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Naseem Hamed At 50 – Great, Not Great, Or Some Place In-Between?

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Naseem Hamed, AKA “The Prince,” turns 50 today. One of the most electrifying and explosively entertaining fighters in the UK, arguably even, for a short time at least, the world, “Naz” had the power of a middleweight and the reflexes of a cat. In his prime, his far too short prime as things turned out, Hamed was hard to hit and he hit incredibly hard. But does Hamed deserve to go down as a great?

Hamed, trained for a large portion of his career by the legendary Brendan Ingle (who, legend has it, saw a young Hamed fighting off a number of other boys, his natural skill and talent evident), went pro at flyweight, this in 1992. In time, the 5’3” southpaw/switch-hitter would settle in as a featherweight, and with maturity came withering power and a rarely seen braggadocio attitude. Hamed was convinced he would never, ever lose.

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And good and decent fighters such as Vincenzo Belcastro (this a fight that actually went the full 12 rounds), Freddy Cruz, and Juan Polo Perez were taken care off, with Hamed’s star power growing. Soon Hamed was a household name in the UK, with plenty of casuals being impressed by his showboating, his backflip into the ring, and of course the shuddering knockouts he scored.

By the age of 21, after 20 fights, Hamed was the WBO featherweight champ, his dominating win over the tough and proud Steve Robinson arguably being one of Hamed’s top two or three finest performances. Lazy in the gym, refusing to do much if any roadwork, Hamed began to rely strictly on his punching power to get the job done. And it turned out that Hamed, so hard to hit cleanly early on, had a fine chin, with impressive recuperative powers also. But Hamed also began suffering from hand problems.

But after the Robinson win, Hamed’s star status soared, his fights with the likes of Daniel Alicea (this a fight that saw Hamed suffer his first career knockdown), Manuel Medina, Tom Johnson and Billy Hardy watched by millions on Sky Sports.

And then came the US invasion.

Hamed, loved and loathed in equal measure, his cocksure attitude far from everyone’s taste, fought the experienced and proud Kevin Kelley in New York in December of 1997. What followed was both the most exciting fight ever given by either man, and the hardest fight in the career of Hamed up until that point. The two slugged it out for four sizzling rounds, with both men hitting the mat multiple times.

In the end, Hamed’s power bailed him out, with “The Prince” impressing the heck out of George Foreman, Larry Merchant and Jim Lampley, who called the fight on HBO. Hamed finally stopped Kelley with a little over :30 seconds to go in round four. Merchant called the fight a “featherweight version of Hagler/Hearns.”

But how close had Hamed come to losing, to being “exposed?” With his rift with Ingle now a nasty one, the two officially parting in late 1998, Hamed took turns fighting in the UK and the US. Solid if unspectacular wins came over Wayne McCullough (a points win), Paul Ingle (a close to shattered Hamed again pulling out the win, this one a late win, courtesy of his wicked power) and Cesar Soto (another points win).

Hamed had just two wins left. He was 26 years old, and “Naz” crushed Vuyani Bungu in impressive fashion, while he then had a real firefight with Augie Sanchez, the enormous holes in Hamed’s power matched only by the enormous power both of his fists carried. Hamed sent Sanchez out of the arena on a stretcher.

The legendary Emanuel Steward, who had been brought into camp in the spring of 1999, raised plenty of eyebrows when he said that Hamed was “the greatest featherweight of all time.” Now, after the Sanchez fight (“a nice, little war,” Hamed said), “The Prince” was going to have to prove it in a fight with Mexico’s Marco Antonio Barrera.

The Barrera fight, the fight that Hamed is perhaps unfairly best remembered for today, was disastrous for the Sheffield star. Having to lose plenty of weight beforehand, having failed to impress Steward in training, and with Hamed seeming to waste much of his preparation time by getting his hair cut, by going over pre-fight words from the Islamic bible he wanted to be spoken in the ring, this by MC Michael Buffer, to Hamed demanding the most luxurious hotel in Las Vegas, the featherweight champion was not acting like a hungry fight. Not one bit.

Barrera was. And how it showed on the night.

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Barrera, who had been beaten by Junior Jones and by Erik Morales (this one of the greatest fights ever seen), boxed a patient, clever, far from at all reckless fight, and he bounced Hamed around pretty good at times as he did so. This time, his power being unable to save him, Hamed was at times schooled, and he was at times manhandled; Barrera famously grabbing Hamed and ramming his head into a corner post in the final round, the winning and he knew it fighter bellowing into his former verbal tormentor’s ear, ”who’s your daddy now!.”

Hamed wore the look of a beaten fighter and he couldn’t hide it. It was fairly close on the cards, but Barrera was absolutely the deserved winner. The Hamed fans of the world awaited the rematch, with Hamed having in his possession a rematch clause. Barrera wanted it, with him more than willing to travel to the UK for the sequel. But Hamed instead went into hiding, and no second fight ever came.

Instead, Hamed boxed just once more, with him labouring to pick up a decision win over the little-known Manuel Calvo, this over a year after the Barrera loss. Hamed left the ring showered with boos. And that was it, one of the most explosive ring careers of modern times had ended, not with a bang, but with a whimper.

Hamed was all done at age 28. Financially secure and happy to enjoy himself at the dinner table, Hamed piled on so much weight he was barely recognisable in his retirement years. Hamed did leave plenty of fans with a sense of ‘what if?’ Had he stuck around a couple of years or so longer, and had he taken that return fight with Barrera, and had he also fought stars/upcoming or otherwise like Erik Morales, Floyd Mayweather, and even Manny Pacquiao, then who knows how Hamed, 36-1(31) would be looked at today?

But Hamed went out after tasting defeat for the first time. As a result, Hamed’s place amongst the greats is far from secure. Or maybe you disagree? Maybe Hamed’s lasting legacy is his ability to so divide opinion. Some say Hamed is a great, others shoot down such a notion.

Where do YOU sit on this one?

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