You like Tyson Fury? Naseem Hamed is how we got here

Apr 7, 2020

Mark KriegelESPN

As favored nephew and apprentice of the late, great trainer, Emanuel Steward, SugarHill Steward had been prepared for just about any measure of absurdity boxing could offer — except this:

A magic carpet.

No. Really.

It seemed to come out of the ceiling, enshrouded in smoke, at the old Joe Louis Arena. Its cargo: a featherweight from Sheffield, England, named Naseem Hamed. Though born a commoner, he had appropriated the title of “Prince,” and unlike those well-born into the House of Windsor, Hamed had earned it.

The entrance concluded with his trademark backflip over the top rope, followed by a dominant decision over the WBC champion, Cesar Soto. Hamed was a funky imp — hands at his side, tongue wagging — with ungodly power. With 31 KOs in 37 of his fights, that night was among the few that went the distance. Just the same, after the entrance everything felt anticlimactic.

SugarHill was a Detroit cop back then. While his uncle worked Hamed’s corner, SugarHill watched from the stands with his stable of young amateurs, ages 9-13. The highlight of his recollection remains the look on their faces: awe and delight as Hamed descended from above. It wasn’t just the kids, though.

“I was mesmerized,” he says.

Twenty-one years later, SugarHill trains perhaps (with the exception of Canelo Alvarez) the hottest commodity in boxing, WBC heavyweight champion Tyson Fury. An Irish gypsy by way of Manchester, England, Fury changed the game. It’s not merely the title he has, but the manner in which he’s re-colonized the States. With elaborate ring walks and a polarizing persona — very un-British, or so you were told — his debt to Hamed is clear.

Less clear is boxing’s debt to Hamed. Where the game is today has everything to do with where Hamed was back then.

Marco Antonio Barrera, left, handed “Prince” Naseem Hamed, right, his only loss on April 7, 2001. FRANK SCALZO/AFP/Getty Images

April 7 marks the anniversary of Hamed’s unanimous decision loss to Marco Antonio Barrera in 2001, at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. It was his only loss, though the concept is relative: a featherweight fight that clocked 310,000 pay-per-view buys, just slightly less than Floyd Mayweather-Arturo Gatti or Deontay Wilder-Tyson Fury I. Perhaps you recall Barrera jamming Hamed’s face into the turnbuckle. There were a lot of I told you so’s that night — Of course, he was overhyped. He was a Brit. What did you expect?

Certainly not what happened.

Hamed seems more significant now than he was then, a truly transitional figure. He didn’t merely inaugurate the British Invasion, but in some divisions of the boxing universe, a British takeover. Still, the term fails to capture the phenomenon’s full impact, as it pertains to both English and Irish fighters. British big men were once known as the “horizontal heavyweights.” But today, between Fury and Anthony Joshua, they hold all the belts. The U.K. boasts six current men’s world champions, two interim champions, and 24 top-5 contenders. And with apologies to Claressa Shields and the great Cecilia Braekhus, it’s Ireland’s Katie Taylor who’s oft-presumed the world’s greatest female fighter.

“The most influential fighter of my 35 years in the British boxing business,” says the ubiquitous U.K. commentator Steve Bunce.

“It wasn’t just that everyone was enticed by Naseem’s flair and skill and confidence of Naseem,” says Londoner Ben Davison, who parted with Fury and now trains champions Josh Taylor and Billy Joe Saunders. “He was able to share that confidence with a generation. … He gave fighters over here a massive opportunity, the confidence to crack the American market.”

Naseem Hamed had a magic carpet for his entrances. Tyson Fury has a throne. MARK RALSTON/AFP via Getty Images

Perhaps because Hamed’s sensibilities were, well, American. His father, a devout Muslim immigrant from Yemen, loved nothing more than trips to Disney World. Naseem could recite “Scarface” and the entire Eddie Murphy canon by heart. He was hip-hop with a brogue. I once asked him about getting an MBE — Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire — an unusual designation for an immigrant kid of his generation.

“I wasn’t surprised,” he told me. “I was waiting for that b—- to come up for years.”

His most American traits, however, were narcissism and ambition — any wonder he was a Conor McGregor favorite? Make no mistake: Those are necessities to make it at the highest rung of the fight game, but they’re looked down upon in England and Ireland. The English, for their part, preferred guys like Henry Cooper and Frank Bruno, contenders who’d eventually morph into “lovable losers.”

“We’re very envious of success,” Colin Hart, then the dean of British boxing writers, once told me. “It’s a national trait.”

In 1999 an HBO executive named Lou DiBella had just re-signed a 25-year old featherweight to a $48 million deal — a figure that conceivably remains more than all featherweight purses all time. His image was nine stories high on a billboard you’d see emerging on the Manhattan side of the Lincoln Tunnel.

I asked Hart — who had his own rows with Hamed — when the Brits would come to love him.

“When he loses,” he said. “If he loses well.”

I can’t say he lost well against Barrera. Hamed was coming off hand surgery. He had to drop about 40 pounds. But more than that, the arrogance that once worked for him now worked against him.

“Very sad night for me,” DiBella says. “He just never seemed to be taking it that seriously.”

Hamed fought once more, winning something called the IBO title. Eleven million Brits tuned in.

Then he got fat, and got busted for driving too fast. In 2005, going 90 mph in his $300,000 Mercedes, Hamed caused a terrible wreck in Sheffield. He’d serve 16 weeks of a five-year sentence.

I remember him driving me around those narrow same streets in a Bentley in 1999, hitting 90 coming out of a turn. When he let me out I felt as if I’d emerged from a supersonic fighter, sick from the G forces.

Naseem Hamed stopped boxing in 2002, but still finds his way ringside for events around the U.K. Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

“He was addicted to speed,” DiBella says.

Of course. An American vice.

But what of his legacy?

“If Ali made people understand the athlete could have a social conscience and a voice, Hamed redefined the fighter as a showman and an entertainer,” he says. “He changed boxing. How many guys can say that?”

“My uncle Emanuel told me, ‘he opened the door,'” says SugarHill. “Not just for the British fighters, but for the small guys too. That set up everything. After Naseem, little guys started making big money.”

Money can be quantified, though. Legacy can’t. So toward that end, I bring you Michael Conlan, the WBO’s No. 1-ranked featherweight, whose pro career has become synonymous with epic ring walks, the first of which was attended by McGregor on the occasion of St. Patrick’s Day at the most American of venues, Madison Square Garden.

The influence of Naseem Hamed is on display every time Michael Conlan steps into the ring. Ramsey Cardy/Getty Images

Nineteen years ago, as a 10-year-old in Belfast — same age as SugarHill’s amateurs in Detroit — Conlan stayed up until it was almost dawn, when Hamed would finally take the ring against Barrera. His father, a renowned amateur coach in Ireland, and his brother, Jamie — nicknamed “The Mexican” as a pro — were for Barrera.

But Mick felt otherwise: “They hated his arrogance. Where we’re from, you’re supposed to like the humble guy. But I just loved the way Naseem danced and laughed and taunted.”

The 10-year-old took note of it all: the wagging tongue, the hands held low, the leopard-print shorts. Everything you’re not supposed to do, he would do.

And when Barrera destroyed Hamed, Conlan wept.

There’s your legacy. The best for which a fighter, any fighter, could ever hope.

Sports report