There was a time when Naseem Hamed carried less baggage, when time and regret weighed less heavy on those shuffling southpaw shoulders.
In October 1997, the Prince and his promoter Frank Warren were at Heathrow en route to Amsterdam, his title belts resting alongside the toiletries and tracksuits.
Soon Chris Eubank strutted into view. Two of Britain’s most divisive figures – joined by a talent for stirring emotions but here, Warren recalls, separated by a simple disagreement.
Naseem Hamed (L) and Chris Eubank (R) were involved in a confrontation at Heathrow in 1997
Hamed, who christened every flamboyant display with a flip over the top of the rope, accused Eubank of imitation.
Tempers quickly boiled over. When Eubank tossed Naz’s belts to the floor, the featherweight flipped.
Eubank towered six inches over his rival. Three stone separated them on the scales. But soon Warren was all that stood between them.
Hamed’s promoter Frank Warren broke two British boxing greats up in the London airport
‘Chris, be quiet and walk away,’ the promoter said. ‘You will come unstuck.’
Eubank obliged and from there, he and Naz trod parallel roads to British boxing folklore.
Before his final fight – shortly after his 28th birthday – Prince Naseem had risen from Yemeni roots, via Sheffield’s fabled Ingle gym, to become one of boxing’s greatest showmen.
A 5ft 4.5in Jack-in-the-box who demoralised and dumbfounded opponents with feints, ferocious power and yo-yo reflexes. He threw punches from every angle, kept afloat by boomerang balance. He was arrogance coated in leopard-skin shorts and 8oz gloves.
Many found him unpalatable. But many more tuned in to watch a proud Muslim shine during the days of Cool Britannia, of Oasis, when swagger and cockiness became a badge of honour. Naz won the WBO, IBF and WBC world titles and had his own boxing video game.
His talents promised even more. Both former trainer and promoter believe his star could have outstripped Floyd Mayweather’s. Instead, against Marco Antonio Barrera in April 2001, his teetering career finally toppled. His life followed close behind.
Hamed’s talents made him a world champion but his career and life would soon topple
His weight has ballooned and since retirement, Hamed has spent time behind bars following a high-speed car crash.
Yet still his star endures.
Deontay Wilder’s tendency to go wild has been preserved by coach Jay Deas. They call it: ‘The Naseem Hamed Effect’.
To this day, kids head to the Wincobank gym wanting to learn the Prince’s dizzying style.
Shortly before Christmas, Hamed returned for the first time since his estrangement from mentor Brendan Ingle. As he chatted to Ingle’s widow Alma, another young kid of Yemeni descent walked through the doors. He had seen films of the Prince’s glory days. Here, for the first time, he saw him in the flesh. The boy began to cry.
NASEEM HAMED’S CAREER
Pro career: 1992-2002
Division: Bantamweight, Super-bantamweight, Featherweight
World titles: WBO, IBF and WBC
From the doors of the Wincobank Gym you could see the shop where the Hamed family lived. Further up the road was the school where this journey began. Naseem Hamed was just seven when Brendan Ingle rode the bus past his playground.
The Irishman peered down from the top deck to see a small kid ducking and dodging as three other pupils threw punches in his direction. ‘I thought to myself, “bloody hell, he can move”,’ Ingle would recall.
Soon Naz, then just seven, and his two brothers were regulars at the bustling gym.
‘He was very competitive and didn’t like losing. I think that’s what set him out from the rest,’ Ingle’s son Dominic remembers. A student of the sport, Hamed shadowed the career of stablemate Herol Graham.
‘He was in the changing room for big fights so he had a very good apprenticeship before the age of 11 which is when you can actually get your amateur licence,’ Dominic remembers.
‘Brendan showed him what the end of the road was… (he) used to say to him: “What Herol Graham hasn’t achieved, you’re going to achieve.” Brendan always called it positive brainwashing.’
Brendan Ingle, receiving an MBE in 1999, trained Hamed at the Wincobank Gym in Sheffield
There was some work involved, too. Like everyone at the Wincobank, this quiet but ‘charming’ kid trod the lines, recited the nursery rhymes and followed every quirk of a training manual that also produced Ryan Rhodes, Kell Brook, Johnny Nelson, Kid Galahad and many more.
He would spar heavyweights and padman John Ingle would put his hands in ice water to stop Naz’s power giving him the shakes.
‘Kids come in and say they want to learn the Naseem Hamed style,’ Ingle says. But his unique blend of brains, brawn and braggadocio was built on solid foundations. ‘Before you can do it wrong and you’ve got to do it right.’
Prince Naseem was born this week in 1992, when at 18 he faced Ricky Beard in the first of 37 professional fights.
A few days earlier, Ingle Snr found a sandwich board. On the front, he wrote: ‘Naseem Hamed Future World Champion’.
Armed with a megaphone, Brendan and his clan headed down Sheffield’s busiest shopping street .‘This is Naseem Hamed. He is boxing next week in Mansfield. He is going to be the next world champion,’ he shouted.
Prince only lost one fight throughout his whole career, coming in his penultimate bout
Shoppers looked on, bewildered; an embarrassed Naz took cover behind his trainer.
‘(Dad) had to do that because nobody knew who Naz was,’ Dom Ingle says. Even after racking up a few wins, Hamed was not much of a self-promoter. He was a tough sell, too.
‘Everybody said: “You are mad”,’ Frank Warren remembers. ‘How are we going to sell a fighter from the Yemen, an Arab, and a Muslim? In those days it did not compute with a lot of people.’
Soon, though, the cockiness developed. And Warren devised a plan. ‘I knew that with the attitude that he had, he would be Marmite,’ the promoter remembers.
Hamed became one of Britain’s first pay-per-view stars when Warren moved boxing to Sky
‘It seemed like all the young kids liked him… so we decided to promote him through younger kids magazines.’
Warren remembers Hamed playing football with his children. Before taking a throw-in, he bounced off the ball and performed two somersaults.
And as the Prince’s public persona became more polished, too, the snowball gathered pace. When Warren moved boxing on to Sky Sports, Hamed became one of Britain’s first pay-per-view stars. By September 1995, Nas was the Prince who would be king.
At just 21, he travelled to Cardiff to face WBO featherweight king Steve Robinson. Amid a rarefied atmosphere, Hamed took the champion out in round eight.
‘A lot of people thought Robinson was going to be too mature, too big, too well-seasoned,’ Ingle reflects. ‘It reminded me of when Muhammad Ali came to fight Sonny Liston.’
He adds: ‘Everybody thought Nas was all smoke and mirrors… that’s where it really began.’
More bamboozling extravagance followed. Against Daniel Alicea in Newcastle, Naz sat atop a golden throne, carried into the arena by six men. Alicea put the champion down for the first time in his career.
Hamed celebrates a second-round stoppage against Daniel Alicea in 1996 with a somersault
But almost immediately, Hamed was again bending that cheesestring frame with reckless abandon. By the end of the second round, Alicea had been stopped.
By December 1997, the time had come for the Prince to go international. Six days before Christmas, Donald Trump and Pierce Brosnan watched on as Naz took over Madison Square Garden. On the biggest stage, still just 23, Hamed produced another spectacular performance.
Over four rounds, he and Kevin Kelley went to war. Naz was put down three times before cementing his global status with victory. Away from the ring, though, cracks had started to appear.
As his star rose, the Ingle’s job had gone from nurturing a young talent to ‘restraining’ a superstar. ‘And that was a hard job.’
Ingle once claimed that Hamed became ‘more obnoxious’ as his fortune grew. In front of journalists he once berated his trainer for having bad breath. ‘Don’t eat those cheese sandwiches around me when I’m training.’
Hamed started to train less and his long-lasting relationship with Ingle soon ended
The more success he enjoyed, the less he would train and soon the relationship ended.
‘Naz, we’re done,’ Ingle said. ‘You’ve stopped listening… the way you’re carrying on, it’s all going to go wrong.’
It would take a few years for his prophecy to come true. Prince Naseem began working with Oscar Suarez and Emanuel Steward across the pond. He fought less often and often less memorably. All while the sideshow continued.
Against Vuyani Bungu, Naz was carried to the ring on a flying carpet, flanked by P Diddy. The wins kept coming until July 2001 and his Las Vegas debut against Mexican Barrera. Having shed more than 2st in eight weeks, he was ragdolled over 12 rounds, suffering the sole defeat of his career.
Hamed suffered the first defeat of his career in 2001 to Marco Antonio Barrera in Las Vegas
The following May he bounced back with a lacklustre win over Manuel Calvo in London. Still only 28, 11 million people reportedly tuned in for his final bow. He was booed throughout.
In a rollercoaster decade, Hamed racked up a multi-million fortune and earned his place in the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
But without the routines and rhythms of gym life, the wheels soon fell off. In May 2005, Hamed was involved in a three-way car crash.
In his £325,000 Mercedes, he reached 90mph before hitting a car head on and colliding with a second moments later. Naz escaped unhurt, but one of the victims broke ‘every major bone in his body’.
He was involved in a three-way crash in his £325,000 Mercedes in May 2005 (pictured above)
The former world champion served 16 weeks of a 15-month sentence after the crash
Naz had previously been banned for driving a Porsche at 110mph. The then 32-year-old had also racked up three other previous convictions for speeding.
He served 16 weeks of a 15-month sentence. He was fitted with an electronic tag. He lost his MBE. He yearned for forgiveness from Ingle before the Irishman’s death in 2018.
Last winter, he eventually headed back through the doors of that Wincobank gym. Quickly followed by another young boy with big dreams.