The Ecstasy and Agony of Prince Naseem Hamed: Britain's Forgotten Icon
Boxing, speed garage, racial tensions and the collapse of the industrial heartlands – for a few years in the late 90s, all that and more was wrapped up in one of the most dazzling cunts on earth.
When I was a kid, I still had heroes. Sportsmen whose muscle memory I'd try to rip off on the wide open playing fields of suburbia; actors I'd get in trouble for impersonating at the Bentall Centre; chart rappers I'd wish my parents were more like. These were people who seemed to represent worlds of excitement and opportunity far beyond my own. People who seemed to be endowed with some kind of greatness. And – most importantly – people who carried that greatness with a magnanimous, maverick swagger, locked in a state of limitless grace.
Most of these heroes went on to achieve the kind of global stardom that means their faces still haunt the canvases of Leicester Square caricature artists today: Will Smith, Jim Carrey, Liam Gallagher. Others went on to have mediocre managerial careers at West Ham and Watford after years of doing things like this.
But only one had a career quite like Prince Naseem Hamed, the diminutive, crew-cut, god-fearing, subtlety-hating, flamboyant, street-wise, homoerotic Sheffield southpaw who won the World Title, went to prison, lost his house and, for a brief time in the mid-90s, was one of the most dazzling men on earth.
Prince Naseem Hamed dancing into the arena to speed garage tunes
Prince Naseem spoke to me as a kid. A British Asian from the industrial heartland I'm not, but something about his cartoon cockiness, his leopard skin shorts, the way he dance-walked into the ring to speed garage tunes and moved around it like a gakked-up pair of scissors – banging with the uppercut and pulling his torso back and forth like an air dancer – captured my imagination.
He was, in short, an absolute fucking don. A boxer who released a hit single and who could pull off ring entrances that were elaborate "Thriller" routines or flying carpet rides. A fighter who only lost one professional fight, and could count an astonishing 31 knock outs in his 36 wins. A five foot four Yemeni kid from South Yorkshire whose dad got him boxing so he could defend himself against the growing National Front presence of the time, who later trained at Bing Crosby's old house and fist-bumped P Diddy ringside. He was the British immigrant dream realised in American television technicolor.
When Prince Nas first came to New York, to retain his WBO featherweight title against local hero Kevin Kelley at Madison Square Garden, he did not play the Hugh Grant character that threatened to define all British men abroad at the time. He was not going to be the bumbling Englishman who was sorry he was even there.
Nah, he decided to beat the Americans at their own game. He decided to be the most brilliant cunt on earth, entering the ring not as a noble contender from across the pond, but as his own silhouette, dancing for over four whole minutes to the sounds of "Men In Black" and a load of other bass-heavy rap cuts. The commentators seemed outraged, but happy to be. Seemingly transfixed by this supernova of self-confidence, they call him "Hector Camacho, Jorge Paez, Michael Jackson and PT Barnum rolled into one" before wondering aloud if they were witnessing "the end of Western civilization as we know it".
Finally, after seven minutes, Hamed somersaulted into the ring and knocked out Kelley in the fourth. It's unlikely that anyone who saw it will ever forget it. Some boxing heads still call it one of the most underrated fights of all time.
Fifteen years or so later, after Hamed had lost to Barrera, fought his last fight, gone bankrupt and nearly killed a man in his McClaren, he pretty accurately summed up his own achievements through his usual prism of wonderful steel-town braggadocio. "Who do you know, who could come out on a flying carpet? P Diddy standing at the bottom, come out like a concert, dancing, oozing confidence and then get in and take somebody out? Come on, do you know anybody in the history of the sport that did what Prince Naseem did? I ain't trying to brag, but I was bloody good at it."
He's not wrong. The Fresh Prince, Zola, Carrey and Gallagher were all heroes of mine, but in hindsight, Prince Naz (who came slightly before Zola and slightly after Carrey) was all of them rolled into one.
I suppose I was too young to really keep abreast of his career, to know how he'd performed in the majority of the fights and what weight he should've been doing it at, but that didn't matter. He loomed in nevertheless from the peripheries of my cultural consciousness, a strange travelling showman, usually tarted up like a Shepherd's Bush Market Tyson, who'd turn up occasionally in the things that were on before bedtime: Grandstand, TFI Friday, Top Of The Pops. I might not have been able to pick up the weaknesses in his jab defence, but he became an abstract hero of mine all the same, as well as a constant in my young life.
Boxing was big in the 90s, possibly bigger than it ever was before or has been since, and aside from Iron Mike, Prince Naseem was arguably, strangely, the biggest character in all of it. There was something so British, yet so un-British about him. Whereas Frank Bruno was ever the humble Panto bruiser constantly being taken down by Americans with harder heads and better gyms, Prince Naz was so outrageous that even the Americans thought he was a tosser. Then he battered them.
He was a fighter that came of age in the Cool Britannia era, yet was always more than that; he was never going to be defined by Tony Blair and Brett Anderson. His entourage carried both a Yemeni flag and a Union Jack; he was simultaneously Britpop and jungle at the same time. A young Muslim from the north of England who wore jean jackets, and knocked the fuck out of people.
As a fighter, he had his doubters. Even his Wikipedia uses the phrase "unfulfilled potential". They said he never fought enough, that he rode his luck too much, that he never fought Gatti or De La Hoya or Ward or Chavez. That he was more about the entrances than the fights, that he was a showman, not a sportsman. To this day, he still isn't in the boxing hall of fame.
"Naz Hamed was the best I've worked with," said promoter Frank Warren after all was said and done with The Prince's boxing career. "He had everything: real KO power, all the skills, the box office appeal... He was exciting, a showman, but he still didn't fulfill all his talent."
But my enduring fascination with Naseem doesn't just reside in his performances as a fighter, or in his attempts to reinvent himself as a manager of fighters. For me, he's way, way bigger than that. He's an often overlooked cultural icon who'd probably be on the cover of every magazine in the world if he were fighting today.
I got to thinking about him again after years of him intermittently popping up in tabloid tragedies and late-night profiles in the Freeview backwaters. I realised that not only did his fights look great and not only were his entrances as brilliant and bizarre as I remembered them, but that he's had a massive effect on British culture as we know it today.
He was arguably Britain's first ghetto superstar; a young, sportswear-clad demigod who made a shitload of money and took on the world. You can find shades of his cocksure, vainglorious swagger in all kinds of places today, from British music (Wiley, shufflers, Novelist's " Nike tracksuit to the MOBOs" Twitter chat), to British fashion (Nasir Mahzar's last collection, Agi & Sam, Astrid Andersen, whatever the fuck a "chivster" is meant to be). Millions of young men across the country currently have his haircut. And how many gay guys got their first inkling of their sexuality while huddled round their mates' tellies one night back in the 90s, nursing stubbies at some Year 9 sleepover organised around one of Naz's late-night fights? The sheer weight of "scally porn" on the internet would seem testament to that.
It's easy to overlook just how pioneering Naz was in this attitude, which has now become so dominant in our culture. He was perhaps the first famous UK "street" celebrity, just before UK garage and way before Goldie started appearing in James Bond movies. He came of age in a time when racist shitheads like Jim Davidson were still on prime-time BBC1, establishing himself as a flawed, world-beating role model for anyone who felt alienated in this staid country. As a white kid from the London suburbs, he was a vision of brilliance in a late childhood that often felt way too normal.
But that attitude which captured the hearts and minds of so many repelled a whole lot of others. There was no OBE for Naz; no lunch with the Prime Minister. In 1997, the year of the Kelley fight at Madison Square Garden, it was Greg Rusedski who won the Sports Personality of the Year award. Tim Henman came second, Steve Redgrave third. It was to be the story of Hamed's career; a champion who the establishment and the Sun-reading, Diana-loving masses never really took to. Blame an innate British distaste for showmanship, blame promoters who always seemed to have one eye on America, blame racism; for whatever reason Britain seemed to prefer sportsmen who advertised cereal to those who made bhangra rap tunes.
Jimmy Hill referees a penalty shoot-out skit on the 1996 Sports Personality Of The Year Award show
He was always a figure of fun within British culture, a slightly ridiculous human being, often accused of arrogance, indolence and not taking "the noble art" seriously enough. Tony Adams could get so pissed he'd have to wear a bin bag to catch his booze-sweat during training the next morning and he still got to captain his country. Prince Naz was a discredit to his sport and homeland because he had a bit of swagger.
Maybe it was because he was a Muslim, maybe it was because he did skirt pretty close to the realm of self-parody at times, maybe it was that he was just too cocksure, too menacing – too cool – to become a Question Of Sport team captain. He decided he'd rather hang out with Diddy than Sue Barker and for this he was viewed as some kind of traitor. Luckily, with million-dollar paydays, for a while he could do whatever he wanted.
Ever since Prince Naseem, British sportspeople seem to have been told not to behave like him. To be humble, to thank their coaches, to laugh at Phil fucking Tufnell's awful fucking jokes. To collect their MBE in a tracksuit and do an advert promoting quasi-healthy junk food. What they're told not to do is to be anything other than a conduit for banalities about "respect", "teamwork" and every other Team GB cliche you can imagine.
Even though we claim to love mavericks, we're quick to jump on their backs as soon as they falter. While I'm as amused as everyone else at Mario Balotelli's reinvention as the world's slowest winger at Liverpool – and yes, Ricky Hatton maybe could've stayed off the beers if he wanted to take on the Mayweather-Pacquiao duopoly – it irks me when we praise the "steady" and malign the imperfect. Because more often than not, it's the ones who make mistakes and let it go to their heads that veer closest to greatness.
Sport is about more than just medals; at its best it reflects the wider culture. And while you can praise Sir Chris Hoy's relentless professionalism to the high heavens, he'll never have the same kind of impact that Prince Naz did.
Naseem Hamed is younger than Ryan Giggs, yet it feels like he's been experiencing the hard fall from grace the establishment always wanted him to for more than a decade. His retirement came at the age of just 28, put down to a combination of familial commitments and busted hands. Since then, his media caricature has gone from that of a motor-mouthed, moon-walking featherweight to a broke, fat, ex-con Yorkshireman. But look back on the entire package he created – the buzz, the late nights, the sheer, sweaty, glittering pomp that crystallised in that moment, Naz's moment, into something so alien and glorious – and you'll realise that he was a true UK original.
We didn't make a lot in this country after Thatcher came in. Prince Naz might have been one of our last truly great exports.
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