October 22, 1999
There was more a brawling than boxing last night in Detroit as WBO featherweight champ Naseem Hamed lifted the WBC title belt from Cesar Soto, with a 12 round unanimous decision. It was a dirty street fight, marred by wrestling, head butts and even body slams.
The Dressing Room
The evening started well enough for Hamed (33-0, 29 KO's.) In his dressing room before the fight trainer Manny Steward quietly kept up a stream of encouragement as he carefully wrapped the Prince's fragile mitts, " You're a seasoned professional now, champion of the world. Your not just a kid on his own out there anymore." Nodding at the room full of family, sparring partners and staff he continued, "God has put all us people around you...to take care of you."
Hamed slipped off the table and began skipping around the room shadowboxing to rapper Snopp Dogg, as an HBO camera crew filmed his warm-up to use as a split-screen with Soto's. The Prince picked up the pace, slipping punches, feinting with shoulder rolls, bending low, and coming up throwing whistling uppercuts and hooks.
HBO's president of sports programming, and possibly the most powerful man in boxing, Seth Abraham is beaming as he walks in. "Champion of the world! Hands of steel!" he says as he shakes hands with Naz. After a few minutes Hamed tells him, "I'll see you after the fight. After I've won two belts." "I know you will," the tweed suited Abraham replies.
Still shadow boxing, Naz turns his attention to the Morales - McCullough broadcast on a small TV. With one eye glued to the TV set, he slips and throws punches, as though it was he who was in the ring with Morales. The Mexican champ seems unable to seriously hurt McCullough, who after absorbing blows storms right back. " He'll take his shots all night and all day" says Hamed..."Wayne's a seasoned fighter." When McCullough lands solidly on Morales, Hamed says, "I don't want that to happen! Wayne is going to take his heart. I want to knock that Mexican out! Seconds later, still shadow boxing he says, "But I don't care about that, I just want to knock out a Mexican tonight!
Manny Steward chimes in, "See how slow Morales is! He's made for you. No foot speed, no rhythm. I've never been impressed with Morales. He doesn't know what footwork is, and he's unbelievably slow."
"Yeah, but he can whack" Hamed says.
"Listen Naz. He's got no balance. He depends on a body being in front of him to keep his balance after he throws his shots." Steward says.
"You're right Manny, we gotta get them all out, in this same year," Hamed says.
Before the fight Naseem, his bothers and his father form standing line. His father reads a prayer from the Koran in Arabic. Heads bowed, Muslims, Christians and Jews in the room bow their head in prayer. When the last verse is read, the room erupts in cheers.
The air in Detroit's Joe Louis Arena was electric as 13,000 predominately Arab American fans awaited the entrance of their man. Motown's Four Tops choreo-danced their way down a black runway, lip-synching their song "Get Ready" as the Detroit crowds clapped and grooved its way into a frenzy. Then came an explosion that shook the arena, making everyone, even the HBO technician next to me jump. Flames shot out of pillars followed by fireworks and confetti as Hamed bathed in light, high on an eagle winged platform danced and boxed to a rap song. After several minutes he grabbed a microphone shouting "Allah akbar, Allah akbar!" (God is great) as the crowded chanted in unison. It was vintage Hamed, and unfortunately, far more compelling than the fight which followed.
Hamed took control early, dominating round one, dancing easily on his toes, digging to the body. Soto pressed forward, hands high, chin tucked, in throwing hooks to Hamed's midsection and clinching.
In the early going Soto appeared durable, but not in the same class as the Prince.
Soto does well in round two. Hamed throws out a pawing jab as a range finder as Soto presses forward. Hamed's jab is unable to keep Soto at bay and Soto catches Naz with a good hook to the jaw. Hamed fights with his hands at his knees trying unsuccessfully to draw Soto out of his tight defensive shell. He pays for it as Soto lands a cracking left hook to his jaw as he is leaning back.
The Prince's speed and maneuverability show again in the third which he takes rather easily. Still, he is unable to get off more than one or two shots before Soto stifles him and he is wrestled into a clinch. In the fourth Soto lowers his shoulder and charges Naz. Naz's work rate slows as Soto continues pounding the Princes body. Both men ignore the sound of the bell and continue fighting after the end of the round.
The fifth round is the defining stanza of this fight. Soto, moves forward digging hooks to the body then smothering Hamed in a clinch, wrestling him around the ring. Clearly Soto is employing rough house tactics attempting to psychologically dominate the Prince. In a clinch, Hamed bends at the waist and Soto leans the whole of his weight on Hamed, draping himself over the Prince's body. Naz retaliates by straight himself up from the waist, and flipping Soto off him. Soto goes airborne and slams into the canvas. The crowd explodes in approval. The referee deducts a point from the Prince. Bedlam erupts as Soto's trainer Miguel Diaz storms into the ring, followed by Hamed's trainer Manny Steward before order is restored.
Hamed appeared to take the sixth and seventh rounds, but by now the fight has degenerated into a dirty, street brawl with Soto attempting to head butt and Hamed retaliating in kind. By now fights are breaking out all over the arena, including a major free for all in the upper stands. The Mexican fans on one hand and the black and Arab fans on the other appear to watching two different fights.
Soto, after a strong showing in the eighth is penalized for his repeated head butting. Hamed appears to win the round and possibly broke Soto's nose after slamming it with a wicked shot coming out of a clinch. Blood pours from Soto's face staining the referees shirt.
Hamed, who has had stamina problems in the past, appears fresh in the ninth and tenth rounds. The referee warns Soto's corner for yelling "extremely personal things" at the Prince. Hamed seems to be conserving the use of his often injured left hand and is unable to land the big shot to Soto's jaw.
In the eleventh Hamed lands one of his best shots of the night, a vicious uppercut to the body, but is unable to follow up as his attack is smothered by Soto. Boos rain down from the stands. In the final round, both fighters tumble to the canvas as they grapple in a clinch. There is some apprehension among the wildly partisan Hamed crowd as they await the final decision. Their fear is misplaced however, as even with a points deduction Hamed cruises to a comfortable unanimous points win and lifts the WBC title.
Styles make fights. Soto, like Wayne McCullough and Paul Ingle, employs a smothering defensive style and has a granite chin. This combined with Hamed unorthodox, single-shot power punching, made for a horrid show. While the Hamed and Soto camps had diametrically opposing view points on who was responsible for the dirty fight, both sides agreed that the bout had not been pretty. Hamed asserted that Soto had tried unsuccessfully to impose his will through the use of head butting, hitting after the break and wrestling. Soto maintained that Hamed is a paper champion with no skills or punch.
Still a win is a win, and Hamed at 33-0 has yet to be beaten. Yet questions persist, most notably; has Hamed's thunderbolt left hand become so damaged that he can no longer be effective with it past the opening rounds? Is he still the terminator of old? Unfortunately, in his outings against Soto and McCullough he has faced two of the most rock jawed men in boxing, who in over 80 combined matches have never been knocked out, and in McCullough's case, never even been knocked to the canvas.
Look for Hamed to face Luisito Espinosa, Freddie Norwood, or the winner of Ingle-Medina in the coming year, and if successful, followed by a showdown with junior featherweight champ Eric Morales. In the meantime, the Prince's traveling road show rolls on.