I ain’t trying to brag, but I was bloody good at it…
He needs no introduction, but I’ll give him one anyway - ‘Prince’ Naseem Hamed, is a British former professional boxer. His career in the ring lasted 10 years, from 1992 until 2002. He won all major versions of the world titles before, what some called a premature retirement at the ripe old age of 28. Boxrec list the Prince as the 11th best featherweight of all time, and Britain’s number one. The career of Prince Naseem is blighted by a solitary defeat, to pound for pounder Antonio Barrera. Naseem never fully recovered from that loss. He teased the British public with a comeback several times, but it never materialised. 15 years have passed since we last saw the flashy ring walk, the somersault over the top rope or the devastating lead left hook that dispatched so many of his opponents.
Born in Sheffield, it was inevitable Naseem was to be a protégé of Brendan Ingles Wincobank Gym. Brenden oversaw Naseem’s journey from child prodigy to a world star in boxing. Joining the gym aged 7, the young Prince was taught everything boxing by Brendan, a true professor of the sweet science. Things between the pair turned sour in 1998 and relationships remain estranged. Many believe this signalled the beginning of the end for Naseem.
Rise to the top
Naseem turned professional in 1992 at the age of 18; starting as a junior bantamweight, he won his first 5 – and 17 of his first 19 – by knockout, picking up various titles at bantamweight and eventually junior featherweight. In 1995, Naseem stepped up to featherweight, winning the WBO world title from Steve Robinson. Knocking him out with his signature left hook in front of a shocked welsh crowd at the Cardiff Arms Park stadium on a rain soaked night.
Naseem had a work rate like no other. A world champion fighting 5 times a year, this is unheard of in modern boxing.
By October 1997 and 8 world title defences later, Naseem’s record stood at a perfect 28-0. A career defining fight loomed with Kevin Kelley in Madison Square Garden.
Hagler-Hearns of the featherweight division
Naseem’s flamboyant style, both inside the ring and out had caught the eye of boxing fans across the pond. Larry Merchant once said when describing the Prince ‘If being flamboyant was a crime, he’d be on death row’. Only 23, the cocksure prince was on a mission to conquer America. With a record of 47-1, the hard-hitting Kevin Kelley represented his toughest test to date.
Naseem travelled to Kevin’s back yard, New York. A thrilling 4 round fight that set MSG alight on a blistering cold December night.
The tone was set for the trip when Naseem arrived, ceremoniously by British Airways Concorde into New York. On fight night, his entrance to the ring was preluded with a 5 minute dance to ‘Men in Black’, much to the dismay of a waiting Kevin Kelley.
The fight itself was one for the ages. Kelley started stronger, knocking Naseem down in the first round with a blistering right hook. The second round started similarly, Naseem down again from the same right hook. Needless to say, it didn’t look good for the champion.
Naseem responded. Kelley, naively if you will, was too eager for the finish after knocking Naseem down. Throwing caution to the wind, he stalked the champion throwing wild punches trying to finish the fight. The champion responded with a straight-right followed by his signature left hook which knocked the challenger down. Kelly rose to his feet beating the count.
The third round was more cautious from either side. Both fighters now respecting the others power. Circling the ring trading jabs, looking for openings to unleash the more power punches amongst their arsenal.
Round four started with both fighters traded wildly in the centre of the ring. Two more left hooks from the Champion Naseem sent Kelley back to the canvas. He rose to beat the count again, smiling reassuringly to his corner in the process. Naseem, similarly to his counterpart earlier in the bout was eager for the finish, too eager. He leapt in to attack, and was countered by Kelley. Another vicious right hook causing Naseem to touch the canvas again - it was scored a knockdown, and Naseem was giving a standing-count.
Sticking to the theme of the fight, the eagerness of each fighter to finish the fight was to their detriment. Kelley rushed in and ate another hard left hook, sending him to the canvas, for good.
‘He’s for real, the Prince is for real!’
The words of Foreman could be heard at ringside.
The fight was honoured as Ring magazines ‘Fight of the Year’ for 2007 and Larry Merchant described it as Hagler-Hearns of the featherweight division.
Naseem had achieved his goal, conquering the World, and America in the process.
What goes up must come down
Every story of a rise to the top is followed by a fall from grace, Naseem Ahmed’s story was to be no different.
That enthralling night at Maddison Square Garden was the last time Naseem shared the corner with Brendan Ingle, the trainer who had overseen his life, both boxing and personal thus far.
The relationship between the pair had become strained. Brendan’s patience and willingness to cater to Naseem’s ego had all but disappeared. The pair acrimoniously split a year on from the Kevin Kelley fight, but their relationship had broken long before.
‘4 more fights, and he’s done’ were the words from a hurt Brendan when describing Naseem after the split. He was right. After the split, Naseem had four more great wins, defeating the likes of Cesar Soto and Augie Sanchez; who has the scalp of Mayweather to his name, albeit in the amateurs.
Then came Barrera.
‘I should never have taken that fight’ were the words used by Prince Naseem when reflecting on the defeat to Barrera. He wasn’t wrong. Recovering from a broken hand suffered in the Augie Sanchez fight, Naseem was 40 pounds overweight just 8 weeks out from the fight date. Agreeing to the fight, Naseem had set himself an impossible task to make weight. He arrived in Vegas several days before the fight, still several pounds off the weight.
The tone of the fight was set from the start. Naseem’s signature somersault entrance into the ring did not happen. Many speculated this was due to Naseem being unable to perform the manoeuvre due to not being in peak physical condition. From the very first bell, a razor-sharp Barrera dominated a sluggish Hamed, beating him to every punch. Barrera cleverly circled Hamed counter-clockwise to take the signature left-hook away from the Prince. Even with a point deducted in the 12th round, Barrera won comfortably on all three scorecards. Naseem promised a rematch in the aftermath of the loss, but this never materialised.
Naseem was to have his final fight 13 months later, out-classing Manuel Calvo in a drab 12 round points win at the London Arena. In the ring after the fight, Naseem promised a quick return to action.
He announced his retirement weeks later.
Kell Brook was 28 when he won his first world title.
Bernard Hopkins was 30 when he won his first world title.
Carl Froch was 31 when he won his first world title.
Tony Bellew was 31 when he won his first world title.
Prince Naseem Hamed retired at 28 years of age, having won every major version of the world title.
We can never be 100% sure of what may have happened had the Prince fought again, but one thing we can be certain of – it would have been entertaining like no other.