Friday, 12 June 2015

Naseem Hamed and the unfailing sense of being young

It was with a shudder that I realised today, as his induction – at last – into the International Boxing Hall of Fame approaches this weekend - that Naseem Hamed, the eternal enfant terrible of British boxing, is now man in his forties, complete with substantial paunch and double chin.

This realisation made me feel like crying – for my own lost youth, as much as for his, for the inexorable march of time and the inevitable decay of everything that was once beautiful and thrilling into something far more mundane and middle-aged.

There was always something so youthful about Hamed in his pomp – perhaps it was the inherent cheekiness in his eyes and his cocksure smile, or perhaps it was the hyperbolic absurdity of his outrageous post-fight pronouncements, but his persona reeked of a preening youngster, a strutting peacock of the playground.

“I’m just too good!”

“Boom! He didn’t want no more after that!”

I might be paraphrasing or mis-remembering, but I think it was Steve Bunce who once said that watching Hamed was a joy precisely because of the “youthful feeling of chaos” he brought to the ring. It’s an image that perfectly captures Hamed’s unique genius – for throughout his career he managed, sometimes within the same fight or even within the same round, to look both graceful and graceless, technically brilliant and technically deficient, and unbeatable as well as terminally vulnerable.

Of course, when we’re young, we think we’re indestructible and can conquer the world, and Hamed was no different. As early as his debut professional fight the Prince was declaring in the programme notes that he as “as good as Ali”. It was this confidence and ambition that secured for Hamed the rapt attention of the younger generation, and the opprobrium of stick-in-the mud oldsters.

My school friends and I were obsessed with Hamed from his first appearance on ITV onwards. When it was finally time for his coronation as 'world champion' we gathered at Chris Watkinson's flat in Crystal Palace (he was the only one of our group of friends who had SKY TV) to watch the Prince's destruction of Steve Robinson. As a collective we savoured every punch, every piece of showboating and every ridiculous wiggle of Hamed's leopardskin-tassled rump. When the fight ended we swallowed Hamed's rhetoric hook, line and sinker and were convinced we had just seen the greatest fighter who ever lived, or would ever live.

Having borrowed Chris' recording of the fight I made my mum watch it back with me the next day. “You’ve got to watch this!” I told her. “This Prince Naseem is amazing!”

As the fight unfolded my mum’s expression oscillated between bemusement and disgust. “What are you talking about?” she said. “He’s vile!”

My mum may have rejected Hamed pretty quickly, but I never did. Along with millions of other youngsters I followed his rollercoaster career, with its intoxicating highs – the destruction of longstanding feather king Tom Johnson, the breathtaking seesaw battle with Kevin Kelley – and occasional lows – the McCullough promotion debacle, complete with a ring entrance that was alarmingly crass even by Hamed’s standards, and the body-slam of Cesar Soto – until the ignominious finale against Marco Antonio Barrera and the relaunch that never was versus Manuel Calvo.

In the end, perhaps, Hamed should be seen as boxing’s Prometheus. An ambitious over-reacher who flew too close to the sun and came crashing to earth. But while he was flying, what a ride it was.

I remain convinced that Hamed was the greatest British talent to ever lace up a pair of gloves, which is why, simultaneously, his surreal career can also be viewed as a huge waste of talent. More charitably, perhaps, I should savour those 31 stunning knockouts, the several years Hamed spent as the world’s number one featherweight, and the fact that, even now, whenever I watch one of his fights on youtube what poet Philip Larkin once called “the unfailing sense of being young” overcomes my own middle-aged and paunchy frame.

BoxRec ranks Hamed as the 14th greatest featherweight of all time. Traditionalists might scoff at that, but to me, when he was at his best, that feels about right. Hamed's supernatural punch power and the defensive elusiveness that he abandoned later in his career would have given any feather who ever walked the face of the earth problems. In the end though, does it really matter where he ranks? The stack of thrilling memories Hamed has left us with us more than satisfy me, and I suspect the Prince feels much the same. 

Ever the maverick, Naz won’t be at Canastota this weekend for his induction – a family medical issue having kept him away.

He’s confidently declared he will take to the stage next year and upstage the 2016 inductees, but part of me wants him to remain in the shadows forever – as he has largely done ever since a retirement that was never formally announced.

In the shadows, I can’t see his wrinkles or his paunch, you see, and I can kid myself that maybe there are still more knockouts to come.