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Articles of 2005

Naseem Hamed: Once The Star of British Boxing

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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.

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Sunday February 6, 2005
The Observer

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.

Articles of 2005

In Boxing News: Floyd Mayweather An All-Time Great, Valuev & More

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A Shot of Boxing on the Last Day of the Year

The Guardian reports that talks have already taken place between Nicolay Valuev‘s co-promoters – Don King and Wilfried Sauerland – and Danny Williams‘ promoter Frank Warren for Nicolay Valuev to face Danny Williams. I’d suggest Danny Williams needs to worry about Matt Skelton (who Williams is reportedly scheduled to fight in February) before he entertains notions of facing the Beast From The East.

The Mirror in the UK looks forward to a big year in boxing for 2006. The Mirror considers what the future might bring for Joe Calzaghe, Amir Khan and Ricky Hatton, among others.

The Parksville Qualicum News has an interesting column on the travails of former Canadian Super Middleweight title holder Mark Woolnough. Woolnough’s career turned controversial – as widely reported in the Canadian press – at the beginning of this year when Woolnough and four other men were charged with manslaughter and assault after a fight outside a Parksville nightclub. The case returns to court next month. It’s an interesting read, as Woolnough is still looking to the future with hope.

Our own Marc Lichtenfeld provides plenty of food for thought with his Top Ten Wish List for boxing in the New Year. There’s plenty of good stuff here, but what really jumped out for me is Lichtenfeld’s opinion that a win over Zab Judah could have Floyd Mayweather knocking on the door of all-time great status. Seems to me this might be jumping the gun a little. Or is Marc right? Will it soon be time to call Floyd Mayweather Jr. an all-time great?

(More Boxing News Links at TheSweetScience.com)

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Articles of 2005

ShoBox Friday Night Fights

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Hot bantamweight prospect Raul “The Cobra” Martinez heads back to Chicago next Friday night as he is featured in the co-main event of SHOBOX “THE NEW GENERATION,” an action packed evening of professional boxing presented by Dominic Pesoli’s 8 Count Productions,’ HOME OF THE BEST IN CHICAGO BOXING, Kathy Duva’s Main Events Inc., along with Miller Lite and TCF Bank.

The two-time national amateur champion sporting a perfect 12-0 record with 9 knockouts, six of which have come in the first round,  will take on Colombian Andres “Andy Boy” Ledesma, 13-1 (8 KOs) in a scheduled eight round bout.

Speaking after a training session at his home gym in Georgetown, Texas, Martinez said, “I’m truly looking forward to returning to Chicago. The fans were terrific in September, they were very supportive from the start of the fight,” an internationally televised first round knockout of Miguel Martinez on September 16th at the Aragon Ballroom.

Regarding his upcoming fight with Ledesma, “The Cobra” said, “I haven’t seen him fight, although I understand he’s fought at higher weights and will be naturally bigger than me. I’ve had great training for this fight and feel very confident. I really haven’t left the gym in months, just taking off Sunday’s and even then I get my running in. My thinking is that fights are won in the gym and complete preparation is the key.”

When asked about his being mentioned by Dan Rafael, ESPN’s boxing writer as one of the top prospect’s in the boxing world the 23-year-old San Antonio native said, ‘It’s a great compliment, but I still have much work to do. I want to be a champion for Main Events like Fernando Vargas and Arturo Gatti. But like Fernando said while he was in town, ‘be patient, work hard and your time will come.’”

Finishing the conversation, Martinez said, “I’m looking forward to starting out this year with a bang. I might have a couple less fights than the seven I had in 2005, but I’m looking to stepping up the competition, move up to ten-rounders and climb in the rankings.”

Headlining the evening is a ten-round welterweight showdown between boxing’s hottest prospect, unbeaten Joel Julio of Monteria, Columbia, and Ugandan native Roberto “The Doctor” Kamya. Julio, turning 21 years old the day before the fight, is 25-0 with 22 knockouts, twelve of which have come in the first two rounds. Kamya, now fighting out of West Palm Beach, Florida is 15-5 with four knockouts.

Tickets, starting at $30, are on sale in advance by calling 312-226-5800. Cicero Stadium is located at 1909 S. Laramie, at the corner of 19th and Laramie, just ten minutes south of the Eisenhower Expressway and ten minutes north of the Stevenson Expressway. Doors for this evening will open at 6pm with the first bell at 7pm.

The full bout lineup for the evening is:

Joel Julio vs. Roberto Kamya, ten rounds, welterweights

Raul Martinez vs. Andres Ledesma, eight rounds, bantamweights

Miguel Hernandez vs. Butch Hajicek, eight rounds, middleweights

David Pareja vs. Derek Andrews, eight rounds, light heavyweights

Mike Gonzales vs. Tony Kinney, four rounds, lightweights

Omar Reyes vs. Luis Navarro, five rounds, featherweights

Reynaldo Reyes vs. Ricardo Swift, four rounds, middleweights

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Articles of 2005

Pick ‘Em: Plenty of Big Upcoming Fights in ’06

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Here’s the early call on many top matches scheduled for the first half of 2006: Happy New Year!

As the new calendar dawns, there are already a considerable amount of premium bouts on the horizon. Things don’t look to be bogged down by undetermined championships next year. In many cases the scheduled face-offs involve the best fighters in the division, or at least close enough for general bragging rights. If anybody else with proper qualifications signs up to force the issue, all the better.

It can be argued that some pairings could have taken place within a more optimal timeframe, or that some headliners carry distracting baggage, but there are certainly enough heavy hitters on deck. That nobody can deny.

It doesn’t matter whether one considers the proverbial glass half empty or half full; there’s still the same amount of juice in the vessel. It’s nice to know that even with a high number of cancellations, there will still be plenty of important contenders on tap.

With elite fighters in weight divisions from top to bottom on the agenda, it’s an equivalent to what fans in more mainstream sports expect in a consistent championship format.

Baseball fans can almost always count on a World Series. Some hoops fanatics say too much attention to playoffs distracts unmotivated NBA teams during their regular season. In college, they project Sweet Sixteens. Football fans know there’s always a Super Bowl ahead to raise advertising dollars and test the USA’s halftime morals.

So too, there is method in boxing’s current madness.

The midnight crystal ball hasn’t even been unveiled in Times Square and there are already a number of potential thrillers scheduled. Most feature contrasting personalities that almost guarantee going along for the ride will be worthwhile. Any subsequent drops will probably be cheered.

Don King jumps right out of the auld lang gate with a January 7th Showtime card featuring Zab Judah against Carlos Baldomir and Jean-Marc Mormeck in a cruiserweight unification against O’Neil Bell.

It will be the upset of the year, bar none, if Baldomir can tip the applecart before Judah gets to his scheduled super-showdown with Floyd Mayweather Jr. Meanwhile, Mormeck is emerging and should keep on rolling against Bell, who can expose him if he’s not for real.

The proverbial Big Bang starts with a January 21st rematch of one of the finest fights of ‘05, when Erik Morales goes against Manny Pacquaio for the second time on HBO pay per view. The fact that Morales was upset by Zahir Raheem after beating Pacquaio was no real loss in box-office luster. Artful Raheem will get a spot on the undercard and hope his patience is rewarded.

Everyone figures Morales and Pacquaio will pick up where they left off. Like the first time, the rematch is a pick’em contest. Management distractions and glove restrictions cited as Pacquaio’s previous problems won’t matter this time. The two are very evenly matched and their styles will make for another whapathon. It could come down to corners, where Freddie Roach gets the edge since Morales will have a new trainer for the first time since replacing his father after the Raheem lesson.

February features four of the game’s most enduring attractions, in a pair of crucial matchups.

First up, Showtime presents the Jose Luis Castillo – Diego Corrales tiebreaker from El Paso on Feb 4th. This is another pick ‘em pair, barring any sideshow. In boxing that disclaimer may be a stretch, since the sideshow is part of the act and the charm.

As far as action inside the strands goes, every round these guys have fought has been great. There’s no reason to think that pattern won’t continue. Regarding the result, Castillo keeps the pressure on as he did in the second fight, but he’ll walk into trouble from a more reserved Corrales. We still don’t know which coin to flip.

February also holds a better late than never affair between two perennial favorites as Shane Mosley collides with Fernando Vargas on the 25th.  This fight could lead to a winning ticket in the Golden Boy sweepstakes for a fall bonanza against Oscar De La Hoya.

Vargas has been in tougher recently, based on comparable strength of opposition stats, but he’s seen little action. What weight they enter the ring at may have a lot to do with the result. If Vargas has to struggle at the scale, Mosley might have the battle in the bag after round nine.

It’s hard to imagine Mosley getting stopped early, but Vargas doesn’t have to hurt him, he just has to knock him down three times. With natural size, he may be able to do just that, but Mosley would have to box uncharacteristically flat.

Unless Mosley decides to heed the crowd, the most likely scenario is that Shane plays it safe, picks a few shots, and stays away enough to capture a comfortable, dull decision. An unbowed Vargas maintains his fan base but not his bettors.

March both comes in and goes out as a lion.

On March 4th Joe Calzaghe welcomes Jeff Lacy to Manchester UK for what may be the biggest blowout of the headlining bunch. Calzaghe gets the chance to prove his considerable home-based reputation once and for all, but if Lacy creams him as we expect, that glossy record will be severely tarnished.

All Calzaghe has to do is make a respectable stand, but that’s no small task against the rising Lacy. A motivated Calzaghe, songs of England ringing in his ears, could pull a big surprise if he can exploit Lacy’s relatively limited technical development, but that’s a longshot indeed.

It looks like Lacy can get by on power alone. He could soon emerge as a pound-for-pound leader. Old Joe’s hometown advantage will last about two left hooks.

March 11th has the Ides of history to beware for at least one old lion, with farewell (we’ll see) fireworks featuring Roy Jones Jr. against Bernard Hopkins. Less than two years ago they were considered untouchable all time greats. Now between them they’ve lost five in a row.

This goodbye fight is contracted at light heavyweight, for what seems like an oldies night. Hopkins is the senior at age 41 to Jones’s 37, but Roy seems more the grandpa figure, last seen hanging on against Antonio Tarver. Youth, as it were here, will prevail.

This bout was signed quickly as each principal, usually sticklers for favorable contract clauses, agreed to parity in a demonstration of businessman first and fighter second. They may both expect easy marks. How much the boys have left by the time they get down to business remains to be seen. The history books will show this as a climactic career bout between Hall of Famers.

At 175 pounds, Hopkins may be in for rude awakening. Jones may have been more thoroughly outfought recently, but he was rumbling with bigger, tougher men than Jermain Taylor or Howard Eastman. Respectable as he is, Taylor still falls short of the level of Tarver, at least for now. The difference is still fifteen pounds less pop.

It will be quite a feat if Hopkins can stay in the fight, even at Jones’s advanced age. Our stars point to Jones winning in overwhelming fashion.

On March 18th, James Toney meets Hasim Rahman in another pairing of seasoned war-horses.

Toney and Rahman already had their introductions, when they brawled in Mexico during a WBC gathering to bestow Rahman’s new belt. Between formalities, Toney got married, which could bring up the old questions about carnal training.

Let’s hope when they meet in the ring, they restore some of the fire missing from the heavyweights in ‘05.  Toney might have an edge in recent form, but Rahman shows fine tuning he previously lacked. The winner might get newly “crowned’ Nicolai Valuev, an easy payday outside Germany.

Rahman could be the heavyweight that finally makes Toney look like a blown up middleweight. But anything less than a top effort will probably lead to embarrassing night for the Rock and give Toney solid claim to being the true heavyweight champ.

This might not be the most artful fight of the new season, but it could well be the most grueling, and the closest. He who’s faced the better big boys gets the nod. Advantage Rahman.

March 25 features Marco Antonio Barrera, probably the strongest overall claimant to 130 pound honors. The likely opponent is said to be always tough Jesus Chavez.

Chavez seemed rejuvenated when he met Leavander Johnson, but Johnson’s tragic death may have taken some of the steam out of thoughtful Chavez, said to have received Johnson’s family blessing to continue in Leavander’s name. That could mean a lot of inspiration. Either way, if he does meet Chavez, who hung tough with one arm against Erik Morales, Barrera won’t get any slack. The Fates say Chavez, whose wife recently served in Iraq, is a live, live underdog.

Another clash to be King of the Hill finds Floyd Mayweather Jr, arguably the game’s finest practitioner, bumping heads with Zab Judah, one of very few boxers who rivals Mayweather in speed, skills, and brashness.

Their hoedown, scheduled for April 8th, is one of the top pound-for-pound pairings in recent years. Judah will need a career best performance to have a chance of victory. That’s not to say he can’t pull it off, but currently Mayweather is in a different galaxy in terms of punching power. Slow-motion replays may be the only way to follow the flying fists once these two whirlwinds unload.

Mayweather should be around a 4-1 favorite. Judah is good enough to make taking the odds an attractive proposition, since that’s probably as good of odds as one is likely to see on Floyd for a while. Mayweather will stop Judah in his tracks.

The first half of next year is set to conclude with the star power of Oscar De La Hoya, probably against noteworthy foil Ricardo Mayorga on May 6. There could be some snags before a contract is finalized, but if it comes off count on Mayorga for promotional sound bite nastiness. One of the questions is whether or not he’ll be able to get under Oscar’s skin, and it might actually be entertaining to see the classy, model perfect De La Hoya show he’s human and freak out against the Nicaraguan maniac.

Mayorga may have burnt his best bridges already. De La Hoya has not only the boxing skill to negate Mayorga’s offense, but enough power to end it early. If Mayorga rushes in and causes a cut, De La Hoya might get ruffled enough to duck into defense and Mayorga could get a decision that goes to the cards after six rounds or so. It will be wild for as long as it lasts.

Pro boxing, like many sports, had its share of problems during 2005, but there were also many positives. Most notably, as usual, was superior and inspiring action inside the strands. Unless there’s a mass freeze-up at the top, early 2006 figures to see decisive interaction among many well-known fighters.

If even fifty per cent of the aforementioned pairings come to fruition, it’s a strong likelihood the upcoming year has at least one very positive half. Arturo Gatti, Miguel Cotto, Antonio Margarito, Brian Viloria, and Shannon Briggs, to name a few, are also on deck. No matter how you chose to look at or measure mass qualities, there’s still just as much good to be seen.

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