Prince Naseem Hamed returned to the ring tonight for the first time since his four round war with Kevin Kelley in December. His opponent was the recently-stripped WBA 126 lb. champion, Wilfredo Vasquez. The fight was carried by HBO here in the United States, which only broadcast the main event from the Manchester, England site.
Vasquez entered the ring first. He was clad in a red and white robe with a king's crown. He brought along a breakdancer to kick it old school in the ring before Hamed's grand entrance. I'm not sure why.
Hamed's entrance was atypical of his previous ring entrances. Yes, it did last over 10 minutes, and yes there were lasers, smoke, fire, lights, fight clips, giant video screens, throbbing hip hop music and the obligatory glowing letters N-A-Z...but it did NOT feature a dancing Hamed. Most of the hoopla came before Hamed appeared, and once he did, he stood briefly at the arena entrance, and then made his way towards the ring. My guess at the time was that Hamed was concerned about not wasting energy with his pre-fight dancing. Indeed Hamed was coming into the ring tonight at 136 pounds. Not an above average post-weigh-in weight, but high for Hamed, who has traditionally come into the ring very close to his weigh-in weight.
After Michael Buffer made his Manchester debut and introduced the participants, the fight was on. Vasquez certainly looked as angry as he sounded earlier in the week when he stormed out of a press conference that Hamed had simply not shown up for. But his fighting did not reflect his rage. Vasquez circled Hamed, right hand cocked, in the first round, looking to establish his power as well as his patience. Hamed jabbed and stayed out at distance, showing Vasquez some in-ring respect that he had failed to show previous opponents.
For the most part, the fight unfolded as many had predicted. Hamed used his speed and power to dominate the older Vasquez. Vasquez attempted to counter the Prince for most of the evening. A significant right hand that temporarily wobbled Hamed in the second round was the most effective punch Vasquez landed all night.
Hamed, however, landed a number of power punches on the chin of Vasquez, dropping him four times (and throwing him down once, to boot) before the referee stepped in at 2:39 of the seventh round.
Hamed (30-0, 28KO) showed true championship form tonight. Although he still kept his hands at his sides for much of the fight (and was tagged as a result), he showed patience and poise. He failed to rush at Vasquez (50-8-3) the way he had with Kelley, even after several instances when he clearly had hurt the challenger with his punches. Hamed was certainly taking this challenge seriously. He did not stray from his southpaw stance and he was very aware of Vasquez's power, which blackened Hamed's right eye in the second round. He also showed tremendous balance, avoiding most of Vasquez's best shots by leaning back...sometimes at insanely reclined angels. What's more, the odd angled punches that looked so sloppy in the Kelley fight were put to good use tonight. Hamed's "corkscrew" lead uppercut is a devastating punch that comes out of nowhere. The only major omission in Hamed's game tonight was the absence of body work. While he did manage to land a few thudding right jabs to Vasquez's midsection, it was Wilfredo that did nearly all of the body work. Hamed should be criticized for head-hunting, but when you land the repeated power shots that he was able to put on Vasquez, then it's a criticism that can be overlooked.
Hamed clearly learned from his mistakes in December. His added knowledge only makes him that much more of a force at 126. And while I still think he'll find huge problems when he moves up to face the taller 130 lb. champions, the Prince demonstrated that at 126, he remains the division king.
-In the sixth round, one of the ring ropes collapsed. As workers tried unsuccessfully to repair the rope for over 10 minutes, the fighters stood in neutral corners. Vasquez got a much needed breather, and Hamed occasionally wandered over to promoter Frank Warren, who saw fit to not only give Hamed fighting instructions, but mime out what how he wanted Hamed to throw. Whatever. The ropes were eventually fixed by removing the rope entirely, and tightening what remained...but for awhile it looked as though the bout might have had to be stopped.
-Hamed must now not only defeat future opponents, but fight crime as well. What? Upon victory, the WBO crowned Hamed a SUPER-CHAMPION. He was presented with a brand new, specially made black WBO belt. What makes a SUPER-CHAMPION? Michael Buffer announced that it was bestowed on Hamed for 10 successful title defenses, but I suspect it had something more to do with thanking Hamed for sticking with the upstart sanctioning body instead of playing ball with the Big Three.
-Speaking of the WBO title, HBO needs to make a decision. Do they recognize the WBO title as a world title or not? I asked HBO boxing exec Seth Abramson if HBO recognized the WBO after an onscreen stat a few months ago that failed to recognize Jose Luis Lopez as a former champion. Seth replied that HBO did NOT recognize the WBO title as a world title. However, after promoting tonight's WBO fight as a bout for the featherweight world title, HBO contradicted itself on air in the form of snide remarks about Herbie Hide's WBO title bout earlier in the evening. Sure, Hide's opponent would have looked more at home vs. Butterbean than Hide, but disparaging his title as being from "one of these organizations" WHILE broadcasting a bout from the same organization is unfair.
-While Hamed came into the ring 11 pounds heavier than his weigh-in weight of 125, Vasquez also had problems making 126. His first weigh in measured him at 127 3/4. Half an hour of steam later, he made 126.
-If tonight's bout lacked the fire and brimstone of Hamed's last fight with Kevin Kelley, only part of the reason can be attributed to Hamed's more conservative fight plan. The Manchester crowd, which was drowning out Michael Buffer before the bout, was noticeably silent during the fight...even during Hamed's best moments. I'm not sure if English crowds are traditionally less rowdy DURING fights than American crowds, but a little cheering would have helped keep up the adrenaline that Hamed's entrance incited.
-HBO is always creative with their opening segments, but never have they been as offbeat as tonight's intro. Narrating clips of Hamed-Kelley was an actor wearing old-age makeup and bearing the subtitle "Naseem Hamed 2047" The concept was that Hamed as an old man was retelling the "legendary" story of his American debut. I'm not sure if it was Hamed under the makeup or an actor, but the premise was too absurd to take seriously, even for a moment. Much more fascinating was some footage HBO aired mid-bout of an 11 year-old Hamed boxing against another child. Even at a young age Hamed was clowning, at one point avoiding his sparring partner's punches with both hands behind his back.....I guess some things never really change.