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The Prince and the Jester
By Jim Cawkwell (July 2, 2004) 
Naseem Hamed
If British boxing were to manifest itself in physical form today, it would barely resemble itself as it was in the mid-to-late 1990’s. It beheld a vibrant aura back then, a resounding image of vitality which has appreciated in time; evoking a longing for such times to be repeated. A reconstructed Lennox Lewis was tearing his way towards dominance and the historic legacy he has now affirmed, Frank Bruno was the WBC heavyweight champion and a young upstart named Naseem Hamed taunted then tamed Welshman Steve Robinson for the WBO featherweight title.

Unfortunately, now in place of those wonderful times are depths of mediocrity and disappointment. Back then, SKY cable network was bristling with boxing activity, providing the fans with marquee attractions on both sides of the Atlantic, often on the same night. As the nineties grew older, Naseem Hamed became a pivotal part of these events. Despite his increasingly elaborate ring entrances, described as gaudy and self indulgent, there was a tangible excitement about Hamed. The 'Prince' as he came to be recognized, reveled in the spotlight and regularly held court to a growing legion of admirers among the public and a significant celebrity element.

However, his image could not have been complete without real quality, and when it suited him Hamed certainly possessed that. His lust for showmanship was equally matched by his desire to perform dramatic knockouts, and his ability to deliver on that desire was startling. Hamed’s speed and power combined to create a force that seemed beyond his featherweight frame. The impact of his punches changed things, mainly the ambition of his opponents once they felt them. Logically, Hamed became a boxing phenomenon. Raised in England but of Yemeni descent, his appeal to Arab communities and representation of them as a devout Muslim became increasingly apparent. He received invitations from royalty in the Middle East, becoming perhaps the most recognized Muslim boxer since Muhammad Ali.

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The 'Prince' moniker was first perceived as a gimmick that Hamed certainly played on. Beyond the ring, his fun loving persona resonated with the younger audience. He incorporated his love for the dance club culture into his signature entrances and his sparkling confidence shone endlessly throughout the notoriously grim landscape of the boxing world. However, 'Prince' had a deeper meaning; it foretold of a grand coronation for its bearer who was destined to rule all. As it transpired, Hamed’s crowning was quite literally fistic, not majestic as he had prophesized. We credit Marco Antonio Barrera with bringing about Hamed’s demise, but in truth, Hamed’s unraveling began many years before Barrera outwitted and outfought him on that infamous Las Vegas night.

Hamed was the subject of a documentary, which aired in England in the aftermath of his loss. The program centered on the sequence of events before, during and after Hamed-Barrera, but more poignantly, it depicted the final stages of the virtual collapse of a prizefighter. What the documentary did not show was that the rot had begun to set in Hamed’s early career during his association with Frank Warren. Warren is the Don of British fight promoters but holds little sway on the world stage. Nonetheless, Warren channeled Hamed’s star potential into a gold mine, evading serious risk and well equipped with a handful of excuses as to why none of the world’s top fighters would negotiate a fight with Hamed. Such Warren practices are still prevalent to this day.

As the nineties drew to a close, somehow Hamed had contested every featherweight championship without facing a single legitimate threat. But, when he and Warren parted ways, the creation of Hamed’s own 'Prince Promotions' company cultivated hope that more meaningful matches would flow his way. However, the quality of Hamed’s opposition dropped further and it became clear that 'Prince Promotions' was a tool to wrest financial and management control from Warren.

As the documentary shows, Hamed’s brothers were put in charge of his training camp as well as the handling of his business matters. Their incompetence would have been laughable if it had not contributed to the downfall of a potentially great fighter. It was obvious that the Hamed and his brothers had perpetuated Warren’s stagnant pool of shortcuts and excuses into a flood of ignorance, vanity and laziness. Expert advice from trainer Emanuel Steward saw him labeled as a trouble causer. Hamed’s brothers fed their siblings ego by showing him video tapes of the marauding Barrera of yesteryear instead of the classy boxer-puncher into which he had recently refined. Finally, Hamed preoccupied himself with the magnificence of his ring entrance rather than the way in which he would dismantle his greatest professional opponent.

When it was all over, so was Hamed. He sat, looking at himself in his dressing room mirror and the uneducated noise of well-wishers and excuse makers could not draw him from his devastation. The mirror did not reflect the visage of a King, only the tears of a clown whose make-up had been wiped away. To that point, Hamed increasingly relied on his religious beliefs and Islamic imagery gradually made up more of his language as well as his once party-like ring entrances. He contended that his pugilistic greatness was the will of his God, a conviction that compounded his misery in defeat.

That was 2001, the year when the horrific terrorist deeds of Islamic militants claimed the lives of thousands of innocent people in America. The voices of leading Muslim athletes were silent: Bernard Hopkins became the undisputed middleweight champion, Hasim Rahman became the undisputed heavyweight champion and neither would dare to risk what would likely have been professional suicide at the hands of America’s white-hot wrath. Only Australian super middleweight Anthony Mundine spoke out, an act that has seen him viciously vilified by the international media.

Naseem Hamed could have been a vital voice throughout such a time, but following his inconsequential return win against Manuel Calvo, he exiled himself from boxing and the media. There he remains, neglecting to reassume his career and certainly not taking a stance as a prominent public figure to help heal the wounds between East and West. Actions mean more than words and Hamed’s inactivity writes volumes about his intent. From rare media glimpses, it is obvious that his physical state is leagues away from that of an elite level fighter and elite level fighters are abundant now in the featherweight division, another factor to dissuade a Hamed return.

Despite breaking financial precedents for lighter weight fighters, Hamed’s legacy appears destined to remain one of promises unfulfilled and it seems that time only hastens the fading of his memory. During the HBO coverage of Barrera’s ring return against Paulie Ayala, broadcaster Jim Lampley made Hamed the subject of an uncharacteristic verbal attack, which indicated something to me about the unsympathetic sentiment felt towards Hamed by his former employers.

Money can accomplish much but it cannot buy strength and determination. I suppose only a lack of finances could propel Hamed to seek vengeance and finally right his indignity, but such an occurrence is unlikely. Hamed may live out his days in a kingly fashion, but his remembrance in the boxing world will probably be that of a jester disguised as a prince, embarrassment being his greatest act of amusement.
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