Prince of Pranks
Naseem Hamed's hollow Halloween win was more trick than treat
It seemed fitting that Prince Naseem Hamed would defend his WBO featherweight title in a Halloween bout billed as Fright Night His perfection (31-0 with 28 KOs) has been scary. He's a terrifyingly effective showman, put together with parts nicked from other prizefighters—the elasticity of Sugar Ray Robinson, the wallop of Joe Louis, the braggadocio of Muhammad Ali, the punk narcissism of Hector Camacho and the insolence of Sonny Liston.
At 24, Hamed has built a career showboating primarily against flaccid nobodies and faded somebodies. None of his 18 previous opponents had gone the distance against him. But last Saturday in Atlantic City, he pranced and preened and couldn't knock Wayne McCullough down. Hamed's 12-round decision was unanimous but not impressive. "I told him in the ring, 'You're the champion. Come in and fight me,' " said McCullough. "Instead, he ran away like an amateur."
Game but not particularly gifted, McCullough had moved up two weight classes in order to face Hamed. Fright Night handicappers barely gave him a ghost of a chance. His chief sparring partner, Kevin Kelley, reportedly called the fight a "mismatch." This was the same Kevin Kelley who last December in Madison Square Garden floored Hamed three times before getting knocked out in Round 4.
A British-born son of Yemeni immigrants, Hamed is a huge draw in England and in his parents' homeland, where his face is plastered on everything from schoolchildren's composition books to postage stamps. On the Jersey Shore, though, his appeal was spottier than his leopard-print trunks. On the eve of the bout, with more man 3,000 seats unsold in the 12,000-seat Convention Hall, Hamed's trainer, Brendan Ingle, patrolled the Boardwalk with a bullhorn in a ludicrous attempt to sell tickets to high-and low-rollers wandering from casino to casino.
Ingle has lately fallen into Princely disfavor. A recent book by British boxing writer Nick Pitt, The Paddy and the Prince, portrays the champ as a cruel, greedy ingrate who keeps late hours and doesn't train hard—an opinion apparently shared by Ingle, the book's primary source. Last month Hamed branded Ingle a "Judas" for daring to criticize him. "Judas got paid," corrected Ingle. "I didn't." Ingle was supposedly demoted to "adviser" by Hamed, but he was still calling the shots in the Prince's corner on Saturday night.
McCullough vowed not to be undone by the champ's always gaudy ring entrance, a rocking horror show designed to infuriate opponents. Last Saturday it included fog machines, fireworks and a mock graveyard. HBO had wanted each tombstone to bear the name of one of Hamed's defeated foes, but in a rare display of restraint, the champ vetoed the request. Even so, the Nazmatazz intro lasted five minutes.
In the days leading up to the bout, Hamed had said he would inflict career-ending pain on McCullough before flooring him at 2:28 of the third round. "I'm not taking a stopwatch into the ring" Hamed said, "but I'll know when it's time to shake and bake, and then I'll hit him with a wicked right uppercut."
The time came and went, and Hamed neither shaked nor baked. Whenever the powerless McCullough moved in, the powerful Prince backed up. Hamed held the challenger at bay by throwing no-look, wrong-footed punches from angles you can't learn in geometry class. A few blows landed, but none did serious damage. Though the hour-long exercise made the Prince $2 million richer, it exposed him as a pretender to the throne. The 8,000 or so bored spectators booed him from the seventh round on.
Hamed insists he's not the royal pain he once was, that fatherhood and husbandhood have softened him. "As a matter of fact, Naz has gotten worse," volunteers Ingle. "He has this vast amount of money now, and feels compelled to step over everybody, including me. Not that I didn't expect it." Ingle's Law states that good trainers always are used, abused and accused. "At first the fighter uses the knowledge the trainer imparts," he says. "When the fighter becomes champ, he abuses him by telling everyone he's done it all himself. Then the fighter leaves or refuses to listen to the trainer. Inevitably, the fighter gets beaten and accuses the trainer of not treating him properly.