"The English don't deserve great artists," announces a character
in Joyce Cary's novel The Horse's Mouth. Which provokes the
reply, "But they're going to get them just the same." And with
Naseem Hamed--The Artist Currently Known As Prince--they have.
Prince Naseem Hamed is boxing's first rock star. The 22-year-old
WBO and IBF featherweight champ combines the roguish strut of
Mick Jagger with the sneering braggadocio of Sid Vicious. His
gaudy entrances to the ring are choreographed like music videos.
They involve smoke, fireworks, lasers and a soundtrack as loud
as his leopard-skin trunks. Before Hamed's Feb. 8 fight with Tom
(Boom-Boom) Johnson at the London Arena, highlights of Hamed's
earlier matches were shown on an enormous screen and then burned
away to reveal a live shot of him hip-hopping, before a crane
carried him toward the ring. Then the baying, swaying mass of
12,500 souls watched him swagger down a runway and somersault
over the ropes.
Hamed's ring walks are often longer than his fights. The 5'3",
122-pounder has won all 25 of his bouts, 23 by knockout. More
than half the KOs have come before the end of the second round,
including a three-punch, 35-second slam dunk of Nigeria's Said
Lawal a year ago. Johnson, a 32-year-old American who had
defended his IBF crown 11 times, lasted until Round 8, when a
slashing right uppercut dethroned him. "No one can stand up to
the extraordinary power of my fists," Hamed said later, with a
careless ease that spilled over into condescension. "I'm not
bragging or anything, but I'm just too good. I prefer to flatten
my opponent in the second round, but my mother said she wanted a
little entertainment." She may get it yet. By the end of the
year Hamed promises to unify the title by adding the WBA and WBC
belts. If he succeeds he will be the only undisputed champ in
boxing, and the first in the featherweight division since
Vicente Saldivar in 1967.
Hamed provokes ambivalent reactions in England, where an
elephant caravan of blather attends his every move. Purists
claim he's a preening narcissist who embodies everything coarse
and bullying about the sport. They groan at the victory jigs he
performs in mid-fight. They grunt when he drops his gloves low
and cockily invites head shots. They gag at the sight of him
taunting, teasing and tormenting opponents before taking them
out. Hamed's longtime trainer, Brendan Ingle, says, "Is he
arrogant? Possibly. Is he bombastic? Could be. But then, he's
not playing marbles. His job is to do damage before it's done to
Younger fans see a spiky integrity in Hamed's brazenness. They
admire his pulverizing self-confidence, his blurring hand speed,
his ability to unload with both feet off the canvas or in
retreat. "The public loves Naz," says his promoter, Frank
Warren. "He's winning over a whole new generation to boxing.
He's beyond boxing--he's showbiz." Clearly, Warren is a
Machiavelli who has found his Prince.
The Prince handle was Hamed's own idea. "A revelation came to me
at 16," he says. "All true princes must someday become kings."
In Yemen, the homeland of his parents, he is already treated
like royalty. President Ali Abdullah Saleh rains gifts on him--a
Rolex, a Mercedes, and, most recently, a couple of minipalaces.
"The president calls me before every fight," Hamed boasts. "He
has begged me to campaign for him in the next election." Adoring
Yemenites send him letters signed in blood, and his face adorns
everything there from milk cartons to composition books. Five
different postage stamps bear Hamed's likeness. ("It's the only
way I'll ever be licked," he says).
It has been nearly 40 years since Hamed's father, Suleiman, left
Yemen to find work in the steel mills of Sheffield, England. His
wife, Caira, followed a few years later. They settled in an
ethnic enclave of the town's Yemenite community, amid some of
the saddest slums in England. They opened a corner grocery store
and set about raising their children. The last was named Naseem.
"That's Arabic for 'gentle breeze,'" says Ingle. "Typhoon might
have been more appropriate."
Ingle first spied Hamed from the top of a Sheffield bus in 1981,
when he looked down into the playground of the Wincobank Nursery
and First School and saw a small boy scuffling with three bigger
ones. "He ducked and jabbed and weaved like a pro," Ingle
recalls, "and no one could lay a hand on him. He was brilliant."
A week later Ingle walked by the Hameds' grocery store, a block
from Ingle's boxing club. Suleiman came out and asked him to
teach his three youngest sons to fight. "Sal said his boys were
being bullied because of their color," Ingle says. "I said,
'Bring them down. I'll show them how to look after themselves.'"
The following day Sal did. "I looked down at the littlest lad,
all nose and ears, and recognized him from the schoolyard,"
Ingle says. "He gazed at me with those big eyes and said, 'Mr.
Ingle, my name is Naseem, and I am going to be champion of the
world.'" And so, at seven, Hamed launched his boxing career.
"From that first day, I knew boxing was the sport for me," he
says. "I liked the way I could hit and not get hurt. I loved the
movement. My brothers dropped out inside of a year, but I spent
the rest of my childhood in the gym."
Ingle's gym is a grim converted church school with
cut-your-throat bright lighting. Plum- and cherry-colored heavy
bags dangle from the ceiling, and a sign on the wall warns:
BOXING CAN DAMAGE YOUR HEALTH. Ingle, 57, started the club in
1960, two years after he came over from Dublin. "My methods have
been called unorthodox," the sweet-natured ex-pug says in a bit
of classic understatement. After all, this is a guy who remedied
the image problem of middleweight Fidel Castro Smith by
stitching a shamrock onto his trunks and renaming him Slugger
As part of their training, Ingle's fighters turn cartwheels,
perform backflips and copy the dance steps of Fred Astaire.
"Basically, boxers are shy," Ingle says. "You've got to build
their confidence." Which is why he lines up his boys in the ring
and has them sing ditties--Danny Boy, say, or Mammy--as they
introduce themselves. He even has them do stand-up. "An opponent
may try to intimidate my fighter about his nationality or color
or birth," Ingle says. "I've got to prepare him mentally."
Hamed had plenty of cheek when he debuted as an 11-year-old
amateur. What he lacked was ballast. Ingle stuffed eight pounds
of lead into Hamed's jockstrap and trunks to help him make the
60-pound minimum. He won his bout and was named fighter of the
night. Success bred more success. Ingle inspired the 12-year-old
Hamed on to his first national schoolboy title by telling him,
"When you're 21, you'll win a world title."
By 16, the 95-pound Hamed packed such a potent punch that nobody
his age would take him on. "I had him spar with heavyweights,"
Ingle says. "One 200-pounder was so frustrated of getting the
runaround that he leveled Naz. But Naz popped straight to his
feet, leaped up and broke the bloke's nose." The inmates of
Doncaster Prison had no better luck. Ingle took Hamed there six
times for seasoning. Convicts were allowed to hit anywhere above
the belt; Hamed could only dodge and feint. "Any prisoner who
decked my man got a tenner," says Ingle, who never lost a cent.
These days Hamed's toughest sparring partners are seven-, eight-
and nine-year-olds. Doncaster rules apply: The kids can hit him,
but he can't hit back. "These lads give me the best training
possible," Hamed insists. "They're hungry and unpredictable and
sling punches from every direction. They hit me with everything
they've got, and all I can do is get out of the way."
Hamed's self-absorption and demand for obeisance can exasperate
even Ingle. "Now and again Naz thinks he's done it all himself,"
Ingle says. "When he's nice, he's very nice; but when he's
awful, he drives me to despair."
After defeating Vincenzo Belcastro for the European bantamweight
title in 1994, Hamed told Ingle: "I'm not doing any more
"I think you're mad!" protested Ingle. "Roadwork helps your legs
and your breathing."
"Running is for runners. I'm a boxer," Hamed said. So he stopped
running. He didn't start again until he watched Evander
Holyfield wear down Mike Tyson in November.
"Naz wanted to put a million pounds on Tyson," Ingle says. "I
told him, 'Never bet on anything that can talk.'"
When Tyson hit the canvas in the sixth round, Hamed was floored.
"Tyson didn't train seriously," Ingle says. "He thought he'd
prevail on power alone. Naz realized that could have been him."
It almost was, at a fight last summer. Battling a cold, the
Little Prince pummeled Manuel Medina for two rounds, once
knocking him down. But the challenger would not stay there, and
by Round 6, Hamed was sapped. Sniffling and bleary-eyed, Hamed
held on through Round 11, when Medina staggered to the ropes and
failed to answer the bell for Round 12. Afterward, Hamed asked
Ingle, "Did you think I'd lose?"
"No, I didn't," said Ingle. "In fact, I enjoyed watching you
struggle. You survived on guts, heart and courage."
The opponent Hamed most wants a piece of is Uncle Sam. "I can't
wait to conquer the States," he says. "Americans say Brits
always come in second. Well, I'm a British Arab. God has chosen
me to rule the entire planet."
Hamed has so far stormed our shores primarily in an Adidas ad
now running on British TV. A mad prophet stands atop a Manhattan
skyscraper shouting, "He is coming!" The "he" is Hamed, who
steals into New York harbor by ship and disembarks by
somersaulting over the rail.
Hamed doesn't fight for money, he claims, or for adulation. He
fights out of hubris. "I'm unbeatable and untouchable," he says.
"From the age of seven, I was destined to be a legend, to be the
world's most popular fighter."
Hey, he's already England's most popular prince.
COLOR PHOTO FIVE POSTAL STAMPS IN YEMEN BEAR HAMED'S LIKENESS, AND 25 RING VICTIMS AND TWO TITLES ATTEST TO HIS SKILLS [Yemeni postage stamp featuring Naseem Hamed]
COLOR PHOTO: BOB MARTIN [Naseem Hamed with championship belts]
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN GICHIGI/ALLSPORT BELCASTRO FOUND OUT THE HARD WAY THAT THE PRINCE CAN ATTACK FROM ANY ANGLE [Vincenzo Belcastro and Naseem Hamed boxing]