Prince Naz invades the US: 20 years later

It’s been 20 years since Naseem Hamed invaded the USA and took the Mecca of Boxing by storm. From his magic carpet ride entrance and infamous flip into the ring. To his knockout slug-fest victory over native New Yorker Kevin “Flasing Flash” Kelly in what was perhaps both the fight of the year in 1997 as well as the Knockout of the year and event of the year.

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HBO, aired the bout on its World Championship Boxing program, having signed Hamed to an exclusive six fight, $12 million contract and another $1 million on a publicity campaign to promote Hamed prior to his fight with Kelley. The fight was additionally hyped the organic way, with lots of trash talk from both sides. The in ring action did not disappoint Hamed’s ring entrance is still talked about 20 years later, while Kelley the salty New Yorker built his anger in the ring.

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The capacity crowd at the Worlds Most Famous arena was split between Hamed supporters from both the UK and the US and fans of the local Kevin Kelley and boxing purists who were neither a fan of Hamed’s antics or his style. Hamed entered the fight with a perfect 28-0 record coming off perhaps his best performance a dominant knock out of Jose Badillo in Sheffield England. The Prince was also running with a 16 fight knockout streak that spanned over three and a half years. Kelley had lost the WBC featherweight title in early 1995 but had gone undefeated in 8 fights since and had picked up the lightly-regarded WBU title in February 1996. Kelley the consummate New Yorker, a hard working gym rat with a highly impressive resume entered as a live underdog, as many experts thought Hamed was biting off more than he could chew.

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The fight would become an action packed slug fest from the opening bell as each fighter would score three knockdowns. Hamed started the fight strongly landing more punches as Kelley tried to adopt to Hamed’s unorthodox style. Two minutes into the fight Hamed backed Kelley into the corner, Kelley caught Hamed with a huge looping right hook as Hamed was sent to the mat for the fight’s first knockdown. Hamed was quickly able to get back to his feet and escaped the round without any further damage. Kelley much more confident began round 2 as the aggressor and scored a second knockdown over Hamed after landing big left that dazed Hamed and made both gloves touch the canvas . After getting to his feet Hamed shook it off, as Kelley went for the finish swinging wildly as Hamed attempted to dodge and counter his punches. Kelley would continue to chase the Prince before the champ countered with a straight right hand that landed on the button and dropped Kelley for Hamed’s first knockdown of the fight. Kelly would also answer the standing 8 count and both fighters made it out of the round.The thirds started more cautiously, with Kelley trying to establish his stiff right jab and slow the pace down. Hamed picked up the action in the last minute of the round, probably evening up the round out with lead power shots and an upper cut on the inside that split the guard of the “Flushing Flash”. Warfare resume in the fourth round. Half way into the fourth the round Hamed landed two left hooks that sent Kelley down for the second time. Kelley got to his feet, Hamed continued to throw power punches landing a blistering right hand, as they continued to trade Kelley countered with a right hook causing a leaping Hamed’s right glove again to touch the canvas, giving Kelley his third knockdown of Hamed. More confident Kelley looked to regain his momentum as he drove Hamed back, but Hamed would land a blistering left that send Kelley down for the third time. Kelley was unable to beat the count and get to his feet as the referee reached the count of 10, giving Hamed the knockout victory at 2:27 of the fourth round. Upon Kelley being unable to beat the count, HBO commentator Larry Merchant exclaimed ” What we just saw was the Hagler-Hearns of featherweight fighting.”

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Kelley’s long time trained immediately tried to get Hamed to agree to a rematch. Asking Hamed “to do it again?” Both fighters recognized that a rematch was discussed but they just couldn’t get it off and agree to terms.As a little trivia The undercard featured Ricky Hatton in just his second pro bout. Hatton took a UD over Brooklyn native Robbie Alvarez.

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Hamed went onto international stardom with his outlandish personality and ring entrances as well as his fan friendly unorthodox knockout style. Hamed went on to defend his title successfully six more times against some high level opposition including, Wilfred Vazques, Wayne McCullough, Vuyani Bungu and others. His seventh fight defense was much differently being taken apart and losing a one sided decision to Mexican legend Marco Antonio Barrera. Hamed would fight just once more after his loss to Barrera a one sided unanimous decision over an outclassed Manuel Calvo. Prince Naseem looked slow and a bit out of shape and certainly in the decline. Hamed never fought again after this. At the age of just 28 Hamed hung them up for good.

Kelley’s star was never brighter despite the loss. Kelley and his fan friendly style continued to get big money fights against the best in the division including both Mexican icons, Erik Morales and Marco Antonio Barrera, as well as Smoke Gainer and scored an upset victory over Carlos Hernandez which momentarily rejuvenated the then 39 year old’s Kelley career. Kelley finally hung them up for good in 2009 at 42 years of age after suffering back to back losses to unknown David Rodella and being knocked out by Vicente Escobedo who went on to challenge for multiple world titles.

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