This article is part of our weekly history series. You can read previous entries here.
In his outlook as a man and his attitude as a boxer, Naseem Hamed flew in the face of national sensibilities. In his cocksure swagger, taunting demeanour and deliberate, cultivated gobshite persona, he was never going to be universally beloved in Britain, even if his talents were widely admired. He singularly failed to live up to the national expectations of a sportsman, obliterating as he did the vaunted ideals of modesty, decorum and general seemliness. Instead – dancing about the ring, gurning maniacally at his opponents, adorned in his customary leopard-print shorts – he was a brilliant bully, a charismatic character and a man of monumental hubris, who seemed to make it his mission in boxing to be only as celebrated as he was hard to like.
Part of the motivation behind this was doubtlessly his sense of self. Growing up in Sheffield in the seventies and eighties, the son of Yemeni immigrants, discrimination was an everyday part of Naseem's childhood and early life. In Nick Pitt's The Paddy and The Prince: The Making of Naseem Hamed, Riath Hamed, Naseem's older brother, is quoted as saying: "We suffered a lot from racism in the early days. There were bricks through our windows, pellet guns shooting at the windows and 'NF' sprayed on our windows and doors." The graffiti in question was the hallmark of the National Front, who had a significant presence in Sheffield at the time. Indeed, one of the reasons that Naseem's father introduced him to boxing was so that his son, who grew to be just over 5"4, could defend himself from racially motivated attack, which was not exactly uncommon on the streets of the industrial north.
In the amplified arrogance of his persona, then, Naseem was perhaps reacting against the society he had been brought up in. Unlike the upper-class gentleman shtick of Chris Eubank or the pantomime antics of Frank Bruno, Naseem had no desire to be accepted in Britain, and rejected the cultural norms of British sportsmanship, with its inclination towards humbleness and decent treatment of the fallen foe. This was what made him brilliant, in a way, alongside his incredible agility and deceptive deadliness in the ring. He had no desire to treat his opponents with correctness or decency, and forfeited the usual etiquette and protocol for gaudy spectacle and a penchant for cruelly beating people to a whimpering, chastened and degraded pulp.
The ultimate example of this was Naseem's 1995 WBO title fight against Welsh champion Steve Robinson, held in the open air at Cardiff Arms Park. Much as his family had been humiliated by insults and jibes when he was a child, he humiliated Robinson in front of his home crowd, battering the Cardiff-born fighter to within an inch of his life. It wasn't just the pummelling Naseem handed out to Robinson that shocked people, but the way he goaded, ridiculed and tormented him, fighting with his guard down, grinning insanely, sticking his chin out and hurling his opponent to the floor at various times in the fight. The home crowd, initially rooting for Robinson, were soon silenced. It was as if Naseem was embarrassing not only his opponent, but the spectators who supported him at the same time.
Having already been knocked down in the fifth round, the referee finally stopped the fight in the eighth after a left hook dropped the beleaguered home fighter. Naseem raised his hands above the fallen man, looking down on him with utter contempt. In a spectacular display of pomp and pageantry, the Prince was crowned WBO featherweight champion, though the whole thing had been somehow sadistic, even by the standards of nineties boxing. It had certainly been a tragic performance from Robinson, who would never be quite the same fighter again.
While Naseem's boxing had been nothing short of fantastic, it also made for difficult viewing. His speed, punching power and ability to avoid a hit were peerless, but so too was the nastiness of his approach, and the sheer, undiluted spite on show. It was as if he was cultivating a reputation as the antithesis of traditional British sport, wearing the loincloth of a Hollywood barbarian while beating the shite out of his enemies, mocking and provoking fans, spectators and the boxing establishment along the way. Here he was, an obnoxious, angry second-generation immigrant with a hypnotic presence and a knack for violence. It was meant to be provocative and, in nineties Britain, it was, even if some fans came to love it nonetheless. Naseem was able to harness the power of hubris like no other, though he seemed to think that nemesis would never arrive in turn. In the end, regardless of the motives behind the Prince's persona, it redressed the balance as it is invariably wont to do.
The cosmic reckoning came six years later, with Naseem having swaggered and taunted his way to 15 more wins in that time. He had contested a grand total of 35 career fights by then, winning all of them, with 31 coming by way of KO. He had broken America, beating a string of famous fighters on the other side of the Atlantic and even unifying the WBC and WBO titles at one point. He had been carried into the ring in a palanquin, flown in on a mechanical flying carpet, and accompanied by British and Yemeni flags as if he was royalty of the most distinguished sort. He would gyrate provocatively as he walked to the ring, strut about to nineties garage, then somersault his way over the ropes and spark out all comers. It was as if – having transcended his status as a British sporting subversive, having ruffled not only his country of birth, but America too – he was now appealing to the universe directly, challenging it to curb his arrogance and, for want of a better expression, come and have a fuckin' go.
The universe eventually accepted that challenge, and nominated its champion in the form of Marco Antonio Barrera. The Mexican veteran had long been touted for a shot at the Prince, and the fight was scheduled for April 2001, not long after Naseem's 27th birthday. With the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas as the chosen venue, one might have thought the snazzy surroundings would complement the flashiness and flamboyance of the Prince. Instead, he came into the fight run down and generally unfit. Confidence had become complacency, and Naseem was about to pay a high price.
Having broken his hand in his victorious bout against Augie Sanchez, Naseem had been forced to undergo surgery, and had spent a year and a half out of the gym in the meantime. Two months prior to the fight with Barrera, he came in at 40 pounds overweight. While he lost much of that in the build up to the weigh in, he still struggled to make the cut and ended up resorting to last-ditch tactics, like running on a treadmill in the early hours of the morning and shadow boxing frantically in the heat of his hotel steam room. Emanuel Steward, the former boxer and then trainer who had come in to help Naseem get up to scratch for the fight, later said that he thought the Prince looked massively off the pace.
Meanwhile, Barrera's preparation had been meticulous. The fight was for the vacant IBO world featherweight title, and he had no intention of handing it to Naseem. Evidence of Naseem's fitness issues came in the manner of his entrance to the ring, during which he dispensed with his usual somersault over the ropes. He simply wasn't in the right sort of shape for it, and needed to conserve his energy for the gruelling battle ahead.
From the first bell onwards, the Prince's opponent looked sharper, fitter and, for once, meaner than him, catching him with thunderous punches again and again as the bout progressed. Far from his usual charismatic self, Naseem looked lacklustre and deflated, while his punches were perpetually a millisecond late. The dexterity on which he had previously prided himself seemed to have evaporated, and the fight soon took on a seriously one-sided complexion. Come the end of the 12th round, Barrera raised his arms in triumph, and Naseem made little effort to contradict him. The judges' decision came unanimously in Barrera's favour, with scores of 111-116, 112-115 and 112-115.
While the fight was perhaps not the utter schooling it was immediately made out to be, Naseem can hardly have begrudged the gloating reaction of the press. He had made a career out of shameless self-congratulation, and the media took the opportunity to humble him with relish comparable to that he showed his defeated rivals. There were perhaps some mitigating circumstances to his poor performance, not least his injury, but also his split with long-time trainer Brendan Ingle and his increased commitment to his Islamic faith. For a combination of reasons, his head was not in the fight, but neither the press nor the public were in any particular mood to be charitable. The Prince had brought the ensuing crowing upon himself, and saw all those years of demeaning beatings, egotistical pressers and ostentatious entrances come home to roost.
While Naseem would come back to win the IBO featherweight title against Manuel Calvo, he had lost his swagger, and was booed by the crowd for a limp points victory. That would be his last professional fight, and he retired soon afterwards at the age of 28. His loss to Barrera might not have been quite as devastating in terms of performance, but there were echoes of his brutal abasement of Steve Robinson in the collapse of his personal stock after the defeat. The world has a way of making sure that what goes around, comes around. That was true even for Naseem, the angry young man from Sheffield who rose up to become a cruel and compelling prince.