Hamed passes a big test
"Give credit where credit is due," Naseem Hamed implored his critics after he had produced his best performance in years to knock out the South Africa Vuyani Bungu in the fourth round of their world featherweight title fight on Saturday night.
He has taken a savaging from his detractors after his recent contests, but now deserves to bask in the glory.
After all the uncertainties caused by the acrimonious break up with his childhood mentor Brendan Ingle and the ending of his long association with promoter Frank Warren two years ago, many questioned if he could ever recapture the stunning form of earlier years - or whether he could banish the mental doubts and technical inadequacies exposed by Kevin Kelley and Paul Ingle.
But the 14th defence of his World Boxing Organisation crown has drawn an indelible line through the past and opened up a future full of self confidence. Already plans are being drawn up to match Hamed with the World Boxing Council super-bantamweight champion Erik Morales in the autumn, and the undefeated Mexican will not sleep easy when he views the way Hamed dismantled Bungu.
Bungu (33) has not lost a fight in eight years and, having defended his International Boxing Federation version of the world super-bantamweight title 13 times, he was moving up a division for the fight of his life. This was no mug; a nation was imploring him to succeed (he had been in regular telephone contact with Nelson Mandela) but Hamed made him look like a clueless old man.
After a preposterous entrance to the arena aboard what was supposed to be a magic carpet, it was quickly clear Hamed was in no mood for further false provocation.
What followed was brilliant. Working exclusively out of a southpaw stance, Hamed jabbed to good effect and quickly began to sap the resolve of the South African with the most effective body punching of his career. Only once did Bungu connect with a meaningful attack, a right hook to the head in the opening round, but thereafter he was chasing shadows.
Trainers Emanuel Steward and Oscar Suarez had drilled Hamed repeatedly with the need to outbox Bungu rather than lunge in with reckless knockout attempts. The 26-year-old champion followed their words to the letter. Even in the third round, when the challenger was staggered by a left-hand power shot, he bided his time where once the red haze would have descended.
The end was classical: a right jab followed by a straight left head shot to send Bungu to the canvas with no chance of beating the count. "I showed sharpness, speed, accuracy, power, angles and a wicked finish," said Hamed.
"He is a world class athlete. Nobody has ever done that and put him down. Styles make fights and his style was right for me. When was the last time you saw body shots like that?"
Hamed spoke bullishly of not having felt the pressure. "I can carry the world on my shoulders," he laughed. But a more telling observation came from his brother and manager Riath away from the glare of the cameras.
"He wouldn't be human if he didn't hear the critics, and it gets to you," he said. "You do question yourself. He needed this badly. He was completely, utterly professional in the build-up and in the ring and I'm so proud of him." Rightly so.
Former WBO featherweight champion Steve Robinson, who lost his title to Hamed in 1995, had his dreams of a re-match shattered when he was stopped in the 11th round by Mexico's Juan Carlos Ramirez. Liverpudlian Shea Neary was stopped in the eighth round by the American Micky Ward.