by Cliff Rold
It’s been over a dozen years since he made his final flashy ring walk, threw his last wild lead uppercut, scored his final victory.
It’s been a little more than half those many years that voters have had to ask the question: was he a Hall of Famer?
So far, the answer has been no.
In a year without a ton of obvious new candidates, is this the year that changes?
Even with the passage of time, no one has forgotten Prince Naseem Hamed. The ethnic Yemeni, born in Sheffield, took the British boxing scene by storm in the 1990s with a rare combination of speed, reflexes, and prodigious power. He turned his attention to the rest of the world and kept winning. His style was his own, one of the rare men who makes wrong work out right. For the better part of six years, he was the straw the stirred the drink at Featherweight.
And then he was gone.
As the page turns towards the class of 2015, it’s time to take a closer look.
How good was Naseem Hamed, measured against all-time?
In answering the question, this series examines five categories:
2) Competition Faced
3) Competition Not Faced
4) Reaction to Adversity
5) What’s Left to Prove
Research for this piece included review of fighter records via BoxRec.com and a viewing of all Hamed’s title contests.
As always, it begins with…
The Tale of the Tape
February 12, 1974
Height: 5’4 ½
Hailed From: Sheffield, Yorkshire, United Kingdom
Turned Professional: April 14, 1992 (KO2 Ricky Beard)
Record: 36-1, 31 KO
Record in Major Title Fights: 16-1, 14 KO (including lineal title fights)
Titles: WBO Featherweight (1995-2000, 15 Defenses); IBF Featherweight (1997, 2 Defenses); Lineal World Featherweight (1998-2001, 5 Defenses); WBC Featherweight (1999)
Current/Former Lineal World Champions Defeated: 1 (Wilfredo Vazquez TKO7)
Current/Former Lineal World Champions Faced in Defeat: 1 (Marco Antonio Barrera L12)
Current/Former Alphabet Titlists Defeated: 9 (Juan Polo Perez KO2; Steve Robinson TKO8; Manuel Medina RTD11; Tom Johnson TKO8; Kevin Kelley KO4; Wayne McCullough UD12; Paul Ingle TKO11; Cesar Soto UD12; Vuyani Bungu TKO4)
Turned professional as an 18-year old Jr. Bantamweight, Hamed won his first five—and 17 of his first 19—by knockout. Along the way, he picked up various smaller titles at Bantamweight and Jr. Featherweight. Making his first start at Featherweight, Hamed captured the WBO crown from Steve Robinson in September 1995 in front of a packed pro-Robinson crowd in Cardiff. Hamed would defend four times, all by knockout, before engaging in his first unification bout in February 1997. Matched with American Tom Johnson in London, Hamed won almost every round before stopping Johnson in eight to add the IBF title to his mantle.
Hamed defended his unified crown twice, both by knockout. The second of those aired in the US on broadcast network ABC. Vacating the IBF title, Hamed made two more knockout WBO defenses in 1997, including his US debut. He ended the year with five knockouts in five starts.
His first start of 1998 was supposed to be a unification fight with then-reigning WBA titlist Wilfredo Vazquez of Puerto Rico. Vazquez was forced to give up the title for pursuing the Hamed fight.
There was still history at hand.
Tracing to Eusebio Pedroza’s recognition by Ring Magazine as the genuine champion of the division after the death of Salvador Sanchez, Vazquez entered the ring in April 1998 the lineal Featherweight king. Hamed dropped him three times en route to a seventh round stoppage. Two defenses followed before Hamed sought unification again, defeating Mexico’s Cesar Soto for the WBC belt via decision in October 1999. Hamed would immediately vacate the WBC crown and defend the WBO belt two final times before opting to leave that belt behind as well. In his final defense of history’s World Featherweight crown, Hamed lost a decision to the great Marco Antonio Barrera.
Hamed would fight only once more. Despite years of various comeback rumors, Hamed never returned to the ring.
Among outside the ring honors, Hamed was named the:
• #46 Ring Magazine Top 100 Punchers of All Time: 2003
• #20 All Time Featherweight by BoxingScene: 2009
Hamed’s early competition was an assortment of the typical fare most young fighters face with Perez, a former Jr. Bantamweight titlist, his last obstacle before stepping up to the title ranks.
Robinson, his first title conquest, entered the fight with a mark of 21-9-1. It’s a mark some might dismiss without context. Robinson was hot coming into the Hamed fight. After a modest start, Robinson won eight in a row with the WBO belt on the line. Of those eight, three victories stand out: against recent Featherweight champions Paul Hodkinson (by knockout) and Colin McMillan (by decision), and former Bantamweight and Jr. Featherweight titlist Duke McKenzie (by knockout).
The other champions Hamed defeated in unification (or almost unification) contests had similar success prior to facing Hamed.
• Johnson was 44-2-2 and met Hamed riding a nineteen-fight winning streak. That included 11 IBF title defenses from 1993-97, notably defeating Manuel Medina to win and defend his title after narrowly losing a technical decision in their first title clash.
• Vazquez had won 22 of his previous 23, including eight in a row before Hamed. In those eight contests, he won and defended the WBA and lineal Featherweight crown 4 times. His lone loss from September 1990 to his April 1998 clash with Hamed was a narrow decision defeat to Antonio Cermeno for the WBA 122 lb. title. The Cermeno loss ended a nine-defense title reign that included a win over 2009 Hall of Fame entrant Orlando Canizales. Vazquez also had a reign as WBA Bantamweight titlist from 1987-88.
• Soto entered the Hamed bout, his first defense of the WBC belt, having won eleven in a row. In that streak, he upset former conqueror Luisito Espinosa for his title and also knocked out future 122 lb. titlist Agapito Sanchez. Hamed-Soto was an ugly affair at times, but was still a quality win over a rugged opponent.
Hamed’s additional competition in title fights featured several scalps worth noting.
• Medina had only won two of what would ultimately be five titles at Featherweight when Hamed went through him like few ever did.
• Jose Badillo had never been stopped and had lost only once, via majority decision in challenging Tom Johnson. Hamed cut him down in seven.
• Hamed’s memorable US debut, and arguably most famed win, came in a multiple knockdown affair with former titlist Kevin Kelley.
• The iron chinned McCullough, the first man to last the distance with Hamed in a title contest, was a former Bantamweight titlist.
• Ingle, undefeated when challenging Hamed, would defeat Medina for a Featherweight belt in his very next fight.
• Bungu, 37-2 entering the Hamed fight, had won eighteen in a row. Those eighteen wins included 13 defenses of the IBF 122 lb. title. He won his title from an undefeated Kennedy McKinney and would later defend against McKinney as well.
While he lost, Hamed also gets credit for facing a Barrera who had lost only once in his previous eleven starts. The lone loss in that run for Barrera was a hotly debated decision versus Erik Morales in their first of three encounters.
Competition Not Faced
As always, this section is concerned with critical fights that didn’t happen. The why is not important here.
In Hamed’s case, the focus will lie primarily at Featherweight. While he fought lower on the way up, the entirety of his title years happened at 126 lbs. Hamed came within a vacating of the WBA crown of winning every major Featherweight belt at least once during his run. As he vacated the IBF and WBC titles quickly after winning them, there were several titlists he didn’t’ face.
These are the men who held major Featherweight titles between Hamed’s win over Steve Robinson and loss to Barrera:
• Eloy Rojas (WBA, 1993-96)
• Tom Johnson (IBF, 1993-97)
• Manuel Medina (WBC, 1995; IBF, 1998-99)
• Luisito Espinosa (WBC, 1995-99)
• Wilfredo Vazquez (WBA, 1996-97)
• Hector Lizzaraga (IBF, 1997-98)
• Freddie Norwood (WBA, 1998; 1999-2000)
• Antonio Cermeno (WBA, 1998-99)
• Cesar Soto (WBC, 1999)
• Paul Ingle (IBF, 1999-2000)
• Derreck Gainer (WBA, 2000-03)
• Guty Espadas (WBC, 2000-01)
• Mbulelo Botile (IBF, 2000-01)
• Erik Morales (WBC, 2001-02)
• Istvan Kovacs (WBO, 2001)
Those he faced have been covered. Given the musical chairs evident in some of this title swapping, not every name Hamed didn’t face among contemporary titlists is notable. Some fighters reigned briefly or had their reigns end early in Hamed’s title years.
That doesn’t mean a few don’t stand out as significant misses.
Of all the misses, Espinosa might have been the most fun. Espinosa could crack but his chin didn’t always hold up. He defeated Medina for the WBC belt in 1995 and defended seven times before losing to Soto. Among those defenses were another win over Medina, a second round knockout of McKinney, an earlier win over Soto, and a knockout of former titlist Alejandro Gonzalez.
Norwood wasn’t always entertaining but he was highly skilled, narrowly defeating Juan Manuel Marquez in his second title reign. He would have been a serious test for Hamed and might have created some demand if not for a controversial knockout loss to Derreck Gainer.
And what of Marquez? Marquez was considered a miss when Hamed was fighting and his stature has only grown. He didn’t win titles in the division until Hamed was already finished but he was one of his top contenders for years. When people remember whom Hamed didn’t fight, Marquez is often the first name mentioned.
Morales moved to Featherweight right around the time Hamed was exiting the sport but was part of another element many will point to. While Hamed was dominating Featherweight, four pounds below him a round robin was taking place that stands as a golden era at Jr. Featherweight. Could he have faced more of those men? Does McKinney, Junior Jones, or Morales count as a miss given how close they were in weight?
It’s a point worthy of debate and not easily answered. A year after the loss to Barrera, Hamed returned for the serviceable Manuel Calvo in his final win. Could he have dared Morales instead at that time?
Reaction to Adversity
For all his flash, there was real substance to Hamed in the ring. When tested, he showed a fighter’s character. Hamed proved he could come off the floor to win. His Foreman-Lyle type affair with Kelley showed genuine grit and confidence. Fighting on Kelley’s turf in New York City, Hamed overcame three official knockdowns to score a one-punch stoppage in round four. Daniel Alicea dropped him in the first only to be destroyed in the second. Augie Sanchez had him in trouble only for Hamed to put him to sleep.
Hamed could be difficult to catch clean some nights but his defense was always a liability, built on reflex instead of fundamentals. He proved to have enough chin to avoid ever being stopped, his balance a bigger problem. Against Barrera, left with only his power to bail him out, he never quit and took his loss like a man, acknowledging that great fighters sometimes get beat by great fighters.
He promised a comeback but it never unfolded in a significant way. It’s a fair point of criticism. Finally faced with defeat, Hamed didn’t go back to the well and push himself back to the top. It would have been nice if he tried but it didn’t erase what came before.
What’s Left to Prove
This series typically looks at still active fighters considered very near the end of their careers. In Hamed’s case, his career is long over so the question isn’t what’s left.
The question is what did he prove?
In the Barrera loss, he found out his power and unorthodox approach could be tamed by a great fighter.
In his wins he proved capable of both steamrolling quality pros and fighting through the ones who could fight him back. That ability to overcome adversity was buoyed by his greatest attribute. Hamed’s power was no joke. Of the fourteen men he knocked out in title fights, he was the first man to knock out nine of them, including Robinson, Johnson, and Bungu.
While Medina had been stopped twice before, television commentators for their battle alluded to those coming on cuts. BoxRec confirms that being the case for one. Hamed dropped him three times and forced a retirement in the corner. The way Hamed went through Medina was impressive. So too was his one-punch knockout of Bungu.
Hamed walked through his share of average fare. He also walked through proven tough outs for an extended period of time.
Measured Against History
Everyone remembers Hamed.
Not everyone liked him.
It’s hard sometimes to separate the accomplishments of Hamed from antics that rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. Magic carpet rides, front flips into the ring, dancing, taunting…it made Hamed the sort of villain people will pay to see lose.
The people who did got their wish against Barrera and that loss has hovered over him in the years since. Those who didn’t like him in the first place shouted ‘fraud’ and his retirement soon after left no reply.
It’s past time to look at the whole picture. Hamed was no fraud.
Love or hate the antics, their value to the sport can still be measured today. It was great for business. Hamed-Barrera launched the best of the Jr. Featherweight golden era fully past Boxing After Dark into the pay-per-view stratosphere. Hamed was the first superstar of that era in those weights, the bridge figure that set the stage for the fantastic foursome of Barrera, Morales, Marquez, and Manny Pacquiao. Barrera beating him wasn’t just impressive because Hamed was despised.
It was impressive because Hamed was good.
In weighing who he fought versus who he didn’t, he comes out looking pretty good. It would have been nice if more of the Jr. Featherweights had moved up to chase him sooner, but they didn’t. He beat plenty of the fighters that beat the men he missed. Of the men who held titles that he didn’t face, Norwood and Espinosa would have been fun but defeating Johnson, Vazquez, Medina, and Soto compensates. Almost no one fights them all.
In the case of Marquez, Hamed ducking him has become as much myth as reality. Hamed was in no hurry to face him as a mandatory challenger. However, there was a perfectly reasonable offer made for the fight that ended up going to Augie Sanchez. It would have been a career high payday for Marquez at the time. Marquez has stated in the years since he didn’t feel there was enough time to prepare.
He fought eleven days after Hamed-Sanchez.
Given the history of Marquez (and trainer/manager Nacho Beristain) as a difficult negotiator, myth has to meet reality. The ball does not lie solely in Hamed’s court for that fight not happening. Marquez didn’t want to fight him with less than his best preparation. He knew how dangerous Hamed was.
In Featherweight history, his impressive run as a champion stands with some of the division’s best reigns. Using more contemporary dominant champions, he didn’t quite defeat the level of foe that a Pedroza or Sanchez did. He still faced much tougher competition than he gets credited for. He came within a stripping/vacancy of being the first man since the birth of the WBO to win all of the major sanctioning body titles in a consecutive title run.
He wasn’t one of the top ten Featherweights of all time. He fell short of the upper stratosphere of all time Featherweight greats. He can still be placed fairly in the division’s top 25.
That Hamed called it a career early isn’t unheard of. The great Vicente Saldivar shocked the boxing world by retiring as champion at the age of 24. Saldivar came back two years later and even briefly reclaimed his throne but he was never quite the same. Hamed going home to enjoy the fruits of his labors wasn’t a sin. Their prime runs were of similar duration.
In his time, it took a great fighter to beat Hamed. He didn’t slip up to less than that. Many might make the case that Morales or Marquez could also have defeated him. It might be true.
They were great fighters.
Hamed can be compared favorably to several fairly recent Hall of Fame entrants.
Virgil Hill partially unified at Light Heavyweight and beat several good fighters, amassing impressive title statistics and even adding a title at Cruiserweight. Hill lost to the great ones he faced in Thomas Hearns and Roy Jones and to the near-great Dariusz Michalczewski. His best wins versus Hamed’s would be a long debate. He went in on the first ballot.
Bantamweight titlist Orlando Canizales had a long reign as IBF titlist and had the most consecutive title defenses in the division’s history. He beat several good fighters but never unified. Like Hill, whether he beat better fighters than Hamed would be long debate. At 122 lbs., significantly stepping up his level of competition, Canizales lost to Junior Jones and Vazquez. Both were very good, but not quite great, fighters.
Kostya Tszyu unifed the Jr. Welterweight division and faced stiff competition for most of his career. His overall quality of opposition might have been better than Hamed’s, but not in an overwhelming fashion. In comparing the two, it’s worth noting it did not take a great fighter to beat Tszyu in the professional ranks. Stoppage losses to Vince Phillips and Ricky Hatton came in excellent contests, but it’s arguably a level of opposition Hamed simply didn’t lose to. Tsyzu went in on the first ballot.
Mark Johnson was, in his prime, perhaps the most feared Flyweight of the last thirty years. No one was in a hurry to face him as he won single belts at 112 and 115 lbs. However, being avoided isn’t the same as winning the big fights. Like Hamed, Johnson had a penchant for knocking out men who had never experienced that feeling before. Johnson never unified like Hamed did in either class. He didn’t get the chance, but it leaves Hamed the more accomplished. Johnson went in on the first ballot.
None of this is to say these men were unworthy. If that were the case, then there wouldn’t be much case to make. One doesn’t belong in the Hall of Fame because someone else who might not really merit induction is already there (insert several regular names used to make this case).
All the men named had valid cases for entry with careers that bear reasonable comparison to Hamed. Each had their unique accomplishments.
Hamed separates from them in terms of impact. He was comparable to them in terms of ring credentials. He was a far bigger star. Hamed was big time box office in two countries, putting butts in seats and eyeballs on the set in large numbers. He overwhelms them in terms of the “fame” component.
Add that component to a solid list of quality wins, impressive knockouts, and nearly six years as the top Featherweight in the world. Hamed accomplished more than enough, and was important enough to the game, to earn his rightful place.
Verdict on Naseem Hamed: Worthy of the Hall of Fame
Author’s Note: This is an occasional series that examines the most accomplished of modern fighters in seeking to establish how their careers stack up with history’s finest.
Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene, a founding member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, and a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at [email protected]