Prince Naseem Hamed’s Greatest Hits: The Royal Rumbles
(Editor’s Note: This feature originally appeared in the December 2019 issue of The Ring Magazine)
He was a superstar, and it was all by design.
If Prince Naseem Hamed hadn’t engaged in spectacular ring entrances, if he hadn’t flipped over the top rope, if he hadn’t taunted opponents and told them how many rounds he expected them to last, then his Hall of Fame career wouldn’t be anywhere near as memorable as it is today. He would still be remembered as a great fighter, but Hamed always wanted to be more than that … much more.
In his career, “The Prince” (or “Naz”) was an incredible fistic personality. He had an almost insane insistence to be heard, confidence that smashed through to arrogance as soon as a mic was thrust in his face, and he was made for television. That entire package was his own creation, but he also worked diligently to become great where it mattered most, and he couldn’t do that alone.
It’s almost impossible to overstate how important late trainer Brendan Ingle was in the career of Prince Naseem Hamed. Their names will forever be linked in boxing folklore, and despite the fact that they separated a half dozen fights before the end of Hamed’s professional career, it was that engaging little Irishman, founder of the Wincobank gym in Sheffield, England, who will always be credited with nurturing one of the most unique prizefighters in history.
“Brendan set the foundations, not just for me, but any fighter who stepped inside that boxing club, and he was absolutely amazing,” Hamed told The Ring. “His strategy of fighting was possibly the best way for you to do well in boxing and leave the sport without being injured. The style was based on a lot of movement, although my overall style ended up very different from anyone else’s.
“For me, Brendan was more mentor and philosopher than trainer. He would tell you, ‘These are skills you need to be able to avoid punches. These are the punches you need to be throwing.’ It was the fundamentals of boxing, and that foundation was so strong for me. My whole thing started with mastering footwork for four years, between the ages of 7 and 11, and all of that was put forward by Brendan.”
Hamed’s professional career lasted a touch over 10 years, between April 1992 and May 2002. During that time, the charismatic Englishman of Yemeni descent captured a trio of world title belts at featherweight and solidified himself as the biggest star in British boxing. Hamed also crossed over with American audiences, signing off on a lucrative TV deal with HBO in 1997, and he is largely responsible for the subsequent wave of lighter-weight stars receiving global recognition and massive purses. He fought in a time when The Ring had discontinued its recognition of division champions, but recently became the first fighter in boxing history to receive an honorary belt for his accomplishments in the sport.
Hamed now recalls his most notable victories… and ring entrances:
September 30, 1995/Cardiff Arms Park, Cardiff, Wales • Titles: WBO featherweight
“It was a master class. Steve Robinson did very well in his career, but I had strengths that went far beyond his strengths. I loved the fight, and despite the fact that he looked hard from the outside, despite the fact that he was a tall, strong featherweight, I knew it would be an easy night. And it was. He never won a round; he never won a minute of a round. The fight was in his hometown, it was very hostile, but in life and in boxing you should always use what confronts you in the best way possible. Always be positive. The fact that his fans were shouting ‘Hamed. Hamed. Who the fuck is Hamed?’ made me feel (laughs) … I’m gonna show you exactly who I am! Just give me a little time to make my entrance, and once I get started, you’re going to do one of two things: You’re either gonna go very quiet or you’re gonna leave once your champion is dismantled, smashed up, exposed and taken out.”
Result: Hamed TKO 8
February 8, 1997/London Arena, London • Titles: IBF/WBO featherweight
“‘Boom Boom’ Johnson was a fight where I could prove myself to the boxing world, which, for me, especially at that time, was America. I said there was a British Arab who was going to be very special, and I couldn’t wait for that fight. ‘Boom Boom’ Johnson had an amazing career; he’d been world champion for a very long time and made 12 defenses of his belt. He looked me in the eyes and said, ‘You think you can knock me out? What makes you think you can do what nobody else has ever done?’ I said, ‘Tom, you’re gonna realize there’s a time for everything. I’ve visualized this, and I believe I will knock you out, Tom.’ It was a right uppercut, and the timing of it came down to him making this certain movement. I just caught him as he was making the move, and the shot landed pinpoint. When I look back at the fight, it’s funny … we had an Arab sponsor on the canvas, and when I dropped him, he landed right on it. All the insignia said was ‘The Arabs.’”
Result: Hamed TKO 8
October 11, 1997/Sheffield Arena, Sheffield • Titles: WBO featherweight
“Badillo was a good fighter who performed at a high level, but, just like many of my opponents, he was made to look very ordinary. That was down to the style, the ability, the confidence, the punching power and everything else that I had. The Badillo fight was for the Sheffield fans because it was ‘The Full Monty’ (a critically acclaimed comedy set in Sheffield) promotion. I also knew that Kevin Kelley was ringside, and the fight was being broadcast on Showtime in America. The audience was broader for this particular fight, and I had to put on another master class. I wanted to show my speed, my ability, my footwork, my confidence and how colorful I was. I wanted to show that the whole thing, when it was wrapped up nicely, was poetry in motion. In that fight, I showed it.”
Result: Hamed TKO 7
December 19, 1997/Madison Square Garden, New York • Titles: WBO featherweight
“It was a very risky fight, because it was put up or shut up. This guy, in my eyes, was possibly the best fighter I ever fought. I remember him having untold amounts of experience. His ability, his speed, his achievements and the way he fought was at the highest level. Kevin could take you out with one punch, and he was very dangerous. I could never have thought the fight would go the way it did, developing into what some people have called the featherweight Hagler-Hearns. When Larry Merchant said that, I remember thinking what an amazing compliment that is. I was also told that while Madison Square Garden ranked their number one fight as Muhammad Ali versus Joe Frazier in 1971, they said the second-best fight was Prince Naseem versus Kevin Kelley, so that’s another history-breaker. This wasn’t just hearsay; I’m sure (former HBO Sports president) Seth Abraham, who had moved to Madison Square Garden, told me that.”
Result: Hamed KO 4
April 18, 1998/Nynex Arena, Manchester • Titles: WBO featherweight
“Vazquez was WBA champion, but there was so much political stuff going on between the governing bodies. There was a lot of hassle, and I still don’t understand it today. I don’t know whether the WBA stripped him or if there was something wrong, but I was so disappointed (to not be fighting for the WBA title), I’m not gonna lie. I always wondered, ‘Why the hell is this a unification fight without his belt on the line? This is not fair. I’m fighting the current WBA featherweight champion.’ [Editor’s note: Vazquez held the WBA title when the fight was made, but was stripped in March.] When I saw heroes of mine like Sugar Ray Leonard in unification fights, all these belts were at stake. Why can’t this happen for me? Vazquez was a real, legitimate, amazing world champion who had achieved a lot in the sport. To beat somebody like that and not get the belt is unfair and a robbery. But afterwards I heard directly from the WBA, who acknowledged that I’d beat their champion, and they sent me a belt. Despite all the political nonsense that happened beforehand, that showed a really high level of respect from the WBA to me. Nobody can deny me and say I wasn’t WBA champion.”
Result: Hamed TKO 7
October 22, 1999/Joe Louis Arena, Detroit • Titles: WBC/WBO featherweight
“Soto was a strong, solid (WBC) world champion, and the guy who held the title before him was Luisito Espinosa. Espinosa, like a lot of champions back then, would never fight me. (My former promoter, Frank) Warren will tell you, they just refused to fight, and that’s despite the fact that they would be making career-high paydays. But the other side of it is the world champions who did fight me were never the same afterwards. The fight seemed to change them. Fighting for the WBC belt was a huge honor, because that same belt was held by my hero, Muhammad Ali. The green belt is a very special belt, and it always will be. I got on really well with Jose Sulaiman, God rest his soul, who was half-Arab, half-Mexican – and I loved the fact that he was half-Arab; he was Lebanese. His son, Mauricio, is a beautiful guy, and we get on really well. Soto had a very negative style, and he did everything he could not to get knocked out. But the entrance with The Four Tops, selling out the Joe Louis Arena and fight week … it was interesting. It was a great time.”
Result: Hamed UD 12
March 11, 2000/Olympia, London • Titles: WBO featherweight
“That was one of my most special nights, and I was looking to create a form of boxing history. I was friends with one of the biggest rap stars in the world at that time – Puff Daddy, P. Diddy – and I remember calling him. I said, ‘Do you want to be part of the biggest boxing entrance in the world?’ And I remember his words clearly. He said, ‘It would be an honor! Just tell me the country, the place and the time, and I’ll be there!’ At that time, fighters weren’t bringing rap stars and music stars into boxing. People weren’t making entrances that way. I said from the beginning that I was different, and I love the fact that I captured the world’s imagination. That was the flying carpet ring entrance, probably my best entrance, and when the flying carpet came down, Puff Daddy was there. I had an amazing training camp for the fight and we had a South African sparring partner, Jackie (Gunguluza), who could emulate Bungu better than Bungu himself. The sparring was way harder than the fight, and I mean like 10 times harder.”
Result: Hamed KO 4
August 19, 2000/Foxwoods Resort, Mashantucket, Connecticut • Titles: WBO featherweight
“He knocked me down and deserved credit for that, but he didn’t get it (officially). But I didn’t mind that (I was knocked down), because that’s honestly one of the only times in my career that I had a full premonition of what was going to happen in that fight. I got all my brothers and friends around the pool table the night before and told them what was going to happen. The only thing I hadn’t visualized was Sanchez walking out of the ring, and it just so happens that he was carried from the ring on a stretcher that night. Thank God he was OK. The knockout was on a four-punch combination and he was probably out by the third, so the final right hand didn’t need to be thrown. Sanchez was the last fighter to truly beat Floyd Mayweather Jr. (as an amateur); he was a great fighter and the likes of (Erik) Morales and (Marco Antonio) Barrera didn’t want to fight him. Kevin Kelley helped train Sanchez for the fight, and I told him, ‘Kevin, he won’t go past the round you did,’ and he didn’t.”
Result: Hamed TKO 4
DREAM FIGHTS FOR A PRINCE
HAMED TAKES AIM AT FIVE HALL OF FAMERS HE MISSED DURING HIS REIGN
“Johnny Tapia was offered way more money than he would get fighting anyone else, probably double or triple the amount, and he wouldn’t risk it. And do you know what? I don’t blame him. Johnny Tapia was an amazing style for me, because he was like a goalkeeper; he stopped a lot of shots. As good as he was, as a former world champion, he would not have been able to take the power. But, then again, there weren’t many featherweights who could.”
“Erik Morales was an amazing world champion. I saw him recently at the WBC convention in Baku, and I would have gone up and gave him respect, but he didn’t want to speak to me. The reason for that is he was always afraid to fight me. He was offered untold amounts of money, but he would not come to the table. I always found that strange because of how good he was, his achievements and who he fought in the sport. But I always felt in my heart that his style was absolutely perfect for me.”
JUAN MANUEL MARQUEZ
“I never refused or ducked a fight in my life. Looking back on it, Marquez wasn’t flash, he wasn’t awkward and he didn’t use lots of movement. He was a great fighter, but that was another style that I could have beaten easily. It wasn’t meant to be, and I don’t know whether that was down to managers or promoters, but the fight not happening certainly wasn’t down to me. I always enjoyed watching Marquez, but when Floyd (Mayweather Jr.) schooled him and barely took a punch, just by using movement with no punching power, that showed me what I would have done with him in my prime.”
“I never found out why that fight never got made, but I think it was down to the fact that he was heavier than me. He was a weight class heavier, and I never fought at 130 pounds. They all wanted to fight me because I was the golden kid at the time. I was the one that demanded and commanded big paychecks. That fight was discussed when I’d just cracked open the floodgates for all the (smaller) fighters to get paid. But I could have fought Gatti at a catchweight, and it would have been very easy to smash him up. Gatti would have been destroyed in half the time Floyd did him in.”
FLOYD MAYWEATHER JR.
“That would have been an amazing fight. Now, you have to bear in mind that I started my career as a flyweight and won my first world title in my featherweight debut. But, honestly, I should have capped my career at (junior featherweight). My best weight probably wasn’t even featherweight. Floyd was at his best as a junior lightweight and a lightweight, before he moved on to junior welterweight and welterweight. It really didn’t make too much sense to fight guys who were two or three weight classes above me. But as great as Floyd was, if we take it to a dream fight, I had devastating punching power – concussive punching power – combined with my speed and accuracy. At my best, I will never allow a fighter to go 12 rounds without cracking him with one of my rocket launchers.”
Tom Gray is Associate Editor for The Ring. Follow him on Twitter: @Tom_Gray_Boxing.