just a kid from a corner shop. But he was easily the best fighter to ever come out of the Wincobank. Naz had absolutely everything – confidence, ability, power, speed, accuracy. He had the full package.”
When Rhodes was 11, he and Hamed were asked to perform ring-card duties for a show at the City Hall headlined by Graham. As per their role, they were kitted out in dinner suits and dickie bows and asked to parade around the ring between rounds holding numbered cards. “We looked a right couple of numpties,” Rhodes recalled. Rather than a test of friendship, though, it merely solidified their bond. They were in this together. Best friends. Both were going to be world champions at the same time. They were sure of it from the start.
“His dad’s corner shop was one hundred yards up the road from the gym,” said Dominic’s younger brother John Ingle, who accompanied Hamed to all but one of his 67 amateur bouts and helped train him as a pro. “You walked past the shop and he’d be outside playing every day. He was just one of those kids who drifted in the gym one day. He was only 7.
“As soon as he came in from school, he’d be in the gym from half past three. He’d then be in there until 6 or 7 o’clock at night. There were a million different things going on in the gym and he didn’t want to miss out.”
Hamed was one of nine kids, thus used to being lost in a crowd. And the gym, chock-full of like-minded youngsters, was more or less a home away from home. “He was like a little street urchin,” said John. “He didn’t cause trouble; he just wanted to be in the gym. He was a bundle of energy. By the time he was 14, he’d probably gone past the 10,000 hours they say it takes to master something. He must have done double that.
“If one of our other boxers had a fight, he’d go with my dad to the show and soak it all in. It was easy enough to sling him in the car and take him with us. He was like a professor of boxing by the time he was a teenager. Also, I can’t remember him ever having a girlfriend while he was at school. How could he? He was never out of the gym.”
Though Hamed mostly refused to do roadwork or any kind of running, he made up for this deficiency by spending countless hours sparring in the gym. It was his favorite pastime. It was how he’d get fit. It was how his style would develop and how his punch power, which was quite extraordinary, started to reveal itself.
“Naz was a tremendous puncher,” said Dominic. “We’d wear pads that would go over your wrist and Naz would hit you somewhere between the palm of your hand and your wrist. By the time we’d done three minutes, my arms were dead and I’d have to swap with John. He could definitely whack.”
“My uncle had a pet shop and he used to breed ducks,” said John. “They had a 6-foot fence around it with an electric wire to keep the cats out. It only had something like 12 volts but it would hit me in the elbow or shoulder when I was a kid and knock me back a bit. The cat would be knocked off its feet. Well, when I took Naz on the pads, it was like getting an electric shock. After he’d finished with me, I’d look like an alcoholic – my hands would shake so much.”
This punching power, fairly miraculous given his slight frame, was attributed to the size of his chunky thighs, the ease with which he was able to fire off jarring punches from all angles, whether coming forward or going backward, and also his relatively low punch output, which allowed him to load up and re-set between attacks.
“Herol Graham would take a few rounds to size you up and take the sting out of you,” said John. “Then he’d go to work. With Naz, though, he was like Herol Graham without the first three rounds. He’d do your head in and take away the sting but he’d bash you up as well. He’d be awkward and hurtful. He watched Herol and evolved his style to make it more fan-friendly.”
This adjustment proved pivotal and Hamed, in winning the WBO world featherweight title from Steve Robinson in September 1995, was well on his way to global stardom. He was fast becoming the showman Brendan had always pushed him to be.
“He’d be in the changing room before a fight and we’d have the likes of Pierce Brosnan, Puff Daddy and Liam and Noel Gallagher (from the band Oasis) in there,” said John. “No British fighter has had that level of fame. He even went to Michael Jackson’s house. How does that happen? How is there a connection between a little kid from a Sheffield corner shop and The King of Pop?”
“I remember being in a New York gym when Naz was training for the Kevin Kelley fight (December 1997) and I was just on the bag doing a bit of training,” said Rhodes. “Next minute I looked outside and saw about 10 massive Escalades pull up. I thought we were going to get raided. Then some of the biggest black guys I’d ever seen climbed out of the vehicles and Michael Jackson walked in behind them. He’d come to watch Naz train.”
As the stars looked on, Hamed successfully defended his WBO world championship 15 times and scooped the IBF and WBC versions with wins over Tom “Boom Boom” Johnson and Cesar Soto, respectively. He cleaned up the division. He redefined the division. Some went as far as to call him the greatest featherweight of all time. And, for a while, nobody dared argue. It sounded good.
But after beating Wayne McCullough in October ’98 he parted ways with Brendan Ingle and left the Wincobank altogether. Looking back, many believe it signaled the beginning of the end for Hamed.
“There were times when Naz was supposed to be at the gym at 4 and, by the time he got there, it would be 10 o’clock at night,” remembered Dominic Ingle. “It took him six hours to do a 4-mile journey from the other side of town. You know then that the boredom has set in. He had a thousand other things to do. He was doing appearances, sponsorship stuff, meeting other celebrities and so on.”
“When Naz left Brendan, he was no longer the same kid or the same fighter,” said Rhodes. “When Naz was with Brendan, it wasn’t just about power. It wasn’t just about knocking people out. It was about looking good, winning and, if you get a knockout, it’s a bonus. When he left, though, that all changed. I think the Kevin Kelley fight was a wake-up call. And the Naz I saw against Barrera was nothing like the Naz I’d seen growing up.”
Oh yes, Marco Antonio Barrera, the great Mexican who, back in April 2001, at the time he met Hamed, was just on his way to solidifying his greatness. He’d recently waged a brutal Fight of the Year with bitter rival Erik Morales at junior featherweight and was – whisper it quietly – perhaps seen as a burnt-out force in the eyes of “The Prince” and his backers. It was, in so many ways, then, the perfect fight.
“I would have bet everything I owned that he’d beat Barrera,” said John. “At 100 percent, Barrera wouldn’t have been able to do anything with him. But you could tell Naz wasn’t fit that night. He had one plan and that was to blast him out.
Nobody has seen the best of Naz unless they’ve been in the gym with him … When he retired, the kids that knew Naz were gutted because they realized the rest of the world wouldn’t get to see what they had seen. He still had plenty to give.
– Ryan Rhodes
“Naz was the perfect product but he wasn’t being looked after properly. He needed to be doing as he was told. When he was sparring at the Wincobank, it was competitive, it was almost personal. He’d want to get the upper hand on his mates. They were proper fights. They’d test his strength of character. But, going into that Barrera fight, they had little Mexican kids nobody had ever heard of. They were just happy to be there. Naz was in his comfort zone and didn’t have the hunger to get out of it.”
“It was a fight I don’t think Naz should have lost,” agreed Dominic. “But if you look at the fights before that, Paul Ingle gave him a load of trouble before Naz finished it with a body shot, Augie Sanchez gave him a run for his money before Naz knocked him out and he also had an ugly wrestling match with Cesar Soto. The writing was on the wall. The opponents he boxed when he left us weren’t the best. There were no fantastic performances. He was just getting through fights.
“His style changed a bit too. He tended to stand more southpaw and switched a lot less. When he was here, he had a lot of people around him who pushed and motivated him. Now he was getting special treatment and one-on-one sessions. He seemed to call the shots and that reflected in his performance. He had everybody telling him Barrera was a [junior featherweight] who was on the slide and would get knocked out. His punch was always his get-out-of-jail-free card but you don’t rely on that. Naz relied on it that night and he ran out of time.”
Hamed lost a unanimous decision to Barerra, as well as his perfect record, his air of invincibility and his mystique. Dignity also went at the precise moment his head was slammed into the corner post by his Mexican challenger in Round 12.
“Three weeks after the Barerra fight we played golf together,” recalled Rhodes. “It didn’t seem like the loss affected him that much but I know it did. I knew what he was like. Naz was so proud. He genuinely never thought he would get beaten. Deep down it hurt him.”
The assumption was that a scorned Hamed would chase a rematch and look to set the record straight. Instead, he sheepishly dissolved into the background only to emerge 11 months later with a lackluster win over Manuel Calvo in London. The decision victory, which was greeted with boos, catcalls and impatient foot-stomps by a restless home crowd, marked the final time anybody would see Hamed in the ring.
“You look at most great fighters and they lose and come back stronger,” said Dominic. “With Naz, though, it was like someone took away his ball and he didn’t want to play anymore. He almost said, ‘If we’re not playing by my rules, I don’t want to play.'”
“Nobody has seen the best of Naz unless they’ve been in the gym with him,” said Rhodes, shaking his head despondently. “When he retired, the kids that knew Naz were gutted because they realized the rest of the world wouldn’t get to see what they had seen. He still had plenty to give.
“But who knows what it’s like having 35 million pounds in the bank? It takes a special person to be motivated enough to get up, train, diet and sacrifice when you don’t need to.”
Hamed was just 28 years old when he retired. Finally, this year, at the age of 41, he will be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. It’s been a long time coming; more than just a stellar 36-1 record, his influence and impact can be seen in the ring entrances, interviews, trunks, corkscrew uppercuts and unguarded faces of those who carry the mantle in 2015. He made quite the impression.
It gets better, too. Take the moment a 14-year-old Muslim boy named Abdul-Bari Awad met a retired Hamed at a Sheffield mosque and said, “Naz, I want to be a champion like you.” Hamed, though several stone (one stone equals 14 pounds) above his old fighting weight, flashed that trademark toothy smile, looked the ambitious teenager up and down and then replied, “If you want to be a world champion like me, kid, you need to go and see a man called Brendan Ingle.”
Eyes wide, Awad treated this advice as the holy word and visited the Wincobank the very next day. Ten years later, he’s better known as the undefeated Kid Galahad and is world-ranked and on the cusp of winning a world junior featherweight title.
“The Prince” may have gone but his legacy lives on.