Twenty years ago this week Prince Naseem Hamed travelled to America to defend his WBO Featherweight title against The Flushing Flash Kevin Kelley. Here is a look back on the legacy of that memorable bout.
Paulie Malignaggi, just 17 took the train all by himself from his home in Bensonhurst Brooklyn to Manhattan Island where he arrived at the dilapidated yet sacred Cathedral of Combat - Madison Square Garden.
He learned that the one and only Prince Naseem Hamed was making his American debut against NYC local The Flushing Flash Kevin Kelley and the cheapest ticket was 25 bucks.
Turns out Paulie was acquainted with Kelley. They met in the locker room one day by chance at Gleason’s Gym where Paulie trained five even six times a week. Not even an amateur yet, Kelley was the first real pro Paulie met and the magnanimity the The Flash displayed in their meeting made a significant mark on the young man and left Paulie inspired.
Paulie reached into his pocket and grasped his last $25 - earned doing pizza deliveries for his uncle out of his shop and slid the bills to the woman at the box office.
That’ll be $27 dollars. She said.
The surcharge on the ticket was $2. Paulie didn’t have enough.
He had only those $25.
However, the woman took pity on the young man and with her supervisor looking the other way handed one ticket to Paulie, elated he slipped in through the door and climbed up to the nose bleeds in the third to last row in the very, very back of MSG Paulie took his seat and eagerly anticipated seeing his first live fight card. A night of fights that ultimately galvanized the young man’s ambition to become a professional boxer and would feature one of the greatest Featherweight bouts of this generation.
Only an Open Mouth Gets Fed.
Kevin Kelley was a brilliant, if shameless self promoter.
Lou Dibella tells the story of running into Kelley at fights and events and Kevin would always thrust swag in his chest to remind the former HBO exec & promoter that Kelley was there and hungering for that breakout opportunity - there was the Kevin Kelly T-shirt. The Kevin Kelly buttons. The Kevin Kelly pens and pencils.
Nothing however matched the promotional job that Dibella and the folks at HBO were doing to advertise their biggest get the loud, arrogant, flashy and thrilling Prince Naseem Hamed who had set the UK boxing scene on fire.
All offense, all the time - that was Naz - as he came to be known to the voracious British fight fan base.
There was no grey with Naz, you either loved his antics or wanted to see him get his teeth knocked down his throat.
Either way, you were paying. That was just fine with Naz.
Kevin Kelley also took notice of Naz and took even greater noticed of the announcement HBO made when they signed Naz to a 6 fight $12 Million dollar contract - well, Kelly and his manager boarded a plane bound for Sheffield not once but twice to goad Naz into a fight.
Eventually it worked.
The date and venue was announced. December the 19th 1997 at Madison Square Garden. Of course, it had to be MSG what venue could possibly contain the talent and mouths of Kelley and Naz!
HBO spent roughly in the seven figures to promote this massive fight.
Billboards, radio and TV blasted out the announcement.
And posters too, hung all over the Five Boroughs, like the iconic pose of Naz with his boxing gloves literally on fire where visible in the subway stops like the ones young Paulie Malignaggi would get off at so he could get to Gleason’s to put in work - maybe run into Kevin again.
Kelley was apoplectic.
The way he saw it he made the fight happen, he provoked Naz into accepting the fight, he created the narrative that took the fight from possibility to reality.
Moreover, let’s not forget Naz was coming here, he was the visitor, taking on an established veteran fighter - and an NYC native - yet it was Naz who got the lion’s share of the attention… and the purse. Kelley would make less than half of what Naz was paid that night.
Nonetheless, Kelly had talked himself into the biggest fight of his career and the biggest payday of his career. Kelly was no novice, 50 fights to his credit, 47 wins, 30 by knockout. Kelly was no stepping stone. This would be Naz’s toughest fight to date. A fight he knew he needed to establish real legitimacy.
The two were made for each other.
Big mouths attached to big punches and 20 years ago this week they collided in four of the most exciting rounds ever witnessed.
From the Opening Round…
Things didn't seem to be going according to plan. Naz’s antics had no effect on Kelley. The ‘southpaw’ advantage for Hamed was cancelled out as Kelley too fought out of that stance. Naz flicked out his whip like jab but Kelley found his range so fast and landed hard, straight jabs of his own.
Naz’s trainer at the time Brenden Ingle warned Naz that one day his high risk style and neglect of defense would catch up with him and it was roundly believed that a fighter with good balance, timing and a good jab would give Naz trouble. Kelley seemed to be that fighter.
And just like that - Naz was down! Caught with a punch while he leaned straight back, hands down! Breaking almost every rule in boxing in one go, and Kelley made Naz pay for it!
Naz sprang up, shook his head he was alright and the two men rode out the round.
Meanwhile Dibella and the HBO crew were calving...the money they’d spent on this kid and in less than a round he was on his ass!
The ebullient crowd at MSG was on their feet! The 10,000 plus in attendance shook the structure.
Just seconds into round two Naz was down again!
As Naz swung wildly, Kelley countered with a looping left hook and shifted into the orthodox stance and threw an overhand right that had Naz spinning! Both gloves touched the canvas and another knockdown for Kelley was scored!
A minute later Naz launched one of his trademark leaping right hooks that floored Kelley!
Kelley only laid there, unphased, almost amused. He smiled at Naz raised his glove at him and Naz nodded back as if to say - yup, now we’re in a fight.
The crowd was cheering for Kelley at this point and attempted to lift the local man, however the emotion was already getting the better of him and he abandoned his solid stance and began to play Naz’s game, chasing him and was being lured into a wild gun fight. The round ended with both men scoring a knockdown apiece.
Round three was a bit more sedate in that neither man scored a knockdown and was quite even in general. Kelley repeatedly scored with his crisp straight left punch, while Naz controlled Kelley with his flicking jab and provided a constantly moving target.
In between rounds both Kelley’s trainer Borga & Naz’s trainer Ingle implored their man to work behind the jab, to avoid a war, however neither man could undo their DNA, they were both built for this moment...they were made for each other.
The two men entered round four loading up, early on Kelley swung and missed wildly but due to Naz’s style - a kind of cross between Drunken Kung Fu and Ali was rarely in position to counter.
Then in the midst of a flurry Naz fired a left and Kelley fell hard to the canvas!
Kelley seemed hurt, his legs were not under him, his ambulation was stiff and robotic and Naz pounced on him and just like that - Kelley fired a seemingly innocuous punch that caught Naz off balance, his glove just touched the mat and now Naz had another knockdown ruled against him!
With the score level again in the round, Kelley caught a second wind and was also booyed by the partisan New York crowd!
With less than 90 seconds left in round four what on earth would happen next?
The two men continued to swing at each other, all pretense at protecting themselves was long gone.
Then on the back foot, Naz planted his feet and landed a short crushing left hook that caught Kelley leaning in and sent him down again visibly hurt… like a newborn deer Kelley struggled to his feet - his eyes wide and vacant… as referee Benjy Esteves reached ‘10’ he held Kelley to his chest after waving the fight off.
It was over.
Naz had arrived to conquer America, but America took her pound of flesh by proxy via The Flushing Flash Kevin Kelley.
Two decades on the battle between Hamed & Kelley lives on in the memory of fight fans on both sides of the pond. For the fighters it can be argued they both peaked on this night.
Kelley fought on for 12 more years. He never again got a shot at a world title though he challenged for minor ones on a couple occasions losing both. Kelley still resides in Flushing Queens. He retired with an incredible record of 60W-10L-2D (39 KOs). He holds no bitterness towards Hamed and is at piece with the satisfaction that he was a part of true history.
For Naseem Hamed none of performances equalled what he did in the ring that night at MSG. He remained popular and did successfully defend his WBO featherweight title 15 times before running into the man Brenden Ingle had warned him about - and that man was Marco Antonio Barrera, one of the greatest boxers Mexico has ever produced. However by that time Naz had split from his long time trainer. Naz did align himself for a time with the great Emanuel Steward. However Steward would report on Naz’s lack of discipline and work ethic. He didn’t spar. So the result against Barrera was predictable. Aged just 28, Naseem Hamed walked away from boxing for good.
Meanwhile, Paulie Malignaggi made his way over to the exit. His sneakers sticking to the floor here and there tacky from spilled soda and popcorn crunching under his feet.
He boarded the train back to Bensonhurst. I doubt he got to sleep until the very, very wee hours of the morning if at all. Naseem had his own era, few boxers can claim that and Prince’s influence on a new generation of entertaining eccentric fighters like Paulie would be obvious to anyone.
Not even Paulie could have guessed how that night would affect the trajectory of his life. Matter of fact on that bill, that very same night another Brit was making his debut in front of the American audience, another fighter that would inspire legions of British boxing fans - Ricky The Hitman Hatton beat Robert Alvarez by unanimous decision that night and some 11 years later would fight Paulie Malignaggi in Las Vegas.
You can’t make this stuff up. A kid with a dream, the generosity of a stranger, a legend in the making…
Naz’s popularity changed boxing in another practical way, namely the way in which pay and marketing was scaled for lighter weight fighters in an era that was largely dominated by heavyweights and that influence is felt to this day in the money that Floyd Mayweather, Manny Pacquiao, Bud Crawford and Vasyl Lomachenko are earning.
Everything changed the night The Magician took on The Flash.