The Edge of Derision: On Prince Naseem Hamed

Prince Naseem Hamed stands over Kevin Kelley
December 18, 1997: Prince Naseem Hamed stands over Kevin Kelley during a fight at Madison Square Garden. Hamed won the fight with a fourth round knockout. Credit: Al Bello /Allsport

This is the second piece in a ten-part series looking at the fighters whose stories make Donald McRae’s Dark Trade the enduring classic that it is. New U.S. edition coming from Hamilcar Publications November 15.

“Prince” Naseem Hamed always had a taste for mocking the afflicted. Everyone was ripe for ridicule as far as Hamed was concerned: from beaten opponents and wearied sparring partners to his own madcap Irish trainer Brendan Ingle. Inside the ring, Hamed would shift from doling out punishment to derision as if flicking a switch—in his first title fight against durable bantamweight Vincenzo Belcastro, Hamed went from licking to lampooning the Italian with such flamboyance as to attract accusation from Hugh McIlvanney that he had “polluted” the ring. Hamed was the death knell for British boxing’s spurious self-presentation as tastefully respectful. Almost nothing the Sheffield fighter did was in good taste. When Hamed was already a beltholder, he goaded a fifty-four-year-old Ingle into twelve rounds of sparring then took turns with stablemate Ryan Rhodes beating the Irishman into submission. “He is a horrible person,” Ingle once told The Guardian’s Jonathan Rendall. “I had this for 18 years. There was not a day went past when he didn’t try to humiliate or belittle me.”

For Hamed, who joined Ingle’s gym at the age of seven, cruelty was an equally essential part of his arsenal as fleet foot movement and hand speed. Born in Sheffield to Yemeni parents, Hamed was frequently subjected to bad officials with a dislike for his style and racist dog whistles and abuse during his amateur career. The pleasure he found in embarrassing opponents always seemed more than strictly professional in turn. When the Prince treated Belcastro “as if he were no better than something you wipe off your shoe,” as McIlvanney put it, he inaugurated a pattern that would continue throughout his career. Indeed, what distinguished Hamed from stablemate Herol Graham—the prototype upon whom his distinctive style was based—was his far greater relish for meting out punishment, physical and emotional. Whereas Graham’s slickest moves betrayed a vulnerability that would be exposed mercilessly at the highest levels, Hamed introduced to slickness the différend of contempt to produce a combination that was often irresistible. Hamed could garrote as well as gavotte.

At his fleeting best, Hamed would go on a run of eighteen stoppages in a row between August 1994 and April 1998, during which time he beat Steve Robinson, Manuel Medina, Tom Robinson, Kevin Kelley, and Wilfredo Vazquez to cement his status as the premier featherweight on either side of the Atlantic. Unlike Graham, in whose arsenal every different movement was gracefully integrated, Hamed’s version of the famous Ingle style took place always on the thin border between the sublime and the ridiculous—with hands down and feet akimbo. This left him vulnerable to flash knockdowns and awkward tangles—the unheralded Daniel Alicea put Hamed on the seat of his pants in 1996. Yet in truth, for as much as he could look like a stanceless circus act, Hamed’s style was not so much a testament to pure iconoclasm as it was a product of archaist-innovation on the part of Ingle, whose fighters always combined an ultramodern aesthetic with a traditional counterpunching technique derived from Ingle’s first trainer, the Scotsman Dan Stewart. Only because the fundamentals were in place, in whatever shape they made themselves felt, was Hamed able to avoid the slog of conditioning for so long.

By the time Hamed was brought by Lou DiBella and Kevin “The Flushing Flash” Kelley to New York in 1997, the Prince was already one of the best-remunerated sportsmen in Britain. Hamed’s success on terrestrial television laid the platform for promoter Frank Warren to catapult him onto PPV, the implications of which continue to reverberate today. Now the biggest fighters more or less begin on Sky Box Office—Anthony Joshua fought Dillian Whyte for the British and Commonwealth titles alone in December 2015 on PPV. Yet even Joshua can only dream of the sort of following Hamed possessed at his peak—anywhere between nine and thirteen million people were said to have tuned in to ITV to watch the Prince pulverize an unknown Argentinian, Sergio Liendo, in 1995 in two rounds. Anyone who saw the twenty-one-year-old Hamed twist and turn against Liendo, slipping punches as if he were a belly dancer before shaking his opponent to his boots with a left hook of the most violent variety, could not fail to be intrigued. That Hamed had no interest in prevaricating only added to the attraction: as soon as the woozy Liendo staggered to his feet, Hamed launched himself over as if to finish things by slingshot. With Liendo down, the Prince would strut a gauche celebration through the ring—a bolt of ultramodernity shot through the era of John Major and CEEFAX. Six months later Hamed would claim his first world title against Steve Robinson in Cardiff.

The next two years would see the Prince on tour throughout the U.K.—fighting in Glasgow, Newcastle, Dublin, Manchester, London, and Sheffield—before HBO’s checkbook would tempt him to New York for a blockbuster match with Kevin Kelley. Until Kelley secured his shot at Hamed, he was best known for a stint as a featherweight beltholder and a concussive comeback victory over Derrick Gainer on HBO after his left eye had swelled shut. Unlike Hamed, Kelley’s verbal gymnastics and roiling switch-hitting style had never managed to lift him out of the second tier. Against the Prince, on December 19, 1997, at Madison Square Garden, Kelley would glimpse briefly the possibility of a different future when he left Hamed splayed on the canvas in the first and second rounds. Before the fight, Hamed had notoriously taken seven minutes to find his way to the ring after an entrance that borrowed motifs from the catwalk and the dance hall. By the time Hamed finally vaulted the top rope via his signature flip, a dialed-in Kelley was ready to detonate. Two minutes into the first, when Hamed overreached with a hook, Kelley dropped him to the floor. Barely a minute into the second and he would put the Prince there again.

But Hamed was certainly no fake. Nursing not only a sore head but wounded pride, Hamed immediately launched himself into a full-throttle left hook then a sequence of barely-legal attacks that belied any impression of frivolity. Instead of disengaging or waiting for Hamed to overreach again, Kelley found himself dragged into a firefight that suited the Prince far better. Off-balance and now following his impish opponent around the ring, Kelley would be caught by surprise forty-five seconds later by a right thrown straight off the diagonal after Hamed feinted a hook. Now fuming, Kelley rose to his feet and began dealing only in haymakers—an ill-conceived tactic that brought Hamed, balancing as if on a tightrope, success off the back foot. The end came finally in the fourth, after both had received eight counts again, when a tired Kelley, searching for the knockout punch that would bring him the future of his dreams, left himself dangerously exposed and off-balance—at which point Hamed uncorked a wicked left hook to the temple that reduced him to rubble. The Prince was legitimated.

Yet this second coming was also the beginning of the end. There would be other nights—a TKO stoppage over a ramshackle Wilfredo Vazquez, an electric stoppage of Vuyani Bungu—but there would be no reprise of this one. Soon Hamed would split with Ingle, forming an ill-suited partnership with Emanuel Steward instead. “Everybody who knew him in the gym knew how he would turn out, what he’d be like if he made it in the big time—except Brendan,” Ingle’s wife, Alma, told Nick Pitt in The Paddy and The Prince. “He’ll never do a Herol Graham on me, Alma, he’d say, and I’d say well I hope he doesn’t. Because he gets so hurt. He’s devastated every time it happens.” For Ingle, there would never be another fighter like Hamed. For the Prince, there would be loss, retirement, and infamy, after a 2005 car crash in which another driver was almost killed. But there would always be those nights, those nights when it all came together, those nights when the Prince, in his bewilderingly original way, skirted the edge of derision and gave royalty a strange new name.