Prince more like a pauper as jeers greet lacklustre return

 

John Rawling sees Naseem Hamed come close to self-parody as helabours to beat little-regarded Manuel Calvo for the IBO title

It may be par for the course for Manchester United fans to vote with their feet and head en masse for the Old Trafford exits in the closing minutes of a match if their side's performance doesn't come up to scratch, but in world championship boxing the fans' early trek to the car park or the nearest bar is virtually unknown.

So, in that respect at least, Naseem Hamed was right when he said before the fight he would take his boxing onto a new level in his comeback. Three or four rounds before the final bell of his stultifyingly tedious contest against Manuel Calvo at the London Arena, the exodus began. First it was a trickle, but by the end they were leaving in droves.

Of those in the sell-out 12,000 crowd who remained, a few die-hards cheered while many more joined in choruses of "What a load of rubbish" and "You're shit, and you know you are," before the inevitability of a wide and unanimous points verdict was announced in Hamed's favour to make him a world champion, recognised by few sane people outside the offices of the International Boxing Organisation.

This was one of the worst high-profile fights seen in a British ring since Johnny Nelson stunk the place out against Carlos de Leon. Those who had paid £150 to sit at ringside to witness Hamed's first fight in 13 months might think they had bought the right to more consideration.

"Speed is power," Hamed had told us would be the cornerstone philosophy of his boxing strategy as he relaunched his career. Instead, he produced the same kind of tactically bankrupt performance which had led to his humbling against Marco Antonio Barrera in Las Vegas. In his post-fight interview, Hamed said the critics who jeered in the crowd were "ignorant" of his craft and artistry. But three prominent old champions at ringside, Glenn McCrory, Duke McKenzie and Herol Graham, were unanimous: Joe Public had got it spot on.

Calvo is the man who only just scraped past the shop-worn old champion Steve Robinson a year ago. He is the fighter beaten by the light-punching Doncaster featherweight Jon Jo Irwin. Hamed was struggling, dismally, against a fighter he would surely have blitzed in double-quick time in his prime. "I basically boxed with very good ability. The kid (who is 34) had a good chin," he said.

"I won the fight easy. The crowd should back the champion up. The kid wasn't in the fight and I hit him with every shot in the book," Hamed told television viewers, giving no hint of an explanation as to why so many of his jabs had been thrown with so little authority, or why he had repeatedly lunged in behind wild attacks which would have left him frighteningly vulnerable against a more capable counter puncher.

Well over an hour later, perhaps after the promoter Barry Hearn had been able to report the critical mood of his analysts back to Hamed, the fighter appeared at a press conference. "Long enough for him to get his excuses worked out," one veteran cynic suggested.

"I had a bad hand injury in the second round. I switched to orthodox and hit him with a peach of a left hook, and it felt like it broke. So I was working a lot with single shots," Hamed explained.

"I was shining up to the point of hurting my hand. I know I was better than him. I was beating him in style, the way I wanted. No matter what anyone says, I loved my performance and I'm laughing all the way back to Sheffield.

"The booing was no problem. If you're a pro, and you care about the crowd, you're not a very good pro. If they want to boo, let them. I've entertained them for many a year and, God willing, I will entertain them for years to come. It's really frustrating, but my hands were very, very sore." Hamed conceded "there may have been a little ring-rust" in his performance. It is to be hoped that is the valid excuse, because there was more than a hint at times of him being tentative to the point of gun-shy in his approach.

Hamed said he wants to fight again within three months, if a suitable TV slot can be found. Representatives of the veteran International Boxing Federation champion Johnny Tapia were at ringside and he seems a likely opponent, particularly as the Mancunian Michael Brodie, the most viable alternative, left the arena with his face bruised and battered, a dreadful cut sliced along the length of his right eyelid, after he won his undercard contest on points against Pastor Maurin of Argentina.

Hamed is 28, and clearly has time to fulfil his stated ambition of beating Tapia before moving on to a Barrera rematch. But the chances of him ever reversing the Barrera result seem slim and there is no guarantee he would beat the 36-year-old Tapia

The thrilling successes of Hamed's early career were built on qualities of elusiveness, speed and power. The reflexes of a young man enabled him to get away with the inherent risks of his devil-may-care style.

Now, whatever Hamed's public pronouncements may be, an uncertainty has crept into his work, or perhaps an understanding, even at 28, that the fractions which separate success and failure have narrowed enough to make him a legitimate target for men who could once do little more than stand and admire.

One off night does not mean Hamed is finished, far from it, but the warning signs are there.