In a trip down fantasy lane, Adam Thorn reports from ringside at Madison Square Garden, on October 6 2001, Floyd Mayweather Jr vs Naseem Hamed
You never feel like you’ve washed New York off. Hemmed up with smog clinging to every part of you, tense and towered over yet enveloped in complete comfort. Never wanting to wash that beautiful dirt off. New York is a dichotomy, a sensational contrast where the new meets the old and towers above it, rewarding the brave. Almost always in the Big Apple, bolder, brasher, larger than life has meant success.
As the locals say, “Prince” Naseem Hamed has “bawls”. A unified world featherweight champion, the outrageous, ostentatious Yorkshire showboat has ditched his division to step up in weight and fight Michigan upstart, WBC super-featherweight champion, Floyd Mayweather Jr.
Imperious during fight week, Naz appeared however noticeably diminutive when face to face with “Pretty Boy” Floyd. Dismissing the “short notice” proposed Marco Antonio Barrera contest, Naz asserted, “I was offered fights, of course. I weren’t out of the ring for no reason, I was doing what’s best for Prince Naseem, and God tells me this is my destiny.”
Vacating a belt. Moving up a weight. Even with (theoretically) God micromanaging, it was a bold move for the man from Sheffield. The money was there though, so the fight makes sense; welcome to boxing. Hamed was giving away height, reach and ring weight, yet still repeatedly claimed residence at Madison Square Garden some years after his thrilling up-and-down win over Kevin Kelley. “Home in America,” Naz called it, but “Pretty Boy” didn’t care, firing back with a wicked four-lettered rant.
“They say I ain’t never fought there [MSG], it’s his home, I ain’t never beat a Brit, I ain’t seen nothing as fast as him. I ain’t, I ain’t. Fuck I ain’t! I’m an ‘I can, I have and I will’ man. Fuck I ain’t done this or that.”
Hamed’s showy entrance, not subject to any time constraints, was as weird and extravagant as ever. Snares ticked and synths teased, pumping the crowd; all looking at the door for the Prince. Pyrotechnics went off. Lasers. Smoke. All misdirection for when the man eventually descended to the ring on wires from above.
Dressed, loosely, as The Statue of Liberty; only with boxing gloves on (which were at least green), Hamed floated down to applause. Risky, dangerous, stupid, bizarre. Everything about the bout itself was dangerous for Prince Naseem anyway. Why stop at the matchmaking. If Naz’s antics surprised the champion he didn’t show it. Floyd’s smirk during his ring walk after Nas was pure confidence. Nothing faked, nothing showy, nothing but a belt. His belt.
When the first fist was thrown it was Hamed’s right hand coming from a stance somewhere between orthodox and wherever the hell Naz dwells. It missed, but he wasted no time setting the tone. Naz clung to Floyd like New York fumes. Floyd flicked it off, just dirt from his shoulder. Smog didn’t slow Pretty Boy, he slipped and slid a superb but surely sapping onslaught from the Brit; a man already fighting out of his skin. Throwing plenty. Missing mostly.
Punches, even missed ones, were irrelevant. Nobody in The Garden knew where they were yet, still suffocating on the experience like a drunk revisiting a kebab. I don’t know how I got here, but it tastes familiar.
Touching the canvas has always been the risk for Hamed’s style and his eagerness to impress and impose played into the three-year champion Mayweather’s hands. Hurt or not, if not a slip, leather to canvas is a count. Floyd knew this and allowed Naz to play into his hands when after two rounds his teasing opened up the perfect sucker punch to Hamed’s body.
Knuckles for knees, the whole of Sheffield inhaled with its hero.
Get up. Get up. Come on.
Naseem’s nose flared and for the first time his eyes flickered from entertainer to angry. He got up. Seething. Hamed went one hundred miles an hour at Mayweather. The champion was rattled, although somehow both aggressive and slippery, Floyd no longer found solace in his skill alone. Naz didn’t let up and the American looked out of ideas. It was now Naseem’s God versus Floyd’s belief. It only got nastier from there.
Rough tactics from both saw the middle rounds marred by one-upmanship. Leaning, wrestling. Eventually in the seventh the slick styles, fast fists, gelled and the screaming fans had a fight again. For all his elusiveness Floyd is a spiteful fighter, too. The man who was knocked down for the first time in his career this May in his unanimous win against Carlos Hernandez, went for it. Aggrieved by Hamed’s impunity, the champion rallied.
Bouncing, bobbing and looping the right hand, followed by a left when he could, the WBC super-featherweight title was going nowhere. A back-foot fighter who comes to fight, Floyd took control. Out of nothing but hate, a flurry from Floyd’s smaller opponent, Hamed suddenly had the American buzzed - dazed and confused. Covered in his own claret from the nose. It wasn’t a knockdown but the champ sagged and staggered some.
Naseem smelt the hurt. Then denied by the bell a few seconds later. Ding! Close, but no cigar.
Both hurt, but brave and willing, the ninth began. Mayweather seeping from the nose and Hamed too hurt to move properly. Blood and guts but neither willing to back up. Mayweather Jr seemed more refreshed and suddenly, out of nowhere, a hurtful upstairs-downstairs left hook had Prince Naseem on the floor gasping for air. Nas was too tired to see the shot. He went down on his side, this time, in agony. The fight was over. With all his will, the brave Sheffield and Yemeni man had, we’re told, broken a floating rib. The prodigal son was done, his admirable aspirations beaten from him by a bigger, slicker man.
An astonishing matchup of two unbeaten champions, two elusive executioners in a spectacle that will not be forgotten. Nine stanzas of pure excitement between fighters who clearly have lots more to give the sport of boxing. A credit to both men, Floyd Mayweather Jr beating Naseem Hamed is the kind of risk and reward boxing should aspire to present. Floyd remains the WBC super-featherweight champion of the world, but he was pushed hard. What a fight.