Prince of Pranks
Naseem Hamed's hollow Halloween win was more trick than treat
It seemed fitting that Prince Naseem Hamed would defend his WBO
featherweight title in a Halloween bout billed as Fright Night.
His perfection (31-0 with 28 KOs) has been scary. He's a
terrifyingly effective showman, put together with parts nicked
from other prizefighters--the elasticity of Sugar Ray Robinson,
the wallop of Joe Louis, the braggadocio of Muhammad Ali, the
punk narcissism of Hector Camacho and the insolence of Sonny
At 24, Hamed has built a career showboating primarily against
flaccid nobodies and faded somebodies. None of his 18 previous
opponents had gone the distance against him. But last Saturday
in Atlantic City, he pranced and preened and couldn't knock
Wayne McCullough down. Hamed's 12-round decision was unanimous
but not impressive. "I told him in the ring, 'You're the
champion. Come in and fight me,'" said McCullough. "Instead, he
ran away like an amateur."
Game but not particularly gifted, McCullough had moved up two
weight classes in order to face Hamed. Fright Night handicappers
barely gave him a ghost of a chance. His chief sparring partner,
Kevin Kelley, reportedly called the fight a "mismatch." This was
the same Kevin Kelley who last December in Madison Square Garden
floored Hamed three times before getting knocked out in Round 4.
A British-born son of Yemeni immigrants, Hamed is a huge draw in
England and in his parents' homeland, where his face is
plastered on everything from schoolchildren's composition books
to postage stamps. On the Jersey Shore, though, his appeal was
spottier than his leopard-print trunks. On the eve of the bout,
with more than 3,000 seats unsold in the 12,000-seat Convention
Hall, Hamed's trainer, Brendan Ingle, patrolled the Boardwalk
with a bullhorn in a ludicrous attempt to sell tickets to high-
and low-rollers wandering from casino to casino.
Ingle has lately fallen into Princely disfavor. A recent book by
British boxing writer Nick Pitt, The Paddy and the Prince,
portrays the champ as a cruel, greedy ingrate who keeps late
hours and doesn't train hard--an opinion apparently shared by
Ingle, the book's primary source. Last month Hamed branded Ingle
a "Judas" for daring to criticize him. "Judas got paid,"
corrected Ingle. "I didn't." Ingle was supposedly demoted to
"adviser" by Hamed, but he was still calling the shots in the
Prince's corner on Saturday night.
McCullough vowed not to be undone by the champ's always gaudy
ring entrance, a rocking horror show designed to infuriate
opponents. Last Saturday it included fog machines, fireworks and
a mock graveyard. HBO had wanted each tombstone to bear the name
of one of Hamed's defeated foes, but in a rare display of
restraint, the champ vetoed the request. Even so, the Nazmatazz
intro lasted five minutes.
In the days leading up to the bout, Hamed had said he would
inflict career-ending pain on McCullough before flooring him at
2:28 of the third round. "I'm not taking a stopwatch into the
ring," Hamed said, "but I'll know when it's time to shake and
bake, and then I'll hit him with a wicked right uppercut."
The time came and went, and Hamed neither shaked nor baked.
Whenever the powerless McCullough moved in, the powerful Prince
backed up. Hamed held the challenger at bay by throwing no-look,
wrong-footed punches from angles you can't learn in geometry
class. A few blows landed, but none did serious damage. Though
the hour-long exercise made the Prince $2 million richer, it
exposed him as a pretender to the throne. The 8,000 or so bored
spectators booed him from the seventh round on.
Hamed insists he's not the royal pain he once was, that
fatherhood and husbandhood have softened him. "As a matter of
fact, Naz has gotten worse," volunteers Ingle. "He has this vast
amount of money now, and feels compelled to step over everybody,
including me. Not that I didn't expect it." Ingle's Law states
that good trainers always are used, abused and accused. "At
first the fighter uses the knowledge the trainer imparts," he
says. "When the fighter becomes champ, he abuses him by telling
everyone he's done it all himself. Then the fighter leaves or
refuses to listen to the trainer. Inevitably, the fighter gets
beaten and accuses the trainer of not treating him properly.
"That's the next stage," Ingle says with a small shrug. "I've
been through the first two and only have one to go."
Johnny on the Spot
Tapia Moving Up To Face Konadu
Another quick-punching, light-hitting fighter who wants a piece
of Hamed is Johnny Tapia. Since his career-defining victory over
Albuquerque rival Danny Romero in July 1997, the undefeated
(44-0-2) WBO and IBF junior bantamweight champ has had to settle
for big pushovers and small purses.
Tapia, 31, was once more dangerous outside the ring than in it.
But last summer he changed his nickname from Mi Vida Loca (My
Crazy Life) to Mi Vida Nueva (My New Life). "My life is stable
now," he reasons.
His old, unstable life was marked by enough aberrant events to
keep Andy Sipowicz busy for a full season of NYPD Blue. Tapia's
father was murdered a few months before his son was born. When
Tapia was eight, his mother was kidnapped, raped and brutally
murdered--hanged and stabbed 22 times with an ice pick. A 1990
suspension for drug use cost Tapia 3 1/2 years of his career.
Though he says he has lived a clean life since his 1993 marriage
to Teresa Chavez, who now doubles as his manager, in 1995 he was
convicted of assaulting her and was given probation.
Tapia has run through a dozen or so trainers over the last three
years, including veteran Teddy Atlas, of whom Tapia had said,
"He pledged a lifelong commitment to me, and I intend to finish
my career with him." Alas, Atlas fell out with Teresa, and he
lasted barely a week. Tapia has already auditioned six other
trainers for a Dec. 5 showdown with WBA bantamweight champ Nana
Konadu. "I am fighting at a heavier weight--118 pounds--and I
want a trainer who can teach me new things," says Tapia. "The
minute I stop learning, I'll quit."
If Hamed were interested, Tapia says he would be willing to move
up to 122. But the Prince would have to move down from 126.
"Tapia wouldn't last a round," says Ingle dismissively. "He'd
have to nail Naz to the canvas to beat him, and what ref would
let him bring a hammer into the ring?"
No Joshing About This Name
In an undercard bout at the Bismarck (N.Dak.) Civic Center this
Sunday, fading heavyweight title contender Jorge Luis Gonzalez
faces a Southern California surfing addict who claims to have a
mean boxing legacy. Josh Gormley, a 6'4" 245-pound thumper from
Redondo Beach who holds a 19-2 record with 18 knockouts, fights
under the name Josh Dempsey because he says he's a grandnephew
of Jack Dempsey.
Nobody in the Dempsey family has either supported or disputed
Gormley's assertion, but his trainer, Randy Shields, offers
evidence to prove that his unranked brawler is indeed a
descendant of the Manassa Mauler. Says Shields, "He thinks he's
the toughest guy in the world." --Richard Deutsch
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY KEN REGAN/CAMERA 5 Flight Night Prince Naseem Hamed's entrance was scarier than his punches on Halloween, when he retained his WBO featherweight title by mostly running from challenger Wayne McCullough (118). [Prince Naseem Hamed on ghoulish set--Leading Off]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY WILL HART/HBO The Prince attacked McCullough from every possible angle but never knocked him down. [Prince Naseem Hamed boxing Wayne McCullough]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY WILL HART/HBO Tapia hasn't landed a big-money fight since he battered Romero in a 12-round decision last year. [Johnny Tapia landing punch on Danny Romero]