Light a candle. Ten years ago today, we saw last boxing’s royalty, pound-for-pound icon, showman extraordinaire, featherweight all-time-great, British boxing top tier member and easily the most talented fighter I have ever seen in my life; PRINCE, Naseem, Hamed!
This is a Requiem for Naseem.
One day after I posted about Fedor Emelianenko’s imminent retirement, this ink-spill on the page of my diary comes up. It is a black birthmark on the face of fightsport, an ugly scar on an otherwise smooth patch of skin, a boil on the buttock of boxing. This is well and truly “The Black Week of Combat Sports”.
Naseem Hamed was the most extraordinarily talented fighter you may ever see in your life. To do his outstanding career justice, I will properly eulogise for this star that burned out fast instead of fading away like the rest. In losing him so soon (he retired aged 28) boxing indeed suffered a tragedy of Shakespearean scale, but in never having to witness his invincible nature proved fallible as the rest of us more than the one time we did, means that I and others like me can cling to our beliefs that one single bad day at the office from a by-then lazy, unmotivated, tactically flawed and lacklustre Prince is the only measure by which we can say – no, not that he was exposed – but that he was human after all.
Equally memorable as his sledgehammer punching power and uniquely unorthodox style, was his flamboyant approach to entering the ring. Chris Eubank popularised the lights, glitz, glam, pose, unique theme song (Simply the Best) and rope vault, but Naseem took it to the next level, progressing to more outrageous levels as he hit world title level; from simply strutting out and somersaulting to the sound of “Here Comes The Hotstepper”, to entering the arena on lifts with pyrotechnic displays to “O Fortuna”; carried out on palanquin “emperor” thrones with women scattering rose petals over the ground he walked on; driven in on Cadillacs; lowered from the rafters on golden disks; dancing his way down huge rampways, once even descending on a flying carpet where he landed next to none other than Puff Daddy, who walked him into the ring for his trademark – yes, he wasn’t finished there – even on the ring apron he upstaged Eubank – which was taking the rope vault into its more extreme form, and forward somersaulting into the ring.
His showmanship was nothing shy of godlike.
But at the end of the day, let it never be doubted that beyond the show and “unfulfilled potential”, Prince Naseem Hamed still accomplished a remarkable decade-long ledger in the sport to go along with his talent, and it reads as follows:
* European Bantamweight champion (1994)
*WBC International Super-Bantamweight champion (1994-95)
*WBO World Featherweight champion (1995-2001 – 15 defences)
*IBF World Featherweight champion (1997 – 2 defences)
*WBC World Featherweight champion (1999)
*Lineal WBA World Featherweight champion 1998 – WBA stripped Wilfredo Vazquez prior to his bout with Naseem
*Lineal World Featherweight champion (with Vazquez win – 5 “defences”)
*IBO World Featherweight champion (2002)
*36 wins, 1 loss (31 knockouts)
*17 world championship wins
*10 world champion opponents beaten
In short, he dominated the featherweight division for six years, winning 17 world championship fights against 10 world champion opponents, and he unified all the titles. And he did it in style.
Buckle up, hitch ‘em up, and light ‘em up. This is a 10yr journey through the heart of true sporting greatness, mastery of athletic achievement, and it ended 10yrs ago to the day;
THE FRESH PRINCE (1992-1993)
Naseem strutted on to the scene with a handful of easy victories. Vaulting the top rope a la Chris Eubank, swaggering, and boxing with what shocked purists as a ludicrous, outrageous, even offensive style of hopping from foot to foot, hands by his waist as he fired single or rapid fire shots off with both hands. The 18yr old flyweight had more than a saving grace though – firstly, that he could not be hit; his lightning reflexes repeatedly carried his head or entire body out of danger; secondly, that he had the punch of a welterweight. Sickening power.
The Prince strutted out at this time (1992-early’94) to the sound of James Brown “I Feel Good”. At every “so good! (Da Da) so good (da da)!” The Prince would, in distinctly princely fashion, stop still and, holding arms outstretched, point his gloves back towards his head, before continuing to gyrate towards the ring. After realising that a boxing massacre would soon proceed, the English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish boxing fans soon learned to appreciate the cocky little Yorkshireman, whose parents came from the Yemen. He considered himself English, and then an “English Arab”. That, and a “future legend”. Everyone else considered him an exciting talent.
He was right.
HERE COMES THE HOTSTEPPER: THE EUROPEAN PRINCE (1994)
Now, onto the good stuff. This was part 1 of my favourite Prince; forget finding his feet, it gets interesting when the opposition began to get brought over from abroad, flown in with the intention of building a prospect or knocking his head into Row Z.
The Prince had introduced the rope-somersault in the entrance to his 11th fight against John Miceli, and now he brought a whole new level of swagger, with his elevation to European ranks, a new weight class and a new theme that he would use on and off from 1994-1998: “Here Comes The Hotstepper”.
At the new weight of bantamweight, the now 20-year-old Prince had to face his toughest test in a scrap for the Bantamweight championship of Europe, against notably tough, durable Italian Vicenzo Belcastro (26-8), the European champion and two-weight world title challenger. Naseem picked him apart, winning on one official scorecard by 120-107, and earning a fresh batch of controversy with his taunting in the 12th and final round.
Naseem went on defend the title against Antonio Picardi, whose entourage couldn’t believe the reports that prior to the fight in which Naseem banged out their man in round 3 (performing numerous in-ring handspring somersaults along the way) that Naz had spent his pre-fight preparation playing pool and listening to jungle music. He did – it was his usual routine in daily life, and he didn’t see defending his European title being a good excuse to not indulge in a few games with his friends and listen to his favourite tunes.
HERE COMES THE HOTSTEPPER – THE COMING PRINCE (Late 1994-1995)
Part 2 of the “Hotstepper” era Prince, and arguably his most entertaining, fights-wise, entrance wise (unless high level production and magic carpets are your thing) and belief wise. Naseem stepped up in weight again, to 122lbs or Super-Bantamweight, and won the WBC Super-Bantamweight international title by banging out the-then 45-6 win/loss record and former world title challenger Freddy Cruz. Naseem had a career killing aspect in his lethality – after this point, Cruz, who had only six losses against forty-five wins, and had fought for a world title, went on to lose a staggering THIRTY career fights. Another WBC International title defence was against Laureano Ramirez, a future world title challenger. He was 17-0 when he fought Naz, and he retired at 25-11. That was what Naseem did to people – destroyed careers; he took their soul along with their consciousness.
This meant Prince Naz was now facing international competition, with former world title challengers being brought over to give him rounds. What Americans who dismiss the British stage of his illustrious career don’t understand is that it was this time in his career when Naz was meant to be tested – a young kid facing veterans who’d fought in world championship bouts. But true to form, Mr “it’s me in three” continued to bang out a succession of hapless Super-Bantamweights in the first, second and third rounds.
Notables to drop were 42-4 Sergio Liendo (whose knockout was actually frightening – very unnecessary final shot allowed by the referee) Laureano Ramirez (17-0), Juan Polo Perez (37-12-2), and Enrique Angeles (26-5). All were supposed to give Naz a fight, and none except Ramirez survived past round 2 (he got blasted in the third).
Personally, I love his entrances more from this time. He was at the height of youthful confidence, a rising star and en route to becoming world champion, and he knew it. There were no flying carpets yet, no thrones or palanquins, no Cadillacs driving him in to the arenas… but in retrospect, it was somehow more authentic for it. What he did have was the awesome, fitting tune “Here Comes The Hotstepper“, and a healthy, honest belief in his own abilities to match his swagger and somersault.
Here are three entrances from this time-frame – post Euro-triumph, pre-world title triumph. The Coming Prince, in all his none-production-value needing glory – just a strut, a theme, a flip, and a knockout.
As 1994 rolled into 1995, and English and Scottish ambulance staff continued to roll Naseem opponents onto stretchers, the clamour for a world title shot for the Prince became louder and louder. But no one at Super-Bantamweight wanted him. He was too dangerous, too good. He stepped up in weight again, to featherweight, for a shot at a major world title held conveniently by a fellow Brit, and even more conveniently a non-Englishman; WBO World Featherweight champion Steve Robinson from Wales.
Words cannot do justice to how badly the young Prince beat this proud world champion. Robinson was never the same fighter again. At times like these, videos speak louder than words; bear witness to the most destructive, humiliating, downright terrifying display of cruel, raw, unadulterated talent seen in a 21-yr-old, or even seen in a first time world title fight. Robinson was no Benn to Naseem’s Eubank, but I dare say this fight threatens to equal if not even eclipse Eubank’s own first world title triumph against the feared Nigel Benn.
In the Lion’s Den, Naseem would either sink or swim. Cave in to the pressure, or come up trumps and prove he was boxing’s royalty. And oh my gosh… in front of tens of thousands of screaming Welshmen, did he do that.
He did it.
The Prince had become The King, and all kneeled before his greatness.
HERE IS THE HOTSTEPPER – THE PRINCE IS KING (1995-1998)
The third, final and longest part of the Hotstepper era; the Prince reigning on top. What more can be said than his first entrance into the arena – fittingly, back in England – as a world champion? What a conquering hero… Floyd Mayweather would later steal this idea – done uncomfortably and in an awkward, annoying manner of course – but that kitsch, layman’s boxing icon had not a thimbleful of the swag and talent that Naseem Hamed possessed in such copious amounts.
Naseem showed vulnerability for the first time, as the awkward, rangy and undefeated 15-0 Alicea tagged him when off-balance. Naseem was not hurt, it was merely the positioning of his body during his trademark lunges from distance that left an opening for a shot, and when moving back out of range and off-balance, if the opponent manages the 1 in 10million chance of landing on his chin, even Naseem had to go down. He rose to his feet, and banged out Alicea in the next round.
Next up came Naseem’s final trip to Scotland, and ironically – given that London and America accommodated Naz with the Wembley Arena, Madison Square Garden and the MGM Grand – the Scots managed to give Naseem one of his most memorably epic entrances ever, one that truly deserved the term “on an epic scale”. The commentary set between the lines of “O Fortuna” with such lines as “Chris Eubank, eat your heart out” right before that chilling Carl Orff classical drop, set the stage for something truly magnificent.
And in classic Naz fashion, even in world title defences against 17-1 opponents, the entrance lasted 20x longer than the fight itself (which he ended with one punch, before a second, redundant blow the referee allowed a groggy Said Lawal to take).
The song after “O Fortuna” was Naseem’s own, “Walk Like a Champion” – years and years before Roy Jones Jr started rapping his own entrance themes, Naseem was entering arenas to his own (after being lowered in lifts w/ pyrotechnics to O Fortuna). Much like unifying the division, somersaulting into the ring, and making entrances into extravaganzas, Naseem the music artist was far ahead of his time in boxing. Hell, he was a Playstation game!
Next up came a string of defences Naseem won via crushing knockout – after Alicea and Lawal, next up was former IBF World champion Manuel Medina, in a fight in Ireland in which Naseem entered to Oasis, then enjoying “Britpop” or “Oasis-mania”, the ’90s equivalent to Beatlemania. Noel Gallagher said publicly, “If Naseem were a musician he’d be in Oasis, and if I were a boxer I’d want to be Prince Naseem.”
A flu-suffering Naz still won the fight in round 11. With a confirmed flu, he beat a world champion in a world championship fight.
After Medina’s world champion status was kept firmly in the past tense, Naseem next faced Regimio Molina, who he blasted out in the second round.
*To put into context the Naseem vs. eventual conqueror Barrera debates – Molina would face Erik Morales after Naseem did, and he fared much better against the Mexican legend. As for Barrera, while Naz was embarking on a 16-fight world championship tear and would beat the likes of world champions Kevin Kelley, Tom Johnson and Wilfredo Vazquez, Barrera was losing twice to Junior Jones.
After Molina, Naz returned to England, and his confidence was sky high at this po(int. By now a comfortable world champion, he began looking to the big super-fights, and a potential fight was sounded off with Marco Antonio Barrera. It did not come to fruition – which is tragic, given the condition Naseem was in when they did square off in 2001, and how much more explosive and dynamic he was from 1995-1998 beating multiple world champions back to back at a time when Barrera was losing to Junior Jones twice. What a shame.
Roll on 1997, and in Naseem’s third year as WBO (and to most experts, practically uncrowned but undisputed) champion at featherweight, America decided to step in. Tom Johnson held the IBF world title, had done for five years, and had fought a three-fight series with previous Naseem victim Medina, going 2-1 against the tough Mexican. Johnson was a legitimate claimant to be THE world champion, was 44-2, taller and – he claimed – stronger than Naz, skilled, and a harder puncher than his knockouts-to-wins ratio would indicate. But Naseem took him apart, adding the IBF world title to his WBO belt, thus becoming practically undisputed champion of the world, and truly entering the pound-for-pound best rankings that some had placed him on in 1995.
Naseem next made three 1997 title defences in England, against British, Commonwealth and European champion Billy Hardy (KO), then future South American and WBC International champion Juan Gerardo Cabrera (KO), and finally the tough world title challenger Jose Badillo, who had troubled Tom Johnson briefly. Badillo was 20-1 when Naseem fought him, and his post-Prince record was 3-5 – another humiliated opponent whose soul Naz stole. Round 5 of Naz/Badillo is the most hilariously mismatched, funny and golden rounds in world championship boxing history, and it was cut short by a minute – I can only assume the timekeeper felt sympathy for Badillo.
Round 5 is the greatest round of world championship boxing ever.
And then, next up came that first trip to America, to New York City itself and Madison Square Garden, one of the meccas of boxing itself, to face the best featherweight (up to that point) of the 1990′s… 47-1 knockout punching former WBC World champion, and by consensus the only threat to Naseem out there… Kevin Kelley.
What followed was the greatest seven-minute entrance, the greatest fight, and the greatest comeback performance of Naseem’s career. It was his magnum opus, his finest moment, the peak of his career leading into a strong 1998. He was tested, and prevailed, and proved himself to have been, and to be, p4p and the best featherweight in the world, possibly ever.
Naseem returned to England riding the crest of a wave, from a fight that was included in the 2002 BBC vote for the 100 greatest ever sporting moments (not boxing moments, SPORTING moments). As with before, nothing but big fights followed;
1998 = WBA and Lineal world champion Wilfredo Vazquez, and 22-1 former WBC world champion Wayne McCullough.
Against WBA champ Vazquez, Naseem was denied the honour he would soon have claimed by being the first man to unite all four major world boxing titles (in fact, he’d have united the top 5, with the IBO) as the WBA stripped their champion due to not wishing to have Hamed win their title belt only to drop it as he did with the IBF, in order to face his WBO contenders. So, with the rightful (temporary) claim to the WBA belt, and more importantly to LINEAL title that has followed the undisputed champion down through boxing history, regardless of sanctioning bodies. It carries no belt, but is considered by many boxing purists to be just as if not more important, a Vazquez, who was a three-weight world champion and had won the lineal title from Eloy Rojas.
The result was never in doubt. It was also the last time – after using different themes in 1997 – that Naseem would have “Here Comes The Hotstepper” played throughout the arena before his fight. Only it played all the way though, then another song began (I Refuse) before Naseem actually entered the arena and began his ring walk. Strangely enough, even though Naz won in his usual devastating style, it could be said that 1998 was the last year that Naz “looked prime”, correlating with him abandoning his famous theme throughout the glory days.
Later, on Halloween, America used Naseem’s newfound worldwide celebrity status to bring the now WBO, IBF (dropped), WBA (rightful) and lineal and undisputed featherweight world champion for a fight on a prime night for television on the continent, almost a national holiday. His showmanship came in useful – despite looking comparatively out of sorts in (albeit widely) outpointing the former WBC world champion McCullough, in the first fight he’d not knocked his opponent out in since Belcastro in ’94 (18 title fights) he still brought his usual antics and showmanship, including a famous, even infamous, Halloween entrance – “Naseem The Thriller”.
Naseem was riding the crest of a wave.
CHANGE OF CAMP – NO INGLE – STILL BEATING WORLD CHAMPS (1999-2000)
It is perhaps unfair to separate Naseem in 1998 with Naseem in 1999, as in that year he beat two more world champions, and added the final major belt to his collection, that of the WBC when he outpointed Cesar Soto in a scrappy fight in Detroit. Back in England, in slightly more impressive fashion, Naz took apart brave future IBF king Paul Ingle, after his famous Cadillac entrance, but something wasn’t right.
Naseem had split from longtime trainer and manager Brendan Ingle. It was the Irishman who’d seen the young Arab having to fight three bullies at once on the schoolyard, and had him come try out in his boxing gym. It was Ingle who’d encouraged the crazy, unorthodox style and in-ring athletics and somersaults. It was Ingle who knew Naseem inside and out, and had taken the young boy into an adult world champion. Then, irreconcilable differences led to the Prince leaving for America for good, to a new camp, and with it, new trainers, new mentors, and a new style.
And it didn’t suit him.
Blitzing Ingle aside, Naseem couldn’t put away McCullough, despite having sparked out Kevin Kelley and Wilfredo Vazquez in the same year. With all due respect to the former WBC Super-Bantamweight world champion, Kelley and Vazquez were featherweight world titlists and champions of a different calibre – one is arguably still considered a featherweight legend (Kelley), while the other was the undisputed lineal champion of the world and a considered a dangerous fight for Naseem. Hamed showed strain with Ingle during the fight, refusing to sit on his stool, and even being booed by the crowd for avoiding exchanging with the Irish-American. In 1999, Hamed, now under the Emmanuel Steward camp, was switching his game up, obviously under influence, and throwing combinations and boxing more orthodox. It removed that spark from Naseem’s game; the Yorkshire Prince had always gotten by on pure ability, reflexes, speed and timing, plus his own unique movement and punching power. Having been moulded into a set boxing system as written in the manual, Naseem continued to beat world champions, but looked less impressive doing so than in 1994-1998.
In 2000, he made one of his most memorable entrances with a flying carpet to face long-time undefeated IBF world champion Vuyani Bungu… landing at the feet of Puff Daddy, before somersaulting into the ring. What followed was a throwback performance to the watching London fans, as he poleaxed the African and sent a warning that whatever stylistic problems he was having, however less fluid he looked, he still had the killer punch.
And next up, for the 35-0 mark, was perhaps the last hurrah of Naseem’s career… after begging Morales, Barrera and Tapia to come to the table and fight him, as he had done with the former two since beating Kelley, the young hot prospect and heavy punching Las Vegas man Augie Sanchez stepped in. At 26-1, Sanchez was being tipped for big things, and there is talk he could have gone on to be a better fighter than Morales, Barrera, Naseem, all of them… had his initial surprise knockdown of Naseem counted for more. As it was, a vengeful, iron-chinned Naseem rose grimly to his feet, and sliced down Sanchez so savagely that the “future champ” was never the same fighter again, having to be stretchered out of the arena unconscious with an oxygen mask in place under fears for his safety.
After fighting and winning twice more after this point, it should be noted that Sanchez lost to a relative unknown, and then retired – age 24. It is no exaggeration to say that Prince Naseem Hamed ended his promising career, which is unfortunate, but that is the cruel Darwinian nature of boxing.
And then, roll on 2001.
THE END OF THE KING (2001) AND THE FALSE PROMISE OF THE FRESH PRINCE (2002)
After the Sanchez fight… well, let’s just say, watch the following documentary, and YOU tell ME if the now 27 year old obscenely rich, hugely successful, now highly Islamic family man who’d always disliked long, hard training camps, was really in his prime? Was he REALLY “Prince” Naseem Hamed at this point, or just a man who’d put forth a decade of destruction and become rich beyond his wildest dreams, going through the motions before ending it all?
A sluggish, undynamic, clearly unmotivated Naseem could not put Barrera on queer street, and he paid the price.
As the documentary shows, he cared more about his haircut, hotel room, goat-skin gloves, pre-fight entrance and (this one justified) family, more than about the actual fight, which he mentions little and trains for even less, throughout the show.
Naseem would return to England to lick his wounds, and prepare for a comeback. Then unfortunately, the 9/11 tragedy that led to the “War on Terror” and “The Patriot Act” in America (oh don’t even get me started) occurred, which postponed Naseem’s projected September or October 2001 return. His training camp ended, and the date of his return was decided for January or February of the next year, with a shot at the IBO World featherweight title he’d fought with Barrera for, having dropped his own world championship belts – including the WBO’s that he had held since 1995 – due to being sick of the politics.
Finally, a date of May 18th 2002 was set – ten years ago to the day. Naseem entered last to the ring, as had been the case since becoming world champion all those years before – and as the theme so boldly stated, Puff Daddy’s “Bad Boy For Life”, Naseem was “going nowhere” – “it’s official I survived what I been through, y’all got drama the saga continues”…
Naseem proceeded to win the IBO World featherweight title, in a solid if unappreciated display of ring rust against capable European featherweight champion Manuel Calvo.
I suppose retrospect, Naseem’s own evasive answers and our own judgement can tell us that the fact Naseem never made good on his promised “quick return to the ring” after his IBO title win against Calvo is not solely due to one reason. The popular myth of course, among the racists, bigots, and those who simply hated Naseem for his outrageous demeanour and larger-than-life personality, is that Barrera somehow “exposed” this god of combat sports, despite the fact Naseem was in the worst form of his life that night, was not properly trained and clearly unmotivated, and actually won the biggest fight of his career, the “American dream” entrance to huge money fights and HBO/Adidas sponsorship with 47-1 knockout banger Kevin Kelley.
The more sensible train of thought is that his long known dislike of training camps (as stated by the Prince) and greater dislike of being away from his family (ditto) combined with the gross sum of wealth he accumulated throughout his career, the fact his invincible aura and spot at the top had gone and his “day was done” as he may have sensed, combined with chronic hand injuries and tendinitis, not to mention the frankly disgusting reaction to his solid comeback after his first (and only) loss after 13 months out of the ring, against Calvo, all factored into Naseem Hamed’s decision to never re-enter the gladiatorial ring via somersault ever again.
Either way, with his unique, unorthodox, frankly crazy style of boxing, his speed, reflexes and bone crushing power, and the way in which he took the boxing world as a young bright eyed swaggering kid, ruled his division for years, and was a verifiable icon for confidence-crisis suffering kids the world over, Naseem Hamed was a personal childhood hero, the most talented fighter I have ever seen, the most accomplished young fighter ever, and the fact that he retired somewhat prematurely aged 28 should not detract from the golden memories he gave us in the relatively short time he did compete.
Some stars are so bright they burn out fast, rather than fading away slowly. In this case, while it still hurts that it did, one must be thankful that we saw the star at all.
Thank you, Naseem.