This article is part of our weekly history series. You can read previous entries here.
When people think of Prince Naseem Hamed, they remember one of the greatest characters ever to grace the world of boxing. They remember a Sheffield lad born to Yemeni parents who, throughout his childhood in the seventies and eighties, had to have a sharp tongue, quick reflexes and granite fists just to survive. They remember the leopard-print shorts, the jutting chin, the dancing feet and the vicious jabs landing in flurries. They remember the 31 knockouts, the lunatic grin and a decade of sheer, unadulterated entertainment, the likes of which the British fight game may never experience again.
If there was one aspect of Naz's career which defined his fighting persona, it was the flamboyant and often absurd manner in which he chose to enter the ring. The calculated arrogance of his boxing style was matched only by his knack for showmanship, with the latter best exemplified by his theatrical methods of setting the scene. While his trademark somersault over the ropes was a constant feature of his ring entrances, it was often impossible to predict what else he would do on his way to the canvas. In the same way that he would taunt and tease his opponents with his hands-down guard once the fight had started, making a spectacle of himself before the contest was a way of getting into their heads.
Though it often felt as if Naz was practically begging his opponents to knock him out, his cocksure approach to boxing was a fundamental part of what made him great. He knew he had the natural talents to best his fellow featherweights and, having unnerved, confused or infuriated them with his grandiose stagecraft and disdainful attitude, he would then proceed to dismantle them clinically and systematically, using whatever reaction he had elicited to give him a competitive edge. Whether he flew into the ring on a magic carpet or was transported in via a giant lift, he was making a statement of total self-confidence and undermining his opponents accordingly. In essence, he was a master of sports psychology, and other fighters were left to wonder what on earth he was going to do next.
So, during his ring walk, Naz would sport unusual accessories to draw even more attention to himself. He would wear sunglasses, cloaks and fur throws, gyrating his way slowly towards the ring and keeping his opponent in a state of suspense. Quite intentionally, he would do his utmost to break their focus with his ludicrous antics, this before leaping into the ring and hitting them with a furious barrage of punches. He had the ability to maintain his own concentration even when acting the fool on the sidelines, and so the moment the bell rang he was poised to capitalise on his opponent's muddled state of mind.
In jaded but canny fashion, Naz and his team would also look to exploit his Arab heritage. Whether they thought that stressing his identity as a second-generation immigrant would lead other boxers to underestimate him, or simply wanted to play up to his enigmatic reputation, they preyed upon his opponents' prejudices to great psychological effect. Fighting in his hometown of Sheffield in 1994, Naseem walked to the ring in an orange turban, a symbol of his fundamental otherness even in otherwise familiar surroundings. In his match up with Puerto Rican boxer Daniel Alicea at the Telewest Arena in Newcastle in 1996, he was carried in on a golden palanquin, introduced by bikini-clad women spreading petals and flanked by two rows of heavily muscled black men.
While this was no doubt in poor taste itself, and while there were racial connotations to the scene which seem unsavoury to modern sensibilities, there could be no mistaking what Naz was going for with such an elaborate introduction. He was presenting himself as an Eastern prince of antiquity, an Arab sheikh in full pomp and opulence, and so exaggerating a foreign stereotype and unashamedly making it his own. As well as psyching out his opponent, there may have been an element of self-motivation in this. Naz and his family had experienced racism and discrimination during his youth, including being singled out for attention by the National Front in Sheffield. As such, this sort of self-stereotyping may have acted as a prompt for his residual childhood fury, as well as a reminder of the chauvinism of his opponents, the tabloid press and perhaps even those watching on.
There were other occasions when, rather than capitalise on his inner anger, Naz seemed liberated by his sense of humour. When he fought Northern Irishman Wayne McCullough at Bally's Park Place in Atlantic City on 31 October 1998, the designers who had styled the background set went with a Halloween theme. This was seen as controversial by the British commentary team, who thought the juxtaposition of skulls, graves and men battering the shite out of each other was rather crass. Once Naz sauntered up in a shower of sparks and a plume of smoke, all that was forgotten, and in fact the disapproving commentators were made to look a tad po-faced. Naz walked out to the sound of Michael Jackson's Thriller, occasionally stopping to uppercut a toy skull or knock over a plastic tombstone, before beating McCullough by unanimous decision and swaggering on his merry way.
As well as anger, humour and showmanship, there was also a good deal of eroticism to Naz's exuberant ring walks. In his book The Metrosexual: Gender, Sexuality and Sport, David Coad theories that Naseem's leopard-print shorts helped to make him "a hypersexualised object of desire." There was certainly an extent to which Naz's ring entrances were strangely sensual, with their lithe body pops, pouts and suggestive air kisses. Coad points out that Naz and his shorts were featured on the front cover of Loaded – where he was pictured in a limousine with two models over whom had been superimposed the slogan 'Asian Bull' – and so perhaps the implication was that he could both fuck and fight better than his foes.
While this might be reading a little far into Naz's theatrical intentions, it certainly seems plausible and in keeping with his character as a fighter. When he boxed, he tried to humiliate and embarrass his opponents, so there seems little reason why he wouldn't attempt to emasculate them too. There was a further trace of this in his ostentatious displays of pre-fight materialism, which stressed to his adversaries that he was undeniably the star of the show. Whether it was a palanquin, a chauffeur-driven hydraulic car or some other extravagant and expensive contraption, Naz was making a statement about his lavish earning power in a sport obsessed with luxury and wealth.
Looking back on Naz's ring entrances, then, it's hard not to feel that they were emblematic of his obnoxious genius. He used every technique in his power to subvert and manipulate his rivals, dazzling spectators all the while. The endurance of his legend in the modern day is down in no small part to his predilection for the spectacular, as well as his willingness to titillate, amuse, upset and offend. As well as being a magnificent talent, he was a virtuoso artist and consummate showboater whose eye for the irreverent made his name.