14 min read

The Case for Prince Naseem Hamed

To appreciate Naz is to appreciate how great boxing can and should be
The Case for Prince Naseem Hamed

“Early in life I had to choose between honest arrogance and hypocritical humility. I chose the former and have seen no reason to change.” – Frank Lloyd Wright

“No, no we don't die, yes we multiply/Anyone press will hear the fat lady sing.” – Ini Kamoze’s “Here Comes The Hotstepper”

In British boxing history, the Mansfield Leisure Centre is about as well remembered as discarded ATM pins, the true appearance of the Colossus of Rhodes, and Henry Akinwande. Maybe locals hold it in their hearts for welcoming such comedy luminaries as Roy Chubby Brown and Jasper Carrot, or hosting table tennis tournaments for kids. But on April 14, 1992, the unusual looking arena casually known parochially as “the chocolate box” was the scene of a daring young pugilist making his professional debut. Should the building ever become a landmark on the boxing tourist map, pilgrims will find that, in 2006, it became a Tescos.

You can watch the fight via the window of YouTube. Wearing leopard skin trunks, the 18-year-old sashays to the centre of this strange looking coliseum, completing the short journey by clutching the top rope and vaulting himself into the ring. After a few more struts, he puts an exclamation on the ring announcer’s introduction by doing a forward flip. “Who is this guy?” I imagine the small crowd of Mansfieldians muttering to one another.

That’s Naseem Hamed. That’s the Prince.

Hamed’s performance against opponent Ricky Beard lays bare his inexperience. He gets tagged on the chin a couple of times in the first round. But, inevitably, the unconventional style, the looping punches, the raw power, come through. As round one wears on, he floors Beard with a snappy left-right combination. In a dominant second round, Hamed connects with a right to the solar plexus. The air leaves Beard’s body; maybe, in that moment, as the referee reaches the count of 10, the will to ever fight again leaves him too.

In victory there are more flips, struts, and shoulder shakes. He’d refine his ring persona, but Prince Naseem Hamed arrived in the professional boxing game well on his way to becoming Prince Naseem Hamed: the 5-foot 3-inch Alexander the Great in jungle cat print, British boxing’s most flamboyant nobleman, hero to young British Muslims in a Cool Britannia realm.

It’s so strange that 30 years after that explosive debut, Hamed is largely viewed as a relic, frozen in a distinct time and place of British cultural history, often excluded from the pantheon of the nation’s all-time great sporting heroes. Yet in acknowledging the phenom that Naz was, we realize how great boxing can and should be.

Let’s go back to the start. Naseem Hamed was born in Sheffield, 1974, to Yemeni parents. It’s said that his dad, Sal Hamed, encouraged Naseem to box so he could defend himself against the growing National Front presence. Whatever the case, at age 7 he entered the converted church hall gym of Brendan Ingle, a native Dubliner. Ingle would train Hamed for the majority of his 21-year boxing career. They made a curious pairing, the cocky young talent and the rumpled Irishman. Yet destiny sometimes demands the union of seemingly incompatible personalities: Shaq and Kobe, Pharrell and Chad. Most trainers would have sought to smooth their young protégé’s rough edges. Instead, Ingle nurtured the maverick within.

Hamed has obvious analogues. The spectre of Muhammad Ali will forever hang over any loquacious, charismatic fighter. Chris Eubank brought showmanship to prime time British boxing a few years before the Prince’s arrival. Brendan Ingle’s own gym produced the hands-by-his-sides stance of Herol Graham, a clear precursor to Hamed’s own style.

Naz, however, floated in his own space. Sometimes he could appear as more optical act of the divine than pugilist. I once saw a word to describe his fighting style that stuck with me: he boxed with “creativity.” For all its brutality, boxing is a deeply technical sport. The great fighters usually operate with metronomic precision. At his best, Hamed fought on pure vibes, defying the rules of human balance by launching attacks from odd angles, bamboozling his opponents into desperation. Rather than using thousands of years of human evolutionary convention of protecting himself by, y’know, holding his hands in front of his face, Naz used his exceptional reflexes to get out of trouble, his torso and head moving like a snake through a field.

I don’t know how it’s possible that Hamed was never knocked out. He fought with insane abandon, like a getaway car tearing down the motorway into oncoming traffic, somehow never crashing.

A boxer’s punching power is an odd thing to quantify. Some fighters are said to have “heavy hands”—not literally true, but a reference to those who tend to break their opponents into submission by slugging away at them. Punching power more often depends on qualities that have little to do with the kind of brawn you might see at a world’s strongest man competition. It comes down to coordination, timing, balance, timing, conditioning, timing, the crispness of the punch, but most of all timing. If you measure your shot to land right on your opponent’s chin with sufficient snap, there’s a decent chance they’ll go down.

Then there was Hamed. He’d throw his shots from the most unnatural angles, looping his hooks from up high, corkscrewing his uppercuts from down low, going through his opponent’s guard as easy as tinfoil. Carrying unseen strength within his narrow featherweight frame, he seemed a freak of nature.

Having this superhuman bang in his gloves backed up Hamed’s arrogance. A British Ric Flair on the mic, he made self-aggrandizement an art form, endlessly pontificating on his desire to be remembered as a legend. And did any boxer ever look cooler? Hamed was P.T. Barnum, but with a Caravaggio of a crew cut.

We must talk about the ring entrances, so ludicrous and time-consuming in their extravagance that opponent Paul Ingle (no relation to Brendan) opted to return to the locker room of Manchester’s MEN Arena while a mic’d up Hamed went through a choreographed routine featuring three dancing lookalikes and an electric blue Cadillac. Hip-hop was typically the fuel. Hamed’s entrance cuts included Ini Kamoze’s “Here Comes The Hotstepper”, “Gravel Pit” by the Wu-Tang Clan, and Busta Rhymes’ “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See”. A level of pageantry is expected in a boxer’s entrance these days, but Naz truly broke the mold, ramping up the excitement pre-fight to obscene levels. It was all part of the experience.

When Hamed was floored in the first round against Daniel Alicia, he blamed how uncomfortable he felt while being carried to the ring on a golden palanquin. (“Just as long as they don’t carry him out of the ring as well,” joked Sky commentator Ian Darke.) That might have seemed a plausible excuse if later in his career he wasn’t arriving to the ring from up high on a magic carpet with P. Diddy waiting for him below (obviously).

Traditionalists hated it all, and part of me—a teenager for most of Hamed’s title reign—wished I did too. I’d admired how a young Mike Tyson emulated legendary figures like Jack Dempsey and Rocky Marciano by coming to the ring without entrance music. Tyson’s solid black trunks reflected his fearsome, all-business attitude. Opponents were frozen in fear by the demon with the 20-inch neck in front of them.

As for Hamed, he was royalty and jester in one package. I thought I wanted him to be defeated. It’s so easy to root against the arrogant heavy favourite who topples every opponent with almost disrespectful pomp. And as an Irishman, I had no national loyalty to him. But I was certainly lying to myself about not loving the showmanship. Looking back, it’s easier to appreciate the persona he spun. Eliciting such a strong investment in his fights was all part of his greatness.

The very first pay-per-view fight on Sky Sports was Frank Bruno’s rematch with Mike Tyson in March 1996. This was six months after Hamed had picked up his first world title belt by knocking out Steve Robinson. For the British network seeking to usher in a new era of paid telecasts, Hamed was a precious commodity.

In the two years after he captured the WBO featherweight crown against Robinson, Hamed reeled off eight knockout victories totaling just 34 rounds, including the breaking down of Tom “Boom Boom” Johnson to add the more highly regarded IBF belt to his collection. There was just one thing missing: every fight took place in the UK or Ireland. The expectation of “breaking America” hung over Naseem.

Enter Home Box Office (HBO). The powerhouse boxing network identified Hamed as a potential star, seeing fit to sign him to a lucrative six-fight contract.

“He was just so different to what fight fans were used to here,” says U.S.-based boxing writer and commentator Michael Montero. “And he had all the flamboyance and the gravitas from what we expected from heavyweights. HBO tapped into that, promoted it and pushed it and it worked.”

Madison Square Garden, New York was the amphitheater for Prince Naseem Hamed’s long-awaited American debut on December 19, 1997. HBO laid out $1 million on a publicity campaign to promote Hamed. There was a huge billboard in Times Square. Michael Jackson showed up to his training camp, dancing to music alongside members of the champ’s entourage.

The opponent was former world champion Kevin Kelley. A native New Yorker, the majority of Kelley’s fights had taken place in the city or neighbouring New Jersey, ensuring maximum hostility towards Hamed from the crowd.

​​It was a night of total chaos. Naz entered the arena by dancing behind a screen that showed only his silhouette to Will Smith’s tune “Men In Black.” “This is so silly it’s kind of great,” said HBO’s veteran commentator Larry Merchant. Then… Hamed kept on dancing. It felt like the longest four minutes in boxing history. An incredulous Kelley started screaming towards Hamed, demanding he get in the ring. Mercifully, Naz finally came through the screen and into a haze of smoke and confetti. A boxing match was actually going to take place here.

In 16 breathless minutes, both men dropped any idea of technical proficiency for plain bad intentions. Their punches were wild and furious. Both found themselves on the canvas—three times each, in fact, before Kelley’s body finally submitted, failing to beat the referee’s count in round four.

We tend to try to think about fighters’ peaks as their most complete performance: that night a 24-year-old Muhammad Ali destroyed the much-touted Cleveland Williams; that night Mike Tyson obliterated undefeated Michael Spinks in 91 seconds. In its own way, the Kelley fight represented the pinnacle of Hamed’s greatness. He may have at times looked like a rag doll, requiring his ferocious punching power to get him out of trouble, but it was magnetic, it was unpredictable, and it left a permanent legacy on the sport.

“A lot of American boxing fans didn’t pay attention to little fighters,” says Montero. “They thought little guys couldn’t punch. And the promoters didn’t want to touch them, because they felt little guys couldn’t sell. The networks didn’t want to touch the little fighters because they thought little fighters don’t bring in the ratings. So really, the little guys didn’t get the respect.

“Prince Naseem Hamed changed all of that.”

This change, ​​Montero believes, positively affected the amount of money lower weight class boxers have been able to take home after a fight ever since.

“It was 2001, when he fought [Marco Antonio] Barrera, that was a pay-per-view flight here in the United States. Nobody, nobody, in the United States fight media at the time thought two featherweights could headline a pay-per-view show.” The Hamed-Barrera bout ended up generating 310,000 pay-per-view buys. “Little guys doing that was unheard of,” says Montero. “Now, of course, little guys, they headline shows all the time.”

My boxing fandom during this period could reasonably be described as nerdish. I tracked the holder of every belt, poured over the pages of Ring magazine, and kept a binder of scorecards on every fight I watched. I consumed books and documentaries to learn about the history (no sport looks backwards as much as boxing). Even in the nascent days of my life online, I found other fight fans in the U.S. and Australia to trade VHS tapes with, so I could access finds not shown on Sky or Eurosport.

Yet even at the time, you could feel the various poisons in boxing’s bloodstream: multiple world champions in each division, the best fighters not always colliding, poor judging, intense bureaucracy, and suspicions of corruption.

Mixed martial arts is a poor excuse for a sport, with none of the elements that make boxing “the sweet science”. But even I cannot deny that UFC is a hell of a product. It satisfied society’s need for a combat sport. In comparison, boxing, with its vast web of governing bodies and complex politics, looks cumbersome. There’s a scarcity of talent compared to bygone eras—it’s no coincidence that names such as Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao remained the sport’s biggest draws well past their peak. In eulogising Hamed, I’m eulogising a better era for boxing.

​​More broadly, Hamed’s emergence was part of a particularly meaty moment in British cultural pie: Britpop, the Spice Girls, Euro 96. Hamed’s excellence and self-belief jived with the feeling among Britons that the island was once more the centre of the universe.

Yet Hamed’s legacy is that of an important emissary not just for Great Britain, but British Muslims. Socio-political analyst Dr. Maryyum Mehmood tells me that although his family hailed from Yemen, a country in the Middle East, British South Asians of all religions identified with his story and background. Consider actor Riz Ahmed, born in London in 1982 to a British Pakistani family, who told Loud and Quiet magazine that growing up, Hamed was “everyone’s role model”.

This was an era when these communities were making cultural visibility gains through sketch show Goodness Gracious Me—which poked fun and South Asian culture, British culture, but most of all, where the two intersected—and films such as East is East and Bend it Like Beckham. But Hamed’s celebrity eclipsed it all.

Uniting two sides of your identity has complexities. The British public have specific requirements for their heroes with immigrant backgrounds—one being that you present as not just as a Briton, but a fiercely patriotic Briton. Hamed was proud to call Sheffield his home, yet didn’t conceal the importance of Islam in his life. Dr. Mehmood considers him as one of the celebrity British Muslims who had to walk both lines softly.

“They have to appease a predominately white British public and serve their requirements of, ‘Are you British enough?’ and, at the same time, they know there are hundreds of thousands of boys and girls of British Muslim heritage and they have to live up to those expectations as well, of being a good Muslim.”

She continues, “Many of the rude boys of British Muslim communities owe a lot to Hamed. They found a lad who looked like them. He was barely 5’4, working class background, same tanned skin, the hair. That sort of look was something that they wanted to emulate. And they finally saw someone in the media not only who looked like them, but even though he was quite cool and he had that edgy vibe to him, he was still a practicing Muslim. To straddle both identities in one and feel like you’re not doing a disservice to one aspect to your identity I think was really powerful. For British Muslims and even British Asians and Middle Easterners, this was their moment. The rude boys of today owe a lot to Naseem.”

Boxing is a sport of steady rises and lightning-fast descents. One punch can change the course of history; nobody is more than a 10-count away from oblivion. In the case of Prince Naseem Hamed, his decline was gradual. To watch the last few years of his boxing career was to see the aura of the man sapped away slowly.

Hamed replaced Brendan Ingle with the great trainer Emmanuel Stewart after the man who’d nurtured his talent since age 7 used Nick Pitt’s book The Paddy and The Prince to air out some home truths. As the 1990s ticked into the 2000s, Naz’s style evolved from dazzling switch-hitter to largely sticking to a southpaw stance. I’m not sure it made him a better fighter and for sure it didn’t make him more fun. The lowest point of his boxing career came in Detroit in the final flickers of the 20th century, when he was lucky not to get disqualified for body-slamming Cesar Soto in the middle of their ugly 12-round grappling match.

In the build up to his 2001 Las Vegas debut against the already all-time great Marco Antonio Barrera, Hamed curiously claimed that the Prince had been a total invention. He even attributed some of the components of his image to suggestions made by Sky Sports. There are probably elements of truth to these assertions—everyone’s public persona is, to varying degrees, cultivated. But I rewatch that debut fight in Mansfield nine years and 35 fallen fighters earlier and see a skinny young kid establishing his own legend when nobody cared. Bravado came as naturally to him as flying comes to the sparrow. It was the fuel that was going to take him to a place I’ve no doubt he wanted to be: the pantheon of legends. Prince Naseem Hamed was something that couldn’t be mimicked or faked.

Barrera, usually a ferocious fighter, coldly outboxed Hamed that night, removing his opponent’s air of invincibility. Naz was unusually sage-like after the fight, insisting the loss had been written into his journey by Allah. He later claimed that he’d gained a significant amount of weight after breaking his hand against previous opponent Augie Sanchez. The injury left him unable to train and getting back down to the featherweight limit in time to face Barrera had drained him of all energy. Hand problems certainly affected him—knuckles are simply not meant for crashing against flesh and bone. But I also got the sense that after the Barrera fight the fire that once burned in Hamed had started to flicker and die. He would fight only once more, a points win in London over Manuel Calvo. ​​In the end, he never actually retired, just disappeared into the mist at just 28 years of age. It was a quiet end to the supernatural highs that his career channeled.

Why is Hamed not remembered as the legend he insisted he would become? In purely boxing terms, it’s an easy question to get to grips with. The harsh truth is that while Hamed’s record is full of wins against very capable champions, he never beat another all-time great fighter. Around Hamed’s size at the time was not just Barrera, but Pacquiao, Erik Morales, and Juan Manual Marquez, fighters whose achievements eclipse his own, not least because they regularly fought one another.

Why the British public fell out of love with him is harder to answer. Seriously injuring a man in a car collision in 2005 that led to a conviction for dangerous driving took a lot of gloss off his persona. But truth be told, Hamed’s reputation was already in decay by then. I’ve always believed that a feeling of unfulfilled promise has hung over his career. Even his old promoter Frank Warren had some tough words, asserting that Hamed’s record couldn’t stack up against another one of his fighters, Joe Calzaghe. “He was the most talented, the most exciting and he just didn’t live the life unfortunately,” said Warren in 2015. Upon Hamed’s induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2014, The Guardian’s Sean Ingle (no relation to Brendan or Paul) called him “boxing’s forgotten man.”

​​We can never dismiss the fact that fatphobia has played a role. Paparazzi shots led to cruel headlines. When Hamed emerged from a lengthy period of quiet living and began making public appearances again, social media was invariably lit up with jokes about his weight. I recall one short television interview when Hamed, without being asked the question, asserted that he was at the weight he wanted to be at, probably to get ahead of the unfair and judgmental words he knew were being uttered about him. The showman once again clicking into life.

So the monarch is cast out, the British public’s love affair with him long over. But we can always rewatch the fights online and remember that in an era when a nation partied, Prince Naseem Hamed stepped into the centre stage spotlight. And after two decades of smaller fighters getting their due on the back of his achievements, maybe one day he’ll finally get his.

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