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"The Prince of Pugilists"
By David Iamele
It was only fitting that I got to meet "The Prince" Naseem Hamed in Canastota, New York—the hometown of the International Boxing Hall of Fame. The reasons are two-fold: The Prince undoubtedly will be inducted into the Hall in his first year of eligibility; and, the first time I ever witnessed Naseem box was in June of 1996 at Graziano's Bar & Restaurant in Canastota during the annual Induction Weekend of the Boxing Hall of Fame. Other than being ringside for a big fight, there is no better place than "title town USA" to watch boxing, especially in June when thousands of boxing fans from all over the world converge on one of the nicest small towns in the country to rub elbows with their pugilistic heroes.
Alas, times have changed, and it's been some years since Tony Graziano has been able to hook up his "little black box" to tune into any bouts during Induction Weekend. However, on this particular night before the big cable companies started cracking down on people "borrowing" their services, the joint was packed with fight fans eager to observe the young upstart from Sheffield, England.
At the time, Naseem was a perfect 21-0 with 19 KO's, and I was interested to see if he was as good as I'd heard or simply another over-hyped English boxer who would get flattened the first time he faced a real foe. The opponent that evening was Daniel Alicea, a no-namer with a decent-enough record. As the show began, "Naz" proceeded to gyrate down the isle to the beat of some hip-hop music and front-flip over the top rope into the ring!?!
Already half the people in attendance wanted to see him get creamed, since most old-time fight fans' idea of showmanship is boxing trunks with tassels or gloves colored anything but red. He seemed to be some sort of foreign "Macho" Camacho.
After Naz boxed rings around Alicea in the opening round, he proceeded to begin his ring antics, including flitting around his seemingly over-matched foe with his hands down. (This only increased the percentage of fans wanting to see him get flattened!) Sure enough, as he was circling Alicea with his chin out and hands down, he got cracked with a shot that put him right on his arse. A loud cheer went up as the crowd assumed, "now this show-boating Brit. will get his what-for!"
However, Naseem got up immediately from the embarrassing flash knockdown and pummeled Daniel until the referee mercifully pulled the plug less than a minute after Naz had been down himself! I was left with the impression that the self-styled "Prince" may well be fast of hand and foot and posses a good pop, but he wasn't all that. I couldn't have been more wrong! Within the next four years Naz beat everyone he faced—including several champions—and did it with a style and pizzazz rarely seen in the squared circle.
It makes no difference whether you have been a Hamed supporter since the beginning or a converted fan like myself—or even one of the fans still waiting to see him "get what's coming to him"—love him or hate him, The Prince undeniably is one of the best things to happen in boxing since Mike Tyson came along in the 80's to save the heavyweight division from extinction.
The following is an exclusive interview with The Prince:
D.I.: "What led you to relinquish the WBO title?"
NAZ: "To be perfectly honest … I wanted to give up the title because the WBO's #1 challenger is a Hungarian (Koko Kovacs) that really nobody has heard of, and I simply wanted my next fight to be Marco Antonio Barrera. To me and the boxing people around the world, he seems to be the name to beat. The whole boxing world knows he beat Morales, so I really wanted to take on the best out there to give me the recognition that I deserve. I believe that I am the best of my generation at my weight. So, that's why I gave up the featherweight crown. I have to say, I held the title for five years, and I really wanted to make a statement. I've never heard of anyone holding a title for five years and giving it up because he wants to fight the best."
D.I.: "Are titles important to you, or do you feel fighters such as yourself, Roy Jones, and Sugar Shane are the attraction, and you don't need the belt, that they need you?"
NAZ: "Well, I've always said that the belts have never made the fighters, the fighters have always made the belts. A lot of people think different. A lot of people think we need the belts; but, the fact of the matter is right now I stand alone as the best featherweight on the Earth, and I proved it time and time again by defending my title 15 times—and boxing 10 world champions within that 15 fights—and I simply do not need the belt. I do not need the belt to prove I'm the best. I'm seen and I'm known around the world as the best featherweight in the world. I just have to continue to go out there and keep picking the right fights, which is Barrera and Morales. Right now that's what I'm doing to get my recognition and my credit."
D.I.: "You are here today visiting the International Boxing Hall of Fame. Is it a goal of yours to someday be inducted with the rest of boxing's best?"
NAZ: "Being here right now is already my dream come true. It's unbelievable to be here. For me to be enshrined here is a dream. It would be unbelievable. It would be great for me. It would be an honor to be amongst the rest of the Hall of Famers. The place is just unreal … to be here amongst all the memorabilia and photos, fight tickets, and robes."
D.I.: "And now your robe is here …"
NAZ: "Yeah, that's right! It would be an absolute honor to be here; I can't wait for the opportunity."
D.I.: "How is your relationship with HBO?"
NAZ: "My relationship with HBO is great, you know? I had a six-fight contract, and I've got two fights left with them, and I think we'll be renegotiating after that. Everything's going great. I'm giving them good ratings, and I've brought a different type of viewer to watch boxing in the states and even around the world. So, I'm happy with doing that."
D.I.: "Anyone who's ever seen you box knows that you have very strong religious beliefs. Is it hard to mesh your faith with being 'Naz'?"
NAZ: "Not really. I mean that's just for boxing. The name 'The Prince' and the showmanship … it's strictly for boxing. Outside the ring—you can tell—I'm a humble guy that's got his feet firmly on the floor. I've got nothing to boast about. I'm calm, cool, and collected. Basically, my religion means the world to me; it means everything. It's the world and everything in it for me. It's more important than anything, much more important than boxing, because it's what I'm living for, which is the afterlife."
D.I.: "How are things with you and Emanuel Stewart? Is he someone you are going to continue to work with?"
NAZ: "Yeah, definitely! I feel that Manny is—he's right here inducted in the Hall of Fame— he's absolutely great. I would love to keep working with him. He's got untold amounts of experience, and he's seen so many fights, and he's a great strategist. So I feel having Manny is only one big plus."
D.I.: "How long do you plan to keep boxing?"
NAZ: "I've been fighting since the age of seven, so all I can remember doing is boxing, basically. Now I've got two beautiful kids and a beautiful wife, and I don't see much, much longer in the sport simply because I've got a hell of a life in front of me. But I do love boxing, and it's in me, and boxing's been great for me, and I feel I've been great for boxing. I feel that I came along and put a little sparkle into it and added something different. I tried to really transcend boxing in a way with what I do inside the ring. So, I feel there are certain fights out there for me, and I can't really mention a time limit because only God knows. But I feel I'm in the prime of my life, so I won't be retiring yet (laughs)."
D.I.: "Say you beat Barrera and Morales and a couple other good boxers out there and find yourself in a position like Roy Jones with no one left to box?"
NAZ: "I think Roy Jones has some challenges out there. I don't know if he wants them or not. I think his abilities are undoubtable. He's a great champion, a great, great fighter, but he has fights out there if he really wants them. If I got to the stage where there's really nobody out there, and I realize I'm the best … I realize there's still quite a few left out there for me to fight and make my mark, and I do want the right fights out there for me. Hagler had his fights out there with Hearns and Leonard. For me, Barrera and Morales are my Hearns and Leonard or Ali and Frazier, you know? But, if it ever got to the situation where there's nobody out there, it will be probably the time where I think I've made my mark in boxing, and I want to be remembered for the things I've brought to boxing … the showmanship, the glamour, the drama, the excitement, the great atmosphere, the music, the great entrances … it would be time to step down and retire gracefully. But, I think I'm far from that at this point, and it's not really on my mind."
D.I.: "Would you move up in weight to find new challenges."
NAZ: "Well … I think it's possible, but the one thing that America doesn't realize about me is that I've been going up in weight. I started out as a flyweight, so I've already done quite a fair share of moving up. People don't realize that when I fought for the featherweight title, it was my first fight as a featherweight! So, I think at this moment in time that featherweight's the best weight for me. I don't really need to change."
D.I.: "Maybe your challengers should be doing the moving up or down. You're the one who's the draw, that brings the big money …"
NAZ: "I agree with that!! I definitely agree with that. I mean, if them guys want to cause history, they should step up or down or do whatever to get the fight on, if they think they can do it."
D.I.: "You have been having a little trouble finding an opponent to fight you. A lot of boxers have been turning down big money …"
NAZ: "I've offered a hell of a lot of money for some fights I really wanted, i.e. Barrera, Morales, Tapia, and quite a few others. I can't really get to grips why these guys turned it down."
D.I.: "With Johnny Tapia, whose last two fights ended in controversial decisions, and the kind of money he'd make boxing you … I mean when that fight's over, everyone would know who won ..."
NAZ: "Yeah, he's got to be really kicking himself. I heard he boxed absolutely fantastic. I heard he won the fight, and I heard it was a very controversial decision. But, I wish all of the success in the world to Johnny and to every fighter out there because I know how hard it is … to get up early, to train so hard, to be away from your family, and to produce the goods and to be a winner in the sport of boxing."
D.I.: "What would you like to say to all the Naz fans reading this around the world?"
NAZ: "I'd just love to say first that it's an absolute honor to be here, to be invited by the International Boxing Hall of Fame. It's absolutely wicked, as I say, and one day I'd love to be here, God willing. To all the fans and everyone who has watched me box, and everyone who supports me and loves watching me perform and do my entrances and box to the best of my ability … all respect, and keep behind me because you know you're watching a pure winner, a guy who loves to take so many risks before even getting into the ring (laughs) … front-flipping into the ring 35 times and 35 nice landings. Keep watching and supporting because I'm here to do my thing, and hopefully I'm here for many more years to reign as the undefeated and undisputed featherweight champion of the world. I consider myself that because I don't feel there's a featherweight out there to beat me. I don't visualize myself losing, and, God willing, I'll retire undefeated when the time is right."
D.I.: "When will we get to see you doing your thing again?"
NAZ: "December is a very special month for me, it's the month of Ramadan in our religion, where we fast all month. So, I wanted to turn down however many millions that was in front of me to dedicate my time to Allah, to worship Allah, and to serve the time of fasting and just keep my mind and my thoughts on my religion. I'm a Muslim, and I'm proud to be a Muslim. I want to go to Mecca in Saudi Arabia on a Holy Pilgrimage and worship Allah there. I'll fight in [Barrera]. So, God willing, everything will go according to plan. So, everything will be great, and I'm looking forward to a great fight with Barrera. Wicked!!"
D.I.: "Thank you for your time, Prince. You've been most gracious."
NAZ: "Not at all, thank you."
I have to admit I was very pleasantly surprised to find Naseem to be a very cordial, easy-going, likable guy. I was already a fan, but I'd heard he was an arrogant, uncooperative little S.O.B. It just goes to show, don't believe everything you hear about someone. For all the people waiting to see The Prince get his clock cleaned—don't hold your breath. I predict he will knock out Barrera AND Morales, and anyone else who's brave (or foolish) enough to fight him will likely end up with a loss on his record.
Again, thank you for your time, Naz, and long may you reign!
[Editor's Note: Do I really need to mention that this interview was conducted prior to the Barrera fight?]
Marco Antonio Barrera