BY ERIC RASKIN
Twenty years ago, on December 19, 1997, an undefeated, power-punching British featherweight of Yemeni descent named “Prince” Naseem Hamed brought his show to America for the first time when he faced his toughest professional test, New Yorker Kevin Kelley, a.k.a. “The Flushing Flash,” at Madison Square Garden. The hype was off the charts. And the fight exceeded all hype. In four frantic, furiously paced rounds, six knockdowns were scored — three by each fighter — before Hamed triumphed. Along the way, The Prince’s flaws were exposed, but his heart and his power were proven and the man who was in the process of shattering the featherweight pay scale had shown he was worth every penny.
Listen to the audio version of this oral history on the HBO Boxing Podcast:
Jim Lampley (HBO host and blow-by-blow announcer): It was all energy. All excitement. It was just pure fun. Everything about it was magical, and it became as spectacular a give and take as we’ve ever had.
George Azar (journalist and Naseem Hamed press liaison): It remains one of the most entertaining fights I’ve ever seen, just in terms of spectacle and excitement.
Kevin Kelley: The purses you see today, in the featherweight division and lightweight division, started with me and him.
Lou DiBella (HBO Sports Senior Vice President): I love Kevin Kelley, he’s my friend to this day, but the right guy won. Because that ushered in a new generation. There was a Hamed era in boxing. It wasn’t that long. But man was it intense while it was going on.
Gareth Davies (The Daily Telegraph): Naz Hamed was brilliant, he was brash, he was braggadocious, and he was one of the best of the British we’ve ever seen.
Moments before the bell rang to begin the Hamed-Kelley fight, HBO’s Larry Merchant asked, “Inquiring minds want to know: Is Hamed a prince or a frog?” In the months leading up to that moment, many American sports fans were asking, simply, “Who is this Prince Naseem Hamed guy I keep seeing and hearing about?” Naz, as he was known to friends, was, first of all, not actually a prince. But he was, at just 23 years of age, well on his way to becoming the king of the featherweight division, having claimed two of the four major belts while compiling a record of 28-0 with 26 KOs. In the fall of 1997, Hamed sat down for a pair of exclusive interviews with HBO that, save for a few brief clips, have never been released to the public before. Here’s Hamed, from one of those interviews, talking about his beginnings in boxing at age seven:
Naseem Hamed: I lived just up the road from a boxing club, a gym, and when I walked in I realized it was the sport for me. I knew instantly, soon as I walked in and soon as I felt the vibe in there and seen the movement ’cause I liked the movement of boxing, the movement on their feet, the skill. As soon as I saw the art of it was hitting and not getting hit, I knew had a knack for that. So at the age of 11, I started boxing as an amateur and I boxed to the age of 18. But in the middle of that, I was winning national titles every year. So at 16, 17, all the way up from the age of 11, I was winning British titles. So I realized that it was going to be my career. I realized from an early age that I was going to turn professional and that was what I was going to do for a living.
Hamed turned pro in 1992 and won his first 11 fights, 10 by knockout, before claiming the European bantamweight title in just his 12th bout. A little over a year later, on September 30, 1995, at age 21, he dominated and knocked out Steve Robinson in Cardiff, Wales to claim his first world title. Gareth A. Davies, then and now a boxing writer for The Daily Telegraph, reflects on how the power puncher from Sheffield, England, was perceived in Britain in the mid ’90s:
Davies: There was a lot of heat around him, a lot of excitement around who this kid was. He was flashy. He was arrogant. He called his hands “K” and “O.” “I’m gonna get you with K, I’m gonna get you with O.” He was of Yemeni descent, he had five or six brothers in tow, they were part of his entourage. He made a lot of noise wherever he was. He was with Brendan Ingle, who was maybe the Angelo Dundee of this partnership. Brendan was brilliant with the media, this brilliant Irishman who’d moved to Sheffield, who was great at talking to the media. And he was The Prince. He was this Yemeni Prince. This self-appointed, self-anointed boxing royalty from the Middle East, if you like. And he played on that. And I think it was fascinating that he was a Muslim. Even in the early days, he would say that it was God’s will that he would win. He would use that expression “inshallah.” These were before the times when anyone really had any of those sideways thoughts about Islam, remember. He was a very strong Islamic figure for British culture, and it was a beautiful melding. Not everyone liked him, because he had that arrogance. But he wasn’t tumbleweed. You either loved Naz or you hated him. And you know what? He delivered. Those massive legs, he wasn’t a big man but he had massive, powerful legs, it allowed him to rotate and get all the power into his shots. He was natural, he was fluid, he was like an anaconda; he was a snake, he would wrap himself around you and he’d destroy you.
Over the next couple of years, as Hamed’s unique breed of cocky showmanship kept attracting attention, word of The Prince’s exploits spread to the States. George Azar, a Lebanese-American journalist who was working for The Philadelphia Inquirer, heard about this undefeated boxing champion of Arab origin and decided to tune in to his June 8, 1996 fight in Newcastle, England against Puerto Rico’s Daniel Alicea, in which Hamed got knocked down in the first round.
Azar: The bell rang ending the round, and I thought, This guy is absolutely like the worst fighter I’ve ever seen! I’ve never seen anybody so bad. And then the bell rang for round two, and he came tearing out of the corner and beat Alicea from pillar to post, knocked him out with one shot. I thought, Oh my god, this is somebody I’ve got to see! So I got interested in him, and I wrote him a letter, and they said, “Why don’t you come over and meet Naz?” So I flew to Sheffield. And he picked me up in his Lamborghini and we went to his house and we spent the day and we went to the gym and this and that. And I came back to the hotel room, there was a message waiting for me from the BBC, their local affiliate in Sheffield. And the lady got on the phone, she said, “Is this George Azar? You’re an American reporter, I understand that you were at Prince Naseem’s gym today and that you went to his house.” And I said, “Yeah, yeah, that’s right.” And she said, “Well, can you come into the radio station and speak to us?” I said, “Why?” And she said, “Well, he’s never allowed anyone into his house before.” And I realized that this guy was really sort of a celebrity on a level that I wasn’t aware of.
Reflecting in his 1997 interview with HBO, Hamed had his own thoughts on his two-round adventure with Daniel Alicea that Azar witnessed, as well as on his to-that-point career-defining fight with Tom Johnson, in which he ended the four-year reign of the American beltholder.
Hamed: I think the sign of a champion, and the sign of a good fighter, is if he does get hit, how he absorbs the shot, and if he does go down, how he gets back up and how he carries on. And what he does in the round after to get back at the guy and bring the fight back in his favor. I got knocked down once properly, against an undefeated Puerto Rican called Daniel Alicea, which was a great, great fighter, in the first round. And I had predicted six weeks before the fight that I was going to take him out in two rounds. The round after I came at him, I knocked him out, clean. The guy’s never been the same. And when I boxed Tom Johnson, I had a touch down probably at the end of the third. But Tom Johnson’s never been stopped. I’m the first one to do it. I came at him the eighth round, I took him out.
Hamed’s punching power was turning heads, but that wasn’t the only thing setting him apart. His ethnic and religious background were also noteworthy, especially in a sport that has long encouraged ethnic rooting interests.
Azar: I made this point in the piece I wrote for The Philadelphia Inquirer, for Arab-Americans, and especially Arab-American kids, he was like our Joe Louis. There was never really an Arab-American sports star that we would relate to. There had been in Europe, but not in the United States. There weren’t any baseball players or football players or basketball players. That’s changed now. But at the time that Naz came up, he was really like the first sporting star that people could root for from their own ethnic group. And he meant a lot emotionally for people. And when I went to Britain, it extended actually beyond the Arab community, to the Muslim community at large. And for Pakistani kids and for other minority kids in Britain and across Europe, Naz was a tremendous symbol of inspiration. I went into a room where they kept all his fan mail, and I just started opening fan mail and reading them at random. And I was so struck by the emotional chord that he struck in people. He really was a symbol of something else besides just being a boxing champ.
Hamed’s star was rising and his fan base was growing, but there remained quite a few questions about his boxing ability. His style was unorthodox, to say the least, and though he’d beaten Johnson and Manuel Medina, his overall quality of opposition left the feeling that he still had a lot to prove. Here’s HBO blow-by-blow announcer Jim Lampley on his early impressions of Hamed:
Lampley: I didn’t know how that style was going to sustain at the upper competitive reaches of the sport. I didn’t know yet whether he was going to be a genuine phenomenon or whether he would be exposed once he began fighting top-level guys on our air in this environment. So there was suspense about exactly how good he was going to be. But the style and the knockout power had us very intrigued.
Hamed: It’s not in a textbook, my boxing style. My style is totally unpredictable because you don’t know what I’m gonna do next, you know? I can be on one side of the ring to the other, I can box five different ways. I can box southpaw, I can box orthodox. I punch from different angles. When I do punch and they do land, they’re very, very hard. So if you’re not rocked, you’re down and you’re probably out. My record speaks for itself.
You can sense from these quotes that Naz (a) had a high opinion of himself, and (b) was a gifted and charismatic talker. Despite this natural ease at speaking, multiple sources told HBO.com that Hamed was almost always reluctant to do interviews and was known at various points in his career for giving the media the runaround. Here’s Lampley on the subject of sitting with Naz for fighter meetings that are standard operating procedure for every boxer the day before they fight on TV.
Lampley: He was never easy. He was never easy. He was never accommodating. He was one of those rare fighters — there aren’t many — who seemed to go out of his way to make it seem to us as though we were inconveniencing him by wanting to sit down and talk with him the day before the fight. And I remember ultimately, over time, we gave up. We relinquished that process and didn’t bother to inconvenience him with fighter meetings. And I don’t remember that there was anybody else who got that dispensation from us, other than Roy Jones. I remember one time we had to travel to some place that was a distance from us to get a meeting with Prince Naseem, and he walked in and out in something like three or four minutes. Just made it so uncomfortable that we ultimately decided, why bother?
We tried hard to arrange a new interview with Hamed for this oral history. We approached from several different angles, and even managed to make direct contact with Naz at one point, and in our brief conversation, he told us he was up for scheduling an interview. But despite what he was saying, it seemed he wasn’t all that into it, and not surprisingly, the interview never happened. It’s a shame, because he seems to this day a fascinating character. Here’s then-HBO analyst Larry Merchant on Naz’s personality.
Larry Merchant: I was always struck by how clever he was. Clever, not in a necessarily self-serving, this-is-my-show kind of way, but somehow the cadences and the responses that he would give to the media’s questions echoed Ali. I thought he was really smart. And of course you put that together with a guy who has his style, which was a kind of improvisational style of movement, followed by knockouts, and that he was smart and tough at the same time, and strong — I know that it resonated. People who I wouldn’t even have imagined had any interest in boxing had an interest in Prince Naseem.
In the later 1990s, George Azar actually took on a role as an employee of Hamed, as what George describes as an American press liaison. He spent a fair amount of time with Naz over the years, and here he reflects on whether there was a difference between the public and private versions of The Prince:
Azar: He was not a different person, but a much more thoughtful person. Extremely intelligent. Not highly educated in the book sense, but extremely, extremely sharp and intelligent and astute. And, he was very polite, extremely courteous to people. He was never rude to people in real life the way he was on television. And I asked him about this, and he said, “You know, what people don’t realize is boxing is a business. And it’s in large part show business. And what I do is show business. So I act like a jerk. And they either like it, and they’ll pay to see me, or they hate me and they’ll pay to see me get knocked out. But either way, that’s really good business.”
Then-HBO Sports Senior Vice President Lou DiBella is one of those who was completely sold on Hamed indeed understanding what good business is, and also on the charm of his personality.
DiBella: All you had to do was sit in a room with him for 10 minutes, and you got him. It was in your face. You know? Here was this kid, and he’s this little kid, not this big, tall figure, not this imposing heavyweight. This little kid from Yemen with this shit-eating grin, this impish sort of face. He always had that little mischievous look, in a cool way. He was fun to be around, man. He was a wild man, but in a positive sense. The energy that came from him was positive energy. I was put here to have fun, and I was put here to be a champion, and I was put here to make people happy. I was put here to entertain. He knew he was an entertainer. He wanted to be loved, but he didn’t care so much if people were rooting against him as long as they wanted to see him. He understood how compelling he was. And he was all that. He was all that.
While Hamed was tearing up England, Kevin Kelley of Queens, New York was making the case that he was the best featherweight on the other side of the Atlantic. With a record of 47-1-2 with 32 KOs and a mouth almost as attention-grabbing as Hamed’s, the 30-year-old Flushing Flash had beaten the likes of Goyo Vargas, Troy Dorsey, Jesus Salud, and, via dramatic come-from-behind knockout with one eye swollen shut, Derrick Gainer. Featherweights generally weren’t showcased on HBO in those days, but, with paychecks topping out in the low six figures, Kelley had fought on the network five times.
Kelley: I was the first featherweight so it was hard to get opponents to fight me on HBO and get to the level I wanted to get to. So, I was looking for opponents. I was at 45-1 or something like that, and I was talking to Lou DiBella, I was trying to get Lou DiBella to get me a big fight.
DiBella: Kevin Kelley, he’s a self-promoter, he’s got a big, brash personality. And when he was a young kid, man, he’s doing everything possible to market himself. I’m gonna be a star. I have more personality than these big guys. How come you’re not putting smaller guys on TV? We make better fights. We throw more punches. There’s more action with us. And I remember, Kevin would see me at fight cards and hand me a Kevin Kelley pen or a Kevin Kelley pencil or a Kevin Kelley T-shirt and talk himself up. And he wound up getting an early opportunity. A couple of guys wound up on HBO in undercard situations. And then that was one of the motivations for me to start Boxing After Dark. It was also to open the door for the smaller guys. And I’ll give Kevin some of the credit for cracking that door, before we swung it open.
It was much earlier, in 1984, that Kelley swung open another door: the door to trainer Phil Borgia’s Police Athletic League gym in Flushing, Queens. Borgia says he saw within the first week that “this kid could really be special,” and the duo were inseparable from that point forward. Here’s Borgia on what a trailblazer he feels Kelley was for smaller fighters on HBO:
Phil Borgia: Kevin is the one that took a pencil and a dream and went to Lou DiBella, and DiBella said, “All right, it’s gonna rest on you.” Kevin was the first guy below 147 pounds since Salvador Sanchez to fight on HBO. The first guy. And if he didn’t succeed, none of these guys today would be making this kind of money that they’re making, I’m telling you. Because he opened the eyes to a lot of people that, hey man, these little guys are really exciting. This is what we need to be putting on the TV. Hamed, he had his shtick. Who he was, what he did. But if it wasn’t for Kevin’s success, they wouldn’t be putting on the fights that they started putting on. Because it was 13 years prior to Kevin fighting on HBO that anybody below 147 pounds was getting on HBO.
Borgia’s stats and details are slightly off. In 1993, Kelley was part of the first HBO fight at 126 pounds or below since Lupe Pintor-Wilfredo Gomez in 1982, 11 years earlier. But the general gist of what he was trying to say is valid. Kelley had to hustle for every opportunity Lou DiBella, Seth Abraham, and the executives at HBO gave him. When it came to Hamed, meanwhile, it was DiBella who was doing the hustling.
DiBella: He was a phenomenon. I mean, he could dance, and he would rap, his verbal delivery was something that hadn’t been heard since Ali was young. And the brashness and the overconfidence, and the pizzazz. And he could punch like a frickin’ mule. And I was like, I gotta get this kid. I gotta get this kid to HBO.
It took a record-shattering amount of money to get it done. For a little perspective, consider that Kelley earned a $450,000 payday to fight Hamed, and that was far and away his career-high purse. To reel Naz in, HBO signed him to a six-fight, $12 million deal. That’s $2 million per fight, somewhere in the vicinity of 10 times the going rate for a featherweight headliner on HBO at the time. Here are DiBella’s recollections about the negotiations with The Prince:
DiBella: It wasn’t easy to get anything done with Naz. It was an extraordinarily long negotiation. It was fun and friendly, but it was really difficult to get a deal done. I remember going over, like when we were trying to sign the deal, and hanging out with Naz himself. And he’d be like, “Oh, I just want to stop and say hello to a friend.” We’d go down these stairs into a nightclub, and Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones would be sitting there with a bunch of rock and roll guys from like the band Blur and from some other bands, hanging out. And like, Naz would walk in and, boom, the room would turn around. Here was this featherweight who was commanding worldwide attention. Worldwide attention. Everyone wanted to see this charismatic little Arab kid. Everyone wanted to see him. And what’s he got up his sleeve next, where does it go from here.
Hamed had the attention of HBO executives, of rock and roll legends … and of Kevin Kelley too.
Kelley: I was looking through a boxing magazine one time and I see this picture, an article written on this guy. And I see he has all these weird angles and stuff. And I was looking and I seen $5 million, and I was like, How do I not know about this guy? Holy cow, who is this guy? I called my manager, I called Tom [Loeffler] up right away, I said, “Tom, you gotta get us some plane tickets. We need to go to England. We gotta go challenge this guy.” I figure before anybody else gets him, I better get him, right? Got some plane tickets, flew to England. And I sat ringside. And what happened was, he was coming out of the ring, I stood up. And he was like, “Oh, you come to see The Prince fight?” It was fun. I heard he was coming to America to fight, so I figured I’m gonna get that fight. So I went there to challenge him again. And the way I got him was jumping in the ring. Let England know that this is a fight that they want to see. Closed mouths don’t get fed. And I’m not a closed mouth, he’s not a closed mouth. And obviously we get fed.
To clarify, Kelley and manager Tom Loeffler, best known now as the promoter of Gennady Golovkin, took two separate trips to the UK to call Hamed out. And it worked. At the October 1997 press conference in New York announcing Hamed’s deal with HBO and his planned December 19th Madison Square Garden debut, the Kelley deal was just about finalized. Hamed and Kelley got along famously, they had fun building the fight together, and Naz knew Kelley was the kind of established name fighter he needed on his record. Here’s DiBella on what he envisioned for the first fight of Hamed’s HBO contract:
DiBella: In my mind, there was only one proper way to bring him to America. Only one proper way to launch The Prince in New York. And it involved a lot of risk for him. It meant fighting Kevin Kelley. At Madison Square Garden. The kid, Kevin Kelley, who had been a Madison Square Garden fighter when they were still in the promotional business. And had been developed, largely, in the Theatre at Madison Square Garden. And was the kid from Queens, the local favorite. And who himself had a big punch. Was a dangerous kid. That was the fight. And I knew that was the fight. And I sold Seth, “Seth, that’s the fight.” That was my boss at the time, Seth Abraham. I was like, “This is the mega-event, we will do a phenomenal rating, and we will make history if we can do that fight at Madison Square Garden, and that’s our way of introducing America to the Prince.”
In the pre-fight interviews, Hamed’s vision for this British invasion was every bit as wide-eyed as DiBella’s.
Hamed: I keep saying I’m here on business and I’m ready to conquer America. When I say I’m ready to conquer America, I mean I’m ready to conquer America. The statements that I make, I don’t want people to take ’em lightly. Because whatever I say is what I want to do. I’m planning to be a legend. In my eyes, I’m destined for greatness. There’s a lot of people out there that want to find out what it’s gonna be like to see me lose. But I can honestly tell you now: In my eyes, I don’t think I’m gonna get beat. I’m that confident in my ability and my skill. With my confidence and my belief in God, I can’t get beat. I ain’t even dreamt that I’m gonna lose. I don’t even think negative. I’m a totally positive person. And I only have positive people around me. So, losing don’t even come into it. And people anywhere can be crossing their fingers, crossing their legs, and dying for me to lose if they want. But it doesn’t really matter, ’cause I ain’t losing. I’m a pure winner, as I say.
Hamed was obviously a master of the art of self-promotion, but a little outside marketing help never hurts. As those who spent time in Manhattan in November and December 1997 remember, his face was everywhere. HBO's marketing for the Kelley fight ran seven figures, which, while not unheard of, could be described as a number that was only approached on very special occasions.
DiBella: When we first got Naseem over here, David LaChapelle, one of the most famous avant garde fashion photographers, we did a photo shoot with Naz and him. We spent money on ring entries and on lighting and bells and whistles and stuff like that that we had never done at HBO Sports before. Because he was, like, one of a kind. Our advertising campaigns on him, when we first brought him here, were sensational. The HBO marketing machine was at its best and the creativity was ridiculous. And the money we spent on marketing and publicizing Naseem Hamed against Kevin Kelley, it was worth every dollar.
Kevin Kelley, however, had mixed feelings on the marketing of the fight.
Kelley: The way I saw it, they were putting so much marketing money behind him, when I’m the one that went and got him! I felt a little betrayed here. I was like, Wait a second, guys. I give you this mega-fight as a boxer, it takes me two trips to go to England to get them interested in fighting, he’s coming to New York City to fight me his first fight. I looked at it almost like a spit in the face a little bit, you know what I’m saying? Put me and him on the side of the building, don’t put just him on the building. I’m a New Yorker, he’s in my town. So you’re giving me ammo. You’re getting me pissed off and frustrating me when I’m the New Yorker!
Kelley wasn’t the only New Yorker who was irked by the imbalance. In the summer of 1997, Paulie Malignaggi was a 16-year-old kid from Brooklyn who’d just taken up boxing. He would go on to win titles in two divisions and become a successful boxing broadcaster for several networks, but at the time, he was just a teenager who was new to the sport who would have his life forever altered by Naseem Hamed and Kevin Kelley.
Paulie Malignaggi: I was learning to box and I had no fights and I had never been to a pro fight in my life. And I would take the train, the subway, every single day, to Gleason’s Gym to work out. Every single morning that was my schedule, five days a week, sometimes six. And obviously I started hearing more about Hamed, I started buying more of the Ring magazines at the time, you know. Hamed was just starting to make waves, he hadn’t fought yet in the U.S. I met Kevin Kelley, he was actually the first guy that I ever met in Gleason’s that was a name fighter. I remember seeing him in the dressing room after one of my workouts, and he was also getting changed, and I remember looking like, Oh my god, that’s Kevin Kelley, and I guess he caught it and he’s like, “Hey man,” he just came up to me, and I really appreciated it. It was cool, it’s something I remember, that Kevin was the first name fighter I met and he was so nice to me. So at the time, I’m literally without even an amateur fight, and I’m training every day, and the fight gets signed, and every day I’m seeing the big ad campaign for Hamed. Everybody remembers the big billboard like in Times Square, over the Lincoln Tunnel or something. But also there was a lot of billboards inside the trains. The train stations and subways. So every single day, I would take the train to Gleason’s and see this ad, I believe it was the one where his hands were on fire, where his gloves were on fire. I remember thinking, Man, they’re not giving Kevin any love here, and he’s from New York. But I remember thinking, Man, this guy’s a big deal.
Hamed certainly was a big deal. Here are his prescient words as the fight with Kelley neared.
Hamed: When I have to cross a bridge where I’m going to have a hard, hard fight, then I’ll cross that bridge and take it how it comes. And I’ll always end up the winner. My prediction is that Kevin will get stopped, and he’ll get stopped through awesome accuracy and awesome strength and power. And there’s not a fighter out there that can beat a gift. So what can I say? I can see me stopping him in maybe four, five, or six. Something like that. All I’ve got to say to Kevin Kelley is: Don’t blink.
With Hamed, there was actually reason to pause all blinking several minutes before the fight began. Especially on the night of December 19, 1997. The Prince was known across the pond for his elaborate ring entrances, and he didn’t disappoint with his first ring walk in America. Special lights and music came on, and there was Hamed, in silhouette, busting out his finest dance moves behind a white curtain. And not just for 30 seconds, or a minute, or even two. Naz’s ring entrance at the Garden lasted over seven minutes. Larry Merchant asked, “Is this a fashion show or a prize fight?” Jim Lampley called Hamed “Hector Camacho, Jorge Paez, Michael Jackson, and PT Barnum all rolled into one.” Here are Lampley’s reflections, 20 years later:
Lampley: It was such a narcissistic exhibition, that I could only compare him to Ali. I don’t believe I had seen anybody who was as interested in pushing the show-biz element of the event in the same way that Naseem did since Muhammad Ali. And the ringwalk in particular was circus-like. And it was all very elaborate and very thrilling. And I believe that Kevin walked first, and had to wait in the ring for what felt like 15 minutes — it was probably more like 6 or 7, but it was a long period of time. And I imagined feeling the smoke coming out of Kevin’s ears while he was waiting for all of that to go down.
Here’s the thing almost nobody knows: Naz’s unforgettably long ring entrance didn’t go according to plan. Not at all. George Azar reveals part of that story.
Azar: I just assumed along with everybody else that that long entrance was designed to drive Kevin Kelley crazy and it was designed to give the middle finger to HBO and to the networks and to say, “Listen, I’m on stage now, I have the microphone, nothing happens until I say it does.” When I spoke to him about it later, he said, “No, no, no, no. That’s not at all what happened. I was back there expecting to do a little dance, just for a few seconds, and then come out and do my ring walk. But it just kept going on and on and on,” and he said, “after a certain point, I was just thinking to myself, what do I do now?” And actually, going back and watching the footage, you can see him sort of gesturing at somebody, and sort of jerking his arms toward them. It was supposed to go on for just a fraction of that amount of time, and he never intended it to turn out the way that it did.
Kevin Kelley fills in some of the blanks in the story Naz told Azar, while also revealing a unique stipulation in the fight contract.
Kelley: Being I went to England and challenged him twice, I know about the ring walks. And we had a contract in place that if he takes too long, he’s gonna pay me extra money. If he took 20 minutes, I think I was going to get a lot more money. I think we gave him, I think, 10 or 12 minutes to get to the ring. I didn’t care if he came to the ring late! I was gonna get a lot more money, okay? So, people don’t know this. And also, they don’t know that that paper was supposed to light up on fire. There was a lot of technical difficulties. He talked to me about this. I didn’t know that. What happened was, that paper, when he was dancing behind it, the pyro was supposed to light that thing on fire and it was supposed to go up in flames, then he comes through. It never happened.
Borgia: I just thought [the ringwalk] was a bunch of BS, and we knew how he liked to do things, and we didn’t want it to affect what we had to do. So it really didn’t bother me. I just said, “Come on, let’s go. Combo here, combo there, do this, do that. Slip and, get your mind off of it.” Uncle Al, [cutman] Al Gavin, he was like, “Come on, this guy’s a jerk already, get in the ring,” and he was pretty upset. But we tried to stay calm and just, we had a plan and nothing was gonna deter us from that.
Lou DiBella, one of the people most responsible for bringing this show to Madison Square Garden and into millions of living rooms, walks us through his memories:
DiBella: All these people, they really didn’t know what to expect. So there was like this anticipation. And then this music starts. And this light show starts. Smoke, and this crazy shit. This big, elaborate entrance. And you start to see the kid in the distance, boogeying. And he is freakin’ boogeying. He is dancing into the ring. And then, it’s wild, you look around the room, and all ringside, the whole floor, everyone’s dancing. There are women standing on their seats dancing. There are dudes in the friggin’ aisles dancing. Everyone’s dancing. And it wasn’t like they were against Kevin Kelley. It had nothing to do with that. They were just dancing. This kid’s dancing, they’re dancing. And the entrance seemed to take forever. But it was almost like no one wanted it to end. People were partying. The room was rocking. The energy in the room was different than I’d ever seen at any other fight. It was like boxing meets a rock concert. And not just an ordinary rock concert. Like a really theatrical one. Like boxing meets a Queen concert. Boxing meets a Stones concert. The high theatrics. And then he gets into the ring, the bell rings, the fight starts. And he’s on his ass! He’s on his ass! Almost immediately! Bang! Kelley lands a punch and he’s on his ass and Seth turns around and looks at me like, Holy shit! And everyone’s worried sick, fuck, did we just spend all this money? We brought this fucking kid in on this huge deal and he’s on his ass! And I’m like, Oh my god, what’s going on here? But then he like smiles and he pops up and he’s all right, dusts himself off … Boom! Next thing I know Kevin Kelley’s down! And I’m like, Holy shit. We have something amazingly special here.
For the first two minutes of the first round of this battle of southpaws, Hamed seemed in control, landing flicking jabs, shimmying his shoulders, limiting Kelley with his awkwardness. Then Naz pulled straight back out of the corner with his hands down and the 3-1 underdog Kelley clipped him on the chin with a right hook that sent him tumbling to the canvas. A crowd of 11,954 at Madison Square Garden simultaneously gasped and roared. We asked Jim Lampley what he remembers thinking in that moment.
Lampley: What I was thinking was, Aha! Exposed! That maybe this is all a myth and isn’t going to play at this level of the sport. And he went down, is Kevin going to knock him down two more times and bring an end to all this within a matter of minutes? It seemed possible. But of course, that went away in a hurry. Because when he got up, he proved he was for real.
Here’s Kelley, reflecting on Hamed’s punch resistance:
Kelley: He’s very vulnerable, but he’s so flexible, so I give him credit on that. He’s so flexible, when you hit him he absorbs the shot. You hit a guy, and, he’s so acrobatic, that he’s able to absorb your shot. He’s able to absorb them! And that’s amazing.
In the first minute of the second round, Kelley landed a left hand to Hamed’s jaw, causing him to spin around and his right glove to touch the canvas. Here’s Lampley on the yo-yo-ing Prince:
Lampley: I think Naz had bad balance. I think over time, he had proven, his chin was pretty good. Kevin was a puncher. Kevin was a legitimate, honest-to-god puncher for that weight class, just as Naz was. So this was two punchers going at each other. It was just pure fun. Everything about it was magical once it got going and particularly once that first knockdown was over with and Prince Naseem came back and knocked Kevin down and made clear, this is going to be a give and take.
Hamed scored his first knockdown with a hard right hand in the second round. Kelley nodded, pointed with his glove, and winked at Hamed as he looked up from his position on the canvas midway through Round 2.
Kelley: It’s the only fight in my career I can actually say I didn’t stick to the game plan. Game plan was to take him out around Round 7, 8. Wear him down and then take him out. We’re very similar in style. I switch, he switch, lefty, lefty, both hands. So he’s got a lot of characteristics like I have. I was thinking to myself, How would you beat yourself? and that was a good idea. So I had to figure out how to beat myself. And pretty much, as the fight went on, I had more animosity towards where the whole thing went, and it gets the best of you. Your emotion gets the best of you. And I let my emotions get the best of me, and I wanted him out in Round 4, my trainer wanted him out in Round 7.
The third round was relatively uneventful, in the sense that there were no knockdowns. But business picked up again in the fourth, as Kelley continued to get away from the patient gameplan Borgia had devised for him. Hamed dropped Kelley for the second time with two hard left hands. In preparation for this fight, Kelley sparred with, among others, Zab Judah, who was just one year into his pro career at the time. Like Hamed, Judah was a ridiculously fast, hard-hitting southpaw. But he was a 140-pounder. And Borgia claims Kelley bloodied him daily in the gym. Borgia also claims that he would halt sparring immediately if he spotted Kelley deviating from their game plan. Here’s Borgia on what he wanted to see happen at MSG and what actually did happen:
Borgia: I thought he was in great position to put Hamed asleep. Literally. But the game plan was to have him like quit on his stool. The whole plan was to just beat him so bad that he didn’t want to come out of his corner. Not to even knock him out cold, but just to make him quit. And say, “That’s it, I’ve had enough, I can’t do this no more. This guy’s beatin’ my butt.” He saw how easy it was to hurt him. There was one that, the punch came so close to his face that he just fell down, it didn’t even hit him. And he went down. He was like, Oh my god, where are these punches coming from? And yeah, that’s when he got away from the game plan, and he started to look for the knockout. And that’s what cost us that fight. The bottom line is that Kelley was ready. He was ready. He just got too excited and said, “Man, I could knock this guy out.” And that’s what cost him the fight. But it was a great fight, while it lasted.
Kelley scored another flash knockdown in the fourth, and as the round entered its final minute, the knockdown count was three by Kelley, two by Hamed. It didn’t seem like the frenetic pace could last much longer.
The Fight Game with Jim Lampley looks back at Hamed vs. Kelley. Watch fight highlights:
Lampley: I didn’t know which guy was going to get in the last blow. It could have been either of them. Somebody was going to ultimately bring an end to this with one colossal shot that would keep the other guy down on the canvas, but I wasn’t sure which one it was going to be. Could have been Kevin, could have been the Prince. And it turned out, ultimately, it was Naz.
A decisive left by Hamed sent Kelley to the canvas for the third time, leading George Foreman at ringside to declare, “The Prince is for real.” Here’s Kelley on the punch that got him:
Kelley: When you back a cat in a corner, the cat has to do something. So what happened is with him, when I backed him up against those ropes, I thought he wasn’t gonna throw the punch. I was gonna throw a left hand. And instead he threw his left hand first. So when he did, that’s when it got messy for me.
Referee Benjy Esteves stopped the fight at the 2:27 mark of Round 4. Hamed approached Kelley in the ring and said, “You’re the best I’ve ever boxed. And I’m the best you’ve ever boxed.” Lampley declared it “unquestionably the most memorable fight of 1997.” That’s a sentiment Lou DiBella would be inclined to agree with.
DiBella: Up and down, three times each, one of the most dramatic fights I’ve ever seen to this date, the greatest environment — among the greatest — people talk about great environments. There was something different, and I don’t know that I can put my finger on it in one sentence. But there was something different about that night at Madison Square Garden when Naseem Hamed took over America. There was something different. Because he was so different. And no one knew what to expect. And then you wind up having an historic fight. Then you have a fight with two of the best featherweights in the world going life and death, balls to the wall, six times someone’s on the ground.
The fight drew a 10 rating, meaning it was watched live in approximately 2.5 million households. That rating is the highest ever for a boxer making his HBO debut.
DiBella: Think about that. A kid from Yemen. A Muslim kid. Proud Muslim kid. This kid comes to America and has the biggest debut of any fighter in HBO Boxing history. That’s amazing. It reverberated all over the company. It was at the highest levels of the company that people were noticing. You take notice of that. That was an event that shook the foundations of the sports business. People were talking about Hamed’s debut Sunday, and it was regular newspapers, and there were people on sports radio and on sports TV that never talked about boxing that were saying, “Oh my god, did you see that?”
Even in defeat, you could make a good case that the fight was the highlight of Kevin Kelley’s 72-fight pro career. He wanted a rematch, but two fights later, he had a flat performance in losing a decision to Derrick Gainer on HBO, and the demand for Hamed-Kelley II died. Kelley challenged for a couple more titles, but he never won another major fight, and he fought into his early 40s before retiring with a record of 60-10-2. It’s not unreasonable to suggest Kelley was never quite the same after the war with Hamed. But The Flushing Flash, who now lives in Las Vegas and trains fighters, beams with pride to have been a part of it.
Kelley: It’s a memory that people love. And it took on a life of its own. I walk down the street, “You and the Prince,” I mean, to this day, people see me and they talk about that fight. To this day!
One person who could talk about that fight all day is Paulie Malignaggi, that 16-year-old kid who was just getting into boxing and had never attended a live fight before.
Malignaggi: The night of the fight, I found out like fight week that the cheapest tickets would be $25. The only way I would make my pocket money was doing some deliveries. My uncle had a pizzeria in Manhattan, and I would go do some deliveries over there. So, I remember I scrounged up 25 bucks for the cheapest ticket. And I took the subway all by myself, I remember I just wore a sweatsuit. I take the subway, I got literally my last, my only 25 bucks on me, I go there with exactly 25 bucks. And I get to the station, I walk into the Garden, I go to get a ticket, and there’s a $2 surcharge on the ticket. So it’s 27 dollars, not 25 dollars. So now I’m like, Oh my god, I don’t have 27 dollars, I only have these 25 dollars. So, I look like — I was 17, but I probably look like I was 12, because I always looked a lot younger. And I remember, I told the lady, I was like, “Oh, I only have these 25 dollars.” And I guess the face I made to her, she looked to her right where her supervisor was, I guess to check if her supervisor was watching, and slipped me the ticket underneath the window. I wish I remembered this lady’s name, because she probably had a big part in changing my life.
Malignaggi took his seat in literally the third-to-last row of the arena, watched an undercard that included the second pro fight of Ricky Hatton—someone Malignaggi would actually go on to face as a pro 11 years later—and then watched in amazement as Hamed walked into the ring with almost 12,000 people eating out of his hands and walked out of the ring crowing about having the heart of a lion.
Malignaggi: I remember on the way home thinking, That was pretty amazing. This experience was something else. I remember thinking to myself, I’ve gotta feel this. When I watched that fight that night, it made it up in my mind that I was gonna be a fighter, and I was gonna do this. I was always a bit of a flash guy, even before that. But the way he did it. It cemented it for me. Obviously, I wouldn’t say I was able to ever do it like Hamed did it — there’s only one Prince Naseem Hamed. But he definitely planted the root for that dream.
After the Kelley fight, Hamed kept rolling for a little while. He went 6-0 over the next three years, added another alphabet title, kept making seven-figure purses, and even entered the ring once on a flying carpet. But something had changed. Maybe the Kelley scare made him a little gun shy. At the very least, it made Hamed more cautious. And a couple of his subsequent fights in America — specifically, Wayne McCullough in ’98 and Cesar Soto in ’99, both of which went the 12-round distance — were boring, ugly, and roundly booed. Then on April 7, 2001, Hamed lost his perfect record at the hands of future Hall of Famer Marco Antonio Barrera. The Kelley fight exposed many of Hamed’s flaws, but he didn’t fix them; he was pretty much done learning by that point in his career. Here’s The Daily Telegraph’s Gareth A. Davies:
Davies: Against Wilfredo Vazquez, Wayne McCullough, Paul Ingle, Cesar Soto, Vuyani Bungu, Augie Sanchez, in many ways he was able to dictate with his own style. And I think this should have been a wake-up call for what was later to come against Marco Antonio Barrera. And it was something that Brendan Ingle had been telling him for a long time: You’re going to come up against some opponents who you’re not going to be able to do this against. You can not just be pure attack, you’ve got to have defense as well. Hit and not be hit.
Lampley and Merchant share their thoughts on the relatively swift fall of Hamed, who lost at age 27 and fought for the last time at age 28.
Lampley: I think he fought in a high-risk style. And he knew that he fought in a high-risk style. He had it in his head that he was so cosmically good and so unusual that it would sustain and he would go on to become the biggest thing in boxing. But lots of people think that. So I figured that at some point along the way, somebody would discipline him with a more well-rounded boxing approach. I didn’t know that it was going to be the person who did it at the moment at which he did it. But I did envision in my head that eventually, someone would take the measure of Naseem. Someone who had balance, timing, a good jab, and a more conventional approach to what they were doing.
Merchant: Every career has its own arc, and that night in the Garden, I think looking back, turned out to be the high point of the arc of his career. He came, he saw, he was almost conquered, and he conquered. And after a fight like that, when you’re knocked down three times, it’s bound to — if you’re saying he’s smart, then he was smart enough to know that something had to change or be modified. He was still highly successful, he was still a very big attraction. But I think that fighting one of the top featherweights in the world for the first time, maybe he did learn about being a little bit more careful in how he moved around and that this required a little bit more study. Later, Emanuel Steward you may remember trained him for a while, and Emanuel reported that he had lost interest in training seriously, didn’t want to spar, etc. and so forth.
George Azar recalls that indeed, Hamed had discipline issues and also had his retirement hastened by brittle, oft-injured hands.
Azar: This is my own personal opinion, but after the split with the Ingles, the training became somewhat problematic. It wasn’t that he didn’t come into the fight in shape, but in between fights, for one thing, his weight would balloon up so much that much of the camp was spent getting simply down to weight. That was problematic. And also because of his hands, he wasn’t able to do everything in camp he would have liked to have done. And also, it’s important that you have somebody in your corner that you respect and that you listen to and you look up to, and I think that was really lacking. He brought on Emanuel Steward at a certain point, but Emanuel didn’t really spend that much time with him. Emanuel would come in for the last couple weeks of camp and that was it.
Davies gives his insight into what went wrong for The Prince after the Kelley fight:
Davies: He should’ve listened to Brendan Ingle more. He should’ve listened to Manny Steward more. I think arrogance may have gotten the better of him towards the end, but this happens with so many fighters. He went to 35-0, you know. That’s an extraordinary series of wins. He was the lineal featherweight champion. It would have been brilliant if he’d listened to these two amazing trainers in Manny Steward and Brendan Ingle. But obviously Naz had gone 35-0, he was undefeated, he was wealthy beyond his wildest dreams, all his family were safe forever, everyone was living off the gravy train, he didn’t believe he could be beaten, he felt invincible.
That invincibility was stripped away by Barrera. Thirteen months later, Hamed returned to the ring against Manuel Calvo, won a tepid decision, and never fought again. He retired with a record of 36-1, 31 KOs, much younger than anyone, including Jim Lampley, imagined he would.
Lampley: I was surprised how quickly and easily he went away after he was exposed by Barrera. I didn’t expect him to have one more fight and pack it in. But he had made a great deal of money, and he had appetites, and ultimately it became clear that the biggest problem for him was that he wasn’t going to be 126 pounds for long. He was more likely to be 226 given his habits and his worldview and his predilections. I guess he made enough money that he was going to be okay, and the embarrassment of the Barrera fight was too great for him to continue on the stage the way he had been.
We’ll give the final word to Lou DiBella, who, when it comes to Prince Naseem Hamed, tends not to dwell on what could have been, because there’s so much he remembers fondly in what actually was.
DiBella: He loved to fight and he loved to punch and he loved to knock people out. He loved it. But he loved being a showman. He loved being an entertainer. Probably more than boxing. Naseem got that boxing is a subset of the entertainment business. That boxing is theater. That boxing is rock and roll. He got it to the 10th power. Because that’s who he was. He was a great fighter, and a deserved Hall of Famer. But he was a greater showman, a greater entertainer, a greater personality.
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