Leave it to Las Vegas risk-taking Hamed told


How prescient that in the run-up to Friday's fight in New York some of Naseem Hamed's entourage sang these lines from Chumbawumba's anthemic pop single Tubthumping: "I get knocked down, but I get up again, you're never going to keep me down."

This Yorkshire-hewn lyric turned out to be the narrative on a tumultuously dramatic night.

How fitting, also, that the film Titanic should open in New York on the very day the Hamed promotional liner passed through the gateway to America. Hamed made it all right, but his supporters had the lifeboats ready in a fight that revealed in him a monumental willingness to gamble. "A suicide mission" is how his trainer Brendan Ingle described his fighter's strategy in a fourth-round victory over Kevin Kelley. The next morning, that same entourage had aged faster than Keith Richards.

Hamed's first fight in the United States was both a roaring success and a chilling foretaste of his own potential ruin. For an almost apocalyptic encounter which was the very antithesis of a contrived corporate marketing exercise, Hamed drew an astonishing 11,900 spectators to Madison Square Garden and immediately established a reputation as a purveyor of the wildest drama. As long as he keeps getting up off the canvas after taking shots he should never be so daft as to invite, his American audience will keep tuning in on the basis that there is nothing so compelling in sport as unpredictability.

The next day the adrenaline and truculence had drained from him as he struggled to stay awake after a night of tee-total partying beyond dawn. As he showed off his belt in his promoter Frank Warren's hotel room, he came as close as he ever will to admitting that his fairground instincts are in danger of bringing him down.

Felled fighters always bounce up to say that it hadn't hurt a bit, but finally, after much pressing, Hamed did admit: "I knew some of the time that I was in trouble, that he'd shaken me, but my mind was always clear enough for me to keep lining him up. In future, the style will be the same, but I know I'll have to keep my head down a bit more."

Failure to make this change will at best shorten a successful career and at worst, bring it to a humiliating end at the hands of one of the many accomplished fighters now preparing to cross his money-strewn path.

"Crazy stuff," was how Warren described it straight after the fight. Though panic and frustration were apparent among many in his corner, the eventual victory did illuminate several of Hamed's formidable strengths. One is his unquestionable courage, his lust for combat, which, allied with a capacity to shake off the effects of heavy blows quickly, makes him a desperately tough opponent to conquer. His other prime attribute is his ability to demolish men with a force quite stunning given his diminutive size. Kelley had not been treated this roughly before.

This was a fight of six knockdowns in four rounds and some thunderous punching which, strange to relate, left not a single mark on Hamed's face the next day. It had the weight of a major American happening with a large cast of celebrities eager to examine the Prince's furiously-hyped prowess. The tone for the main event was set by another unceasingly vicious encounter between Junior Jones and Kennedy McKinney in which McKinney (also a winner in four rounds) leapfrogged Jones to become a potential next opponent for Hamed.

For Britain's WBO featherweight champion, Las Vegas would have been a better venue for such monumental risk-taking. The bigger the fight, the more reckless his tactics become. In the hardest and most important engagement of his 29-fight career, Hamed abandoned every trace of a defensive strategy until a succession of vicious blows from Kelley dragged him out of his own self-jeopardising folly.

For two rounds at least, a multimillion dollar investment by the Home Box Office (HBO) cable network seemed to be going the way of Hamed's protracted ring entrance. For seven minutes, he was stuck behind a curtain that failed to open, performing an increasingly tedious dance that was an affront to poor Kelley, who was left to pace impatiently around the ring.

On this evidence, McKinney or Arturo Gatti (the IBF junior-lightweight champion) will give Hamed all the trouble he can handle. In New York, he revealed himself to be not so much a great fighter, as a phenomenally exciting one. As Hamed left the ring, the veteran boxing publisher Bert Sugar said: "I'm not about to knock Sandy Saddler or Willie Pep (great featherweights from the 1940s and 50s) off their pedestal."

Budd Schulberg, author of the definitive book The Harder They Fall, is the doyen of American boxing writers. After 60 years of professional involvement in the sport he knows a thing or two, and he was largely unimpressed by what he saw.

The quietly spoken 83-year-old shook his head in disapproval at Hamed's introductory ring walk. "Bad manners and unfair to the waiting opponent," he said, perhaps recalling a simpler age, but his thoughts about Hamed the fighter were more revealing.

"He can hit hard and he got up and won. But after everything I had heard, I thought he would be more elusive and that disappointed me," he said.

"Muhammad Ali at 23 years old would never have been hit by a jab the way Hamed was caught by Kelley. He looks to me as though he still has a lot to learn."

When asked to compare Hamed with some of the great featherweights of the past, Schulberg said: "Henry Armstrong and Sandy Saddler would have knocked him out. Hamed is exciting, yes, but at the moment he is simply not in the class of those guys."

Ingle's post-fight analysis seemed spot-on. "Everything Naz could do wrong, he did wrong and he still won," he said. "It was a great fight, unbelievable. Naz was fantastic value for money." "He threw caution to the wind - foolishly so," Warren said. "I don't want to see any fighter I'm involved with take that kind of punishment, but that's the product, that's what you've got. In terms of the interest he attracted, it's mission accomplished. They took $825,000 at the gate. That's an amazing achievement for a 23-year-old kid from Sheffield who nobody knew."

Quite, but the cold truth is that Hamed's claim to greatness is evaporating at the very start of his big American adventure. His continuing survival as a fighter of world renown depends now on his ability to undertake urgent tactical change. Overcoming the mighty forces of instinct would be his most significant triumph of all.