THE LION'S DEN: NASEEM HAMED VS KEVIN KELLEY



The lion's den. A hostile, intimidating, unforgiving place, where the demands and pressures of a fighter are magnified by the overwhelming will of a home crowd.

Those would be the expected array of emotions experienced by any 'standard' or dare I say 'ordinary' boxer. That, needless to say, didn't apply to Naseem Hamed.

The young, exciting fighter from Sheffield dubbed 'Prince Naz' made his US debut against the hugely experienced and dangerous Kevin Kelley for the WBO featherweight title at Madison Square Garden.

The thought that 'Naz', one of the most exuberant characters in the sport, with his inimitable style, would turn up at a place perceived to be the 'mecca of boxing', decked out in his now-iconic leopard print shorts and just recoil into his shell, daunted by the magnitude of his task, was as improbable as it was incomprehensible.

What was served up remains a classic encounter to this day. It accentuated the astonishing talent of Hamed, whilst also underlining some fragilities that were a consequence of his style.

Naseem Hamed entered the contest with an impressive record of 28-0 with 26 knockouts, 18 of which were inside three rounds.

As impressive as this record appeared, to achieve the global superstar status that he believed to be his destiny, he had to do it in America.

The 23-year-old, who fought out of the Ingle Gym in Sheffield, was up against a seasoned professional in Kelley, who was 7 years his senior. What Kelley gave away in youth, he made up for inexperience and held notable physical advantages in terms of height and reach. Kelley's record coming into the fight was 47-1-2 (32 KOs).



Kevin Kelley had decided against attending the press conferences right up until fight week. I imagine he knew that 'Naz' would have plenty to say and can only imagine he didn't want to hear it.

He wasn't wrong. When they did collaborate for the final presser, Naseem Hamed told Kelley that after the fight he would find him a little job putting up his posters.

The stage was set and the bumper crowd that had assembled at The Garden to see this main event knew they were in for something special. Kevin Kelley walked out first, with a song choice that he incorporated his own lyrics to. A fairly uneventful, standard ring walk. The only notable observation is that he appeared to be wearing a striking combination of green and gold zigzag trim, presumably a nod to his nickname of 'Flushing Flash'.


What came next may not be as unexpected as it is retrospectively viewed. The HBO commentary team was aware of the intended time frame for Hamed's entrance (scheduled to take around 10 minutes). So, you would imagine Kelley knew that too. If he did, then it didn't stop him becoming increasingly incensed as Hamed's silhouette danced and gyrated behind a white screen to 'Men in Black'.


After several minutes and with Hamed dancing to another track, he finally burst through the screen, ran halfway down the lit runway and then stopped abruptly, looked around at his surroundings, grinned menacingly and continued his dancing as confetti rained down around him. With pure glee etched on his face, he looked out to the crowd as half of them booed and the other half watched on in wonderment like they were embarrassed at how much they were enjoying the moment, despite supposedly supporting their countryman.

The HBO commentary team couldn't hide their enjoyment either, brilliantly summarising the flamboyance of Hamed's entrance by saying he was like "Hector Camacho, Jorge Paez, Michael Jackson and P.T Barnum all rolled into one." P.T Barnum, of course, is one of America's most famous showmen.

By this point, Kelley had already warmed up on the pads in the ring with his trainer Phil Borgia and had now had enough of waiting. He stepped up onto the turnbuckle and shouted for 'Naz' to get in the ring. In his eyes, this had simmered enough, he was ready to fight.

Hamed, as always front flipped over the top rope with the momentum carrying him towards his opponent, lots of talking and rubbing of heads ensued before they were both separated. It wasn't for long, as the formalities continued, 'Naz' again continued to taunt his opponent, informing him of what was going to happen.



The bell for round one exploded, releasing an almost tangible sense of fevered expectation, which whilst washing over was also created from the crowd. Kelley seemed to start the fight cautiously in subdued fashion, not certain about what he was about to encounter. Nothing too rash from Hamed either, uncharacteristically flicking out his southpaw jab to surprisingly good effect. Both men were southpaws but Kelley much more of a conventional operator, with Prince Naseem more of a switch-hitter, twisting, pivoting and leaning. That was his form of defence as he rarely had his gloves up.

As he continued to have success with his jab, Hamed turned Kelley into the corner and threw a flurry of punches, but as he leant back after this flurry, he left his chin out and Kelley duly stuck a straight right onto the end of it, sending Hamed pedalling backwards and onto the seat of his pants. It was Kelley's first real punch of the fight and got Hamed's attention. He got to his feet comfortably, but it was that moment alone which told us: we have a fight.

Round two saw Kelley enjoy more success; he found the head of 'Naz' with regularity, spearing jabs followed by left hands. Hamed's style was beyond unorthodox which meant that as he would spring and leap into shots, he would occasionally throw himself off balance, which proved detrimental as Kelley threw a left hook in round two which caused Hamed to touch the canvas with his glove.



Hamed continued to absorb more shots on the inside whilst trying to evade them moving backwards. All of a sudden the task seemed insurmountable. Was this a step too far for the extravagant Brit? It was only round two and he was struggling to stem the onslaught. That was until he took a half step back, crouched low whilst in an orthodox stance and pinged a right hand straight through the middle of Kelley's guard, dropping the American. There it was, that freakish, volcanic single punch weapon. He was billed as 'The Prince of Power' and he delivered his lines just as the script was in danger of being torn up. Frightening power from a boxer who was only around 5ft 3.

Round three, nobody wanted to blink and that was just in the crowd. Kelley snapped back the head of Hamed with a hard left. Hamed, although still getting tagged with regularity, began starting to catch Kelley coming in with sumptuous uppercuts, jolting Kelley in his tracks.

Round four, buoyed by his own success, Kelley started to march forward, neglecting his boxing skills momentarily, and just enough for 'The Prince' to take advantage, flooring him with a left hand which left Kelly face down on the canvas with his arm trailing behind him. He clawed his way back up, visibly stunned; he makes the count and sets about hunting down Hamed for a war. The thud of Hamed's shots could be heard as he began to ram home some authority in his best period of pressure in the fight. Then out of nowhere, a cuffing shot from Kelley has Hamed off balance again. Hamed protested the count, but the fact remained, his glove grazed the canvas, correct decision. Are you keeping up? If not then it's 3-2 to Kelley in knockdowns.



Impossible to know how this fight will end at this point, but with Kelley widely considered to be the more technical, textbook boxer and possess respectable power, his decision to have a shootout was a risky one. Would it pay off? We were about to find out.

Kelley poured forward once again, rocking back the head of Hamed. He senses a finish but a leaping right stuns Kelley, and a thunderous left to follow puts Kelley down flat on his back! This time he looks spent: he groggily got back on his feet and flopped into the referee's arms, as if he had expended any remaining energy simply by getting back upright. The fight was waved off, though Kelley had barely beat the count anyway. Hamed celebrated with his corner who were ecstatic. He almost immediately went over to Kelley for a word and could be heard saying, ‘You're the best fighter I’ve ever fought and I’m the best fighter you've ever fought.’

A typical Naz-like statement, even though he was effusive in his praise of Kelley and gave him credit, he wanted everyone to know he was the best. Kelley's trainer desperately tried to interrupt the embrace, searching for a verbal agreement for a rematch. And, although Prince Naz agreed, it never happened.



What did happen was that Naseem Hamed successfully defended his title on six occasions, including victories over Wilfredo Vasquez, Wayne McCullough, Paul Ingle, and Cesar Soto. He then took on Mexican legend Antonio Barrera for the vacant IBO featherweight title. He was handed his first and only career defeat in a bruising encounter.

Prince Naseem Hamed will surely go down as one of the most entertaining British boxers in recent history. He did have one more fight, beating Manuel Calvo before retiring at the tender age of 28. Had things been different, we could have been enjoying some of the biggest fights on these shores with the potential for great trilogies. Irrespective of his slightly premature career conclusion, the mere thought of the diminutive exhibitionist still conjures great memories, who has undoubtedly inspired many of today's fighters. He had some glorious fight nights, and few were better than this one.

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