Prince Naseem Hamed: Remembering the career of one of boxing's great entertainers

Former world featherweight champion, beloved by Arab fight fans and deeply respected in the UK and US, turned 50 this week

A portrait of Prince Naseem Hamed taken in 1997 with the IBF and WBO featherweight belts. John Gichigi/Allsport
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It’s unlikely that he celebrated by somersaulting over the top rope or by taking a ride on a magic carpet but “Prince” Naseem Hamed, one of boxing's most legendary entertainers, turned 50 this week.

Hamed’s milestone birthday came more than two decades since he last boxed – he retired at just 28 – but evoked memories of a dazzling career celebrated by the Arab world, cherished in the UK and lauded by American audiences, who were particularly receptive to his trademark braggadocio.

The son of Yemeni migrants, the Sheffield-born former world featherweight champion was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, New York, in 2014 – perhaps the greatest honour that can be bestowed upon a fighter. It was richly deserved.

Hamed’s career was nothing short of magnificent. It transcended boxing and catapulted a brash and unfathomably cocky young man to global celebrity. Hamed didn’t just shine, he was fluorescent.

Yet as they say in show business, you must leave them wanting more, and that was the one thing the Prince could not manage. Very few boxers ever do.

In fact, it’s hard to think of another example of a solitary defeat proving so ruinous to a fighter’s perception as Hamed’s 2001 loss to a prime Marco Antonio Barrera. Given his extreme bravado, fame and disdain for rivals, perhaps it was inevitable the backlash to his eventual demise would be severe, even if a little unfair.

It arrived in April 2001 after a one-sided and chastening beating at the hands of the Mexican great, himself a recipient of Canastota’s hospitality, but that loss, forever remembered as the night the Prince got his comeuppance, cannot dull the neon brilliance of what came before.

“Naz”, who turned 50 on Monday, took up boxing aged just seven when his father, concerned about his diminutive stature, sent him to Brendan Ingle’s famed Sheffield gym to learn how to protect himself.

By 12 he enjoyed a national reputation as one of the UK’s top juniors and was already honing his idiosyncratic boxing style.

By definition he was a southpaw, although as is the way of Ingle fighters, he would regularly switch stances. Hamed’s style was inimitable: hands low, no conventional defence, almost entirely reliant on reflexes with a contemptuous regard for traditional techniques.

All of that was offset by spellbinding speed and a freakish punching power that would regularly get him out of trouble. Hamed threw his shots from absurd angles, comic book uppercuts, an arsenal of punches he described as his “rocket launchers”.

Blessed with rare ambidextrous power, Hamed could knock opponents out with either fist – and knock them out he did.

Ring Magazine ranked him as the 43rd biggest puncher, pound-for-pound, in the history of boxing. Some of his opponents might have him higher.

He finished his 37-fight career with 36 wins, 31 of them by knockout. He picked up the WBO featherweight crown in 1995 and held it for almost seven years. He added the WBC and IBF titles on the way and only politics denied him the opportunity to become the first man to hold all four major belts in a division.

Hamed, who was also considered the lineal champion for three years, retired with a 16-1 record in world title fights, winning 14 of them by knockout.

Detractors point to a lack of depth in his resume, but the likes of Manuel Medina, Tom Johnson, Kevin Kelley, Wilfredo Vazquez, Wayne McCullough, Cesar Soto and Vuyani Bungu were among a total of nine men dispatched by the Prince who at one time or another held a world title.

Hamed felt he was unbeatable and his explosive style, arrogant swagger and taste for flamboyance made him pay-per-view gold. His fights were blockbuster events in the UK, while he successfully transferred his pulling power to the US where HBO gave him a major push.

Although some feel it was the start of his decline, Hamed’s transatlantic debut against Kelley perfectly encapsulated his appeal. He flew to New York aboard Concorde – his arrival announced on a huge billboard in Times Square – and stoked up a media frenzy with a series of incendiary remarks.

His ringwalk on the night lasted around three minutes longer than the fight itself.

Although that was hardly something unusual for Hamed, who four fights later would glide halfway to the ring to face Bungu on a ‘magic carpet’ wired to the ceiling, before jumping off to dance the rest of the way alongside Puff Daddy.

Confidence was never an issue, but it was the chinks emerging in his armour that made the Kelley fight so spectacular.

Rounds where both men score knockdowns are rare. In the four this lasted there were two of them – the second and the fourth – and by the time Hamed scrambled Kelley’s senses for good with a straight left, he himself had hit the Madison Square Garden canvas three times.

During HBO’s live telecast he was described as a “fraud" and “exposed” as his American opponent finished the first round on top, but by the end, colour commentator George Foreman purred as he dubbed him the “Prince of Power” and the “Prince of Entertainment”.

Larry Merchant called it the “Hagler/Hearns of the featherweight division”, and it was later named Ring Magazine’s fight of the year. Naz had arrived stateside – and in a big way. After Kelley, he continued to win but outside of the ring there were problems as he split from Ingle and long-term promoter Frank Warren.

The end of the road came against Barrera. Where others feared Hamed’s power, the Mexican was unmoved, and while most were confused by his unorthodoxy, Barrera saw opportunities. It was one of his finest wins.

Hamed would fight once more but was never the same and hung up his gloves the following year, three months after his 28th birthday. He had earned big money – Floyd Mayweather credits him as the pathfinder for smaller men to earn huge purses – and the hunger for a rebuild wasn't there.

Despite many years away from the public eye, Hamed’s significance to the sport has endured, and he has been a regular face in Saudi Arabia with the kingdom now a destination for big fights.

Indeed, in 2022, he starred in a promotional video for Anthony Joshua’s rematch with Oleksandr Usyk, his taste for the theatrical as strong as ever, his showmanship unbowed.

Updated: February 18, 2024, 2:25 PM