I never did like Naseem Hamed. Sure, I could admire his skills in the same way that Reg Gutteridge did, before turning to Jim Watt at ringside and questioning “It’s not necessary Jim; maybe I’m old fashioned?” as the self-proclaimed ‘Prince’ clowned and mocked soon to be former European bantamweight champion, Vincenzo Belcastro.
Reg was true to his generation, and perhaps not I to my own. I denounced Hamed, but my friends would have none of it. He was prime box-office: Instagram and Twitter, long before the whole modern behemoth of social media had been constructed. To those with only a cursory understanding of the sport, he was the heir to the fast tongue and dizzying hands of Muhammad Ali.
I recall those friends telling me “He’s just enjoying himself” as I picked over his latest trail of bombast. “I don’t see anyone else laughing” Jarvis Cocker wondered at around the same time and in the same city, as he mused on the urban blight that Hamed and many others were doing their darndest to escape from. Except, in Hamed’s case they were all ‘laughing’… and mostly with him. The diminutive Prince split the generations like few others. And not for the first time I backed the wrong horse.
Now, Steve Robinson was more my kind of fighter. He carried the record of someone that should have been boxing anonymous eight-rounders on provincial undercards – but here he was champion of the world, albeit in those heady days when the WBO was still puffing out its chest for credibility amongst boxing’s more established sanctioning bodies.
His then-record of nine defeats in 31 outings looked incongruous for a champion. At the time I viewed it with the same curiosity as Lionel Butler’s far-from flawless resume (22-10-1) among The RingMagazine’s heavyweight top ten. The man whose only title fight prior to beating John Davison at two days’ notice in his Tyne & Wear backyard, was for a Welsh championship belt.
Robinson’s nickname of the ‘Cinderella Man’ was entirely fitting and despite wearing a shiny belt that he had defended seven times against primarily domestic opposition, his credentials were unashamedly blue-collar.
It seemed fitting that he got to defend his featherweight crown for a final time at the famous Arms Park, home to Welsh rugby, and haunting renditions of ‘Land of our Fathers’. Pre-fight advertising carried the tagline ‘A Bridge Too Far?’ – the question was aimed at Hamed, but for many, the answer came pre-packaged.
For one round Robinson barely held his own. His guard, high and solid, whilst Hamed stuck out his chin and let his arms dangle at his waist like a cocky gunslinger. At will, he would spray shots indiscriminately from all angles, sending them flying like loosely tied boot laces on scurrying feet, whilst Robinson cowered behind the coaching manual trying to figure out the conundrum in front of him.
He never managed it. In the fifth, he went down for the first time in his career. His face looked confused as he climbed off the deck and into more painful showboating from Hamed. By the eighth, it was over. A single left-hand proved one shot too many for him to endure and as he stumbled forward onto the canvass the referee brought an immediate end to the one-sided mayhem.
Hamed was full of his own promise after the fight, but in retrospect was magnanimous concerning the efforts of his beaten opponent. Robinson went on to have one more good night, bagging a European title, as Hamed’s destiny was to bestride 90s pop culture.
Hubris would eventually catch up with him six years later at the MGM Grand, where Marco Antonio Barrera mocked him repeatedly with both fists.
More recently I saw him in an interview where he was constantly interrupted by strangers off camera. He seemed patient and courteous. Maybe he’s changed?
Time does that to all of us…