Writing for The Observer, TheSweetScience.com’s Jonathan Rendall reports on the man who was once the undisputed star of British boxing – Prince Naseem Hamed – and on Hamed’s reported plans for a boxing comeback.
Sunday February 6, 2005
A prince without a crown
Naseem Hamed was the undisputed star of British boxing. A showman, supreme egoist and crowd-puller, he earned millions – then, in 2001, he lost his first fight. Today he is a near recluse who trains alone in his gym and dedicates himself to Islam. Acclaimed author Jonathan Rendall, who knows the fighter well, travelled to Sheffield where the star’s family and former friends told of his struggles, the influence of religion and of his brothers – and why he may never box again
The Ponds Forge Arena, Sheffield, one night in May 1994. In only his 12th pro fight, ‘Prince’ Naseem Hamed, 20, is challenging Vincenzo Belcastro of Italy for the European bantamweight title. There is a fair crowd and all the London boxing writers have made the journey north. Among them are many doubters. This chance has come earlier than expected for Hamed. They have known ‘Naz’ – or ‘the Naz fella’, as his unmistakable and incurably optimistic trainer, Brendan Ingle, calls him – since he was a young boy, a diminutive, hyperactive presence hanging on to the robe of Herol ‘Bomber’ Graham, the most talented but unluckiest boxer Britain has produced. Even in Herol’s darkest moments, such as when he was knocked out in a Marbella ballroom by the American puncher Julian Jackson, when on the brink of victory, there was no escaping Naz. There he was, cavorting inappropriately, just minutes after Herol had been taken concussed from the ring. Always in his own world, Naz, ignoring the efforts of another stablemate, the cruiserweight Johnny Nelson, to tell him to calm down. Wherever Ingle went, so did Naz. He is Brendan’s masterwork, the boy who will do what the fates conspired to prevent Herol from doing. With Naz, there will be no mistake.
Many of the writers are weary of Brendan’s boasts: how Naz will win every major title and earn ’40 million quid’. But that’s Brendan. He once said Nelson had the talent to beat Mike Tyson, but then rushed him into a cruiserweight title fight against Carlos De Leon. Nelson didn’t throw a single punch – perhaps the most embarrassing night at ringside anyone had seen. Could something similar happen tonight? It’s entirely possible. Belcastro has mixed with the world’s best. Only four fights ago Hamed was in Mansfield boxing Kevin Jenkins, who had won precisely three of his 18 fights.
But even if it does blow up in their faces, it won’t be the end of the story. For that, you can count on Ingle. At his St Thomas’s gym, on the run-down hill on Wincobank, world-class boxers spar among a small band of waifs and strays aged from five to 50. These are the people Ingle invites into the gym, as part of his policy of teaching those seen as society’s dregs, through boxing, some ‘social skills’. It’s a mythic scheme, a romantic pyramid, but one that requires concrete idols at its apex. And here they are, the triumvirate, Herol, Johnny and little Naz. There they always will be, somehow.
At Ponds Forge, Hamed’s sizeable family awaits the bell nervously. He is one of nine children. His father, Sal, came to Sheffield from North Yemen in the late 1960s. He worked in the steelworks and then took over the corner shop just up from Ingle’s house on Wincobank. His older brother, Riath, thin and studious, and who works at the Yemeni Economic and Training Centre, can barely watch. They need not have worried. In his leopard-skin trunks, Hamed handles Belcastro with ease. The Italian is down in the first and the 11th. Hamed does not try to finish him off. Instead, in the last, he taunts his beaten opponent. It is an unappetising spectacle. It goes beyond what Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard did. Why does he have to do that? The writers talk of his disgraceful behaviour. What is it about Hamed that incites them? He is only a kid, after all.
As we all know, the extraordinary story will continue. Naz will rise in weight and cut a swath through the featherweight division. His concussive hitting power, allied to a style that shows strongly the influence of Bomber Graham, will make previously formidable fighters crumble like novices. As they fall one by one it will be almost too outrageous to take in. He will earn millions – perhaps even £40m – and become a one-man industry. His bouts will be sensational and he will rise from the canvas to prevail. His mass ‘appeal’ will be paradoxical and his fights national occasions.
In time, he will split from Ingle and from promoter Frank Warren. He will be managed by brother Riath and promoted by Barry Hearn, the former snooker impresario. Just as his cloak of invincibility seems permanent, he will lose widely on points in the one match he really has to win, the one that would make him a legend: against the Mexican Marco Antonio Barrera. Barrera doesn’t just beat him: he takes him to school. With his customary bombast, Hamed will announce his intent to take revenge, but it will not happen. Instead, he will take a tune-up against an obscure Spaniard, Manuel Calvo, during which he will be booed for his extreme caution. And shortly after that, from Hamed at least, there will be only silence.
The Calvo fight is now more than two-and-a-half years ago. On 12 February, Hamed will be 31. His last interview, with psychologist Geoffrey Beattie, took place shortly after the Calvo fight. Hamed disparaged Ingle. He questioned Ingle’s relationship with his son, John, who worked Hamed’s corner. ‘You could see they despised each other,’ Hamed said. ‘I’m talking from father to son. There was jealousy. And you’d look at the family as a whole and think, “How can this be a family?” ‘
Riath told Beattie: ‘Brendan has no right to say he made Naz. He may have enhanced and nurtured his talent, but no one apart from the Creator can say, “I made this person”. When Brendan once said to me that he had done the hard job and that I was feeding off his rewards, I saw him for what he was. Brendan didn’t let Naz grow up.’
Such was the enmity between trainer and fighter that in their last fight together, against Wayne McCullough in Atlantic City, in October 1998, Hamed said that he was sure that Ingle wanted him to lose.
There was a time when Hamed was a regular on the Sheffield nightclub scene. Now he is scarcely ever seen out. He and his brother Riath are committed to Islam – Naseem is the benefactor of a local mosque. Not far away is the boxing gym he owns in Abbeydale Road. It has a Jacuzzi and ornate pillars in the Arab style have been installed on the frontage. Opinions vary as to how many boxers use it. Some say six; others, just one – Hamed. While in his time Hamed has paraded in Ferraris and Lamborghinis, he now favours a more discreet Merc. He lives behind security gates with his wife, Eleasha, a local girl, and their two young sons in a £3m house he has just bought near the main fire station. He is said to be considerably above his fighting weight. Nowadays, he seems to speak only through Riath.
When I ask Riath about recent newspaper stories suggesting that his brother was planning to fight again somewhere in the Middle East this summer, probably Dubai, he says, cryptically: ‘We’re not in the habit of forecasting. We leave our destinies in God’s hands. We live a good life now. I’m glad to be out of the boxing environment. No spiritual individual can exist in it. It’s an environment of cheating and lying.’
What he doesn’t say, emphatically, is no.
The Hameds have moved into what Riath calls the ‘property and agriculture business’. When Naz was king, they made signs of building an empire as promoters, perhaps one day to rival Don King. But when, in June last year, Sky declined to renew the Hameds’ multi-fight promotional deal, Riath said: ‘It is another step away from boxing for the company, which we welcome. For this to die a natural death like this is a blessing.’
Hamed and Riath seemed to have made a clean break from their past life, the life that made them their money. Now it re-intrudes almost as a dream.
And yet, as I’m finishing this article, Riath calls again, to talk about Amir Khan, the boxing sensation from Bolton who won a silver at the Athens Olympics. A rumour has linked the Hameds to Khan. Riath confirms it is true. ‘We are talking to Amir. We’re advising, if you like. I’m not necessarily looking to promote him. He and his family came to Sheffield and I talked to them. Was Naz involved? Not initially but he has since talked to them several times on the phone.’
Wasn’t Warren set to sign Khan to a promotional contract? ‘That’s why we feel we should give him advice,’ Riath adds, archly.
One afternoon in Sheffield I visit the former boxer Glyn Rhodes. He knew Hamed better than most, trained with him at St Thomas’s from the day when Sal sent his son there at the age of seven. When Herol Graham and Brendan split, it was Rhodes who trained Herol. Rhodes, by his own admission, never stepped above journeyman status. He did have talent, however. His speciality was the delayed right hand. He just never trained properly and would take fights on a day’s notice. In 65 fights his best win was on a Chris Eubank undercard. ‘I saw Naz in his car the other day,’ he says. ‘In his face he looked all right, but he’ll never come back. All that training in his gym is no good. It’s destroying him mentally. He always had that bit of devil in him, that nastiness which you need to be a good fighter. I don’t think he should box again. He has to get that something special back that he had as a kid. It’s not going to happen.’
Asked if there was a special flaw in Hamed, Rhodes says: ‘I think the flaw was in himself. Barrera did for him all right. The sign of a good fighter is when he gets sat on his arse and comes back. I thought Naz was going to be an Ali or a Hagler, but maybe he was just the best of a bad bunch. The Barrera fight was the natural death to his career. Naz was not just a puncher, though. He had very good balance. But like all of us Naz was a bit of a Herol Graham clone. You can’t try to be anybody else. All of us tried to be Herol. But it’s still a shock. To me, Naz has always been this young kid and now it’s all over. What I’d like most of all is to sit down and have a good chat with Naz. But no one can reach him. He’s lost to us.’
A couple of miles from Hamed’s new gym is where Herol Graham now lives. He answers the door in his tracksuit. He is looking after his two young children. He is in his mid-40s, but looks 10 years younger. The scars of world-title wars with Julian Jackson, Mike ‘The Bodysnatcher’ McCallum and others are not evident.