Remembering The Prince: The Legend That Was Naseem Hamed

Tom Dunstan
Tom Dunstan

In 2015 he became one of only seven post-war British fighters to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, a polarising talent whose creative ring walks often lasted as long as his fights, and a man that the great Emanuel Stewart called the best featherweight of all time. Now 43, you will struggle to find a young boxing fan who knows the legacy that Nas left behind.

If he is not Britain’s most forgotten star, then he is certainly our most underappreciated. Ending a career as a three-time world champion who only suffered one solitary defeat in his 37 contests, despite being a British boxing icon in the 1990s there is always an element of what could have been?

Sheffield Steel

Hamed was a born showman, the son of Yemeni’s immigrants, by the age of seven the future prince was already shadowboxing his way around the famed Wincobank gym. It almost seemed that fate was pushing Naseem into a fighter’s life, his families corner shop was less than 100 yards from Brendan Ingle’s mythical Wincobank gym, a breeding ground for some of British boxing’s most iconic stars. Without Ingle’s watchful eye, the Prince’s story may have never been told.

“Brendan committed his life to keeping him on track. It wasn’t just a couple of hours a day. He showed him the big picture, what boxing was all about. When he started in the early days, like most of the kids, he was full of ambition. He was the first one in here and the last one out. He didn’t like getting beaten at anything. Winning was everything to him”. – Dominic Ingle

For the first 16 years, it was a match made in heaven, Ingle had another protege who could bring more world title glory back to Sheffield, and Hamed had a mentor who could guide him to the limelight and fame he so desperately craved.

By only the age of 18, Hamed had already blossomed into one of Britain’s most talented stars. The charismatic youngster was ready to make his transition into the professional ranks and Hamed quickly established himself as something special. After only 12 professional contests, Hamed had already captured the European bantamweight title before deciding to move up through the divisions.

Hamed’s transition into the 126Ibs division was eerily similar to Manny Pacquiao, although he was adding weight and power, he managed to retain his speed and poise. Hamed had almost immediately announced himself into the super-bantamweight division, after picking up seven consecutive victories by way of knockout, Hamed had claimed some very eye-catching scalps. Despite being a novice among the higher ranks, the now 21-year-old had already beaten both Freddy Cruz and Sergio Liendo by knockouts, both fighters had never previously been stopped.

So, with Hamed’s public profile beginning to peak, it was clear that he was ready for a much grander stage. Boxing fans began to dream of an all British matchup between Hamed and Welshman Steve Robinson, despite a string of defeats on his CV, Robinson was currently in the possession of the WBO featherweight crown.

For Hamed, it was all about performing in front of the biggest audience, he wasn’t afraid to walk into the lion’s den if he knew it would get people watching. In September 1995, Hamed had agreed for the fight to take place in Cardiff, the home of Steve Robinson. Infront of 16,000 Welshman who had come to watch their hometown hero blow away the cocksure youngster, Hamed thrived under the bright lights and produced a performance that got the world talking.

Robinson had grown the label as a tough, brave fighter who despite being seen as a journeyman had become a respected world champion with a string of championship victories under his belt. But, come fight night, we doubt any fighter on the planet could have handled Hamed. Precision boxing, concussive power, defensive guile, Hamed looked more like a polished all-around fighter rather than a world title debutant who had never even fought at the weight.

For eight rounds, Hamed simply hammered Robinson into submission, before the eighth, Hamed had already managed to send Robinson to the canvas three times and Nas looked to be thriving in front of the hostile crowd. As the referee brought the contest to a halt, a star was born, Hamed on his world title debut had ripped the WBO featherweight belt from Robinson in his own backyard and had propelled himself into boxing superstardom.

The Trappings Of Fame

Coming off the back of the Robinson fight, Hamed embarked on a roller-coaster five years that had the British public sat on the edge of their seat. As his profile skyrocketed, now the fully fledged Prince had the whole world captivated, he was a hero to large chunks of the working class in Britain and on the flip side, others were desperate to see someone silence the loud-mouthed youngster, his fights on ITV were catching the attention of over 8 million people on ITV.

Now promoted by Frank Warren, Naseem was at the very top of world boxing and the pair managed to become an iconic combination. Not only would Hamed go on to successfully defend his WBO title 15 times, he was also able to add both the IBF and WBC titles to his CV, Hamed was universally recognised as the featherweight’s linear champion and the most feared featherweight on the planet.

Although Hamed would carry on winning contests inside the ring, outside the ring there was an untold power struggle taking place. Like any athlete, the higher the profile, the more money and attention they receive. As Hamed’s head began to turn, his coach and mentor of 16 years Brendan Ingle was unable to keep his young champion’s feet grounded.

It’s not uncommon for a fighter to be lured to the trappings that come with fame and fortune, but, you will quickly find that a fighter loses that hunger, the desire to get up for early morning hill runs and hours of pounding away at the heavy bag can quickly fade away.

“Naz trained 5.30pm, trained with heavy gear on, finished around seven o’clock, went to Swallow Hotel to give him a rub-down, got in a car, Naz drove like mad… police followed and stopped Naz. Naz was obnoxious. It is so sad. Money has become his God. He is kidding everyone. But worst of all he is kidding himself. All he wants to hear is… praise and having yes men around him.” – Brendan Ingle

Not even two years on from the fighter who walked into Cardiff and snatched his first world title away from Steve Robinson, Hamed was a completely different person outside the ring. Instead of focusing on preparing for his next opponent, Nas was spending more time planning his elaborate and iconic ring walks, his ring entrances would range from reenacting Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ music video to entering the ring on a flying carpet.

His now overgrown narcissism was epitomised in the build-up to his U.S. debut against Kevin Kelly at Madison Square Garden in 1997. Two days before the bout, Hamed publicly told his mentor Brendan Ingle that he had made a major change to their financial agreement and he would be almost demoted to a servant to the fighter. On fight night, Hamed came all so close to losing his beloved WBO title, after being dropped twice from Kelly’s fast hands, Hamed simply survived on fighters instinct and his overwhelming natural power.

Only two fights later, Ingle was gone. The 57-year old who once called the shots and took his fighter to the very top of the sport, could no longer handle the monster that his creation had become. Before his fight with Cabrera, on the day he was required to weigh in, Hamed did not return to his hotel until 6am and was weighing in 4 and a half pounds over the 9st limit. Over the next four hours, he had to take four hot baths and spend two hours shadow boxing in training gear to make the weight, Ingle could not deal with Hamed anymore.

Before leaving, Ingle gave his former protege one more prediction, he told Hamed that he would not last four fights without him, Ingle’s prediction proved to be a correct one. Despite the great Emanuel Steward taking over in his corner as Ingle’s replacement, Hamed picked up a handful of victories before his lifestyle finally caught up to him in 2001 under the bright lights of Vegas.

Hamed was set to face off with Mexican warrior Marco Antonio Barrera, a man who was stepping up from super-bantamweight for the fight. Sadly tho, Hamed’s natural talents were not enough to get him through this battle, instead, many fans see his performance as one that almost tarnished his record.

He was a fighter who looked a shell of the man who once blew away Steve Robinson, he was almost one dimensional now. Struggles to make the weight, Hamed looked tired and underprepared, the grace and fluidity of his early years was just a distant memory now. For 12 rounds, Hamed was simply outclassed and made an example of, loosing on a landslide unanimous decision. Despite a call for an immediate rematch, it never materialised and instead, aged only 27 Hamed faded into obscurity.

The Legacy

His final fight came against Manuel Calvo in May 2002, a testament to how popular Hamed was, although it was 13 months on from his devastating defeat, a record-breaking 11milion people tuned into ITV to catch a glimpse of the now former Prince.

Even tho he never officially retired from the sport, Hamed would never appear in a boxing ring again. By the age of 29, he had conquered the world and Nas for better or worse, should still be remembered as not only one of British boxing’s best characters, but also one of British boxing’s most talented fighters.

Some may argue that Hamed never fought other great little men such as Juan Manuel Marquez, Erik Morales and Manny Pacquiao? Even so, during his decade inside the ring, Hamed was able to convincingly dispatch of world champions such as Wayne McCullough, Wilfredo Vazquez, Manuel Medina and Cesar Soto.

Still ranked as the third greatest British featherweight of all time, Hamed only tasted defeat once in his entire career and managed to retire with an 84% knockout ration, a staggering number for any fighter, let alone a featherweight. A proud member of the Boxing Hall of Fame, Prince Naseem Hamed will always have a special spot in British boxing’s history.

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