‘Prince’ Naseem Hamed vs. Kevin Kelley at 25

“Life moves pretty fast,” said Ferris Bueller, and isn’t that the truth. I was reminded of that fact earlier this week when social media was filled with reminders that 25 years ago, on December 19, 1997, Prince Naseem Hamed made his United States debut at Madison Square Garden against Kevin Kelley.

A quarter century. That’s a lot of years. At the time, I was the father of a two-year-old (she now has two kids of her own), was working maintenance full-time, and trying to become a boxing writer, if only to distract myself from cleaning toilets.

Luckily, Stephen Gordon and Mike De Lisa took pity on the kid with the dustpan and broom and gave him a spot at the CyberBoxingZone.com, where through sheer dumb luck, I got a credential to cover my first fight at MSG that December night.

But first, Hamed. The British sensation was the talk of not just the boxing world, but New York City on fight week, and rightfully so, since he packed concussive power in his fists, the gift of gab, and a style that defied description. He was the next big thing heading into the Kelley fight, but I felt like I had a head start on everybody on this side of the pond thanks to that maintenance gig because one afternoon a few years earlier, as I clocked out and got ready to go home, one of the guys on the 4 to 12 shift came up to me with a gift. Wrapped in a brown paper bag, this gift was given to me by an older gentleman from Yemen who knew I was a boxing fan.

“Watch this,” was all he said, and when I went home that night, I popped the VHS tape in the machine and it was a collection of Hamed’s amateur fights. He had already turned pro at the time, but only the hardest of the hardcore in the States knew who he was. But now I know. And I paid close attention as he dominated the British scene, won the WBO title and started making his name internationally. So when it was announced that he was going to debut in the US against “The Flushing Flash” himself, I had to be there.

Eric Gelfand of MSG, who I will never forget, agreed, and for the first fight I went to in person, I was seated in the seventh row at ringside. I thought, wow, it’s going to be like this every time. It wasn’t, as the next fight I covered, Angel Manfredy-Arturo Gatti, I was up so high in the auxiliary press section that I didn’t know Gatti was cut in the fight.

But I digress.

AJ Liebling once wrote that doing a fight report is like writing a letter to a friend. I like that analogy, and I don’t think I’ll ever hit those right notes on a deadline piece, we can all continue to dream. But I wasn’t thinking of Liebling that night; I was just taking it all in, pad and pen in hand.

Of course, on your first night you better be on time and there for the first fight, and I was, scribbling down everything I saw from the time I took my seat at 6:20pm.

Press row is next to empty, save for a few diehards (ie – me). The first fight, an eight-round heavyweight bout between London’s undefeated (11-0) Danny Williams, and Washington’s Derek Amos gets underway. The arena itself is empty as the bell rings. It amazes me the amount of people it takes to get a bigtime card like this off the ground: promoters, electricians, broadcast crews, etc. And all these workers are frantically doing their jobs, in spite of the action going on in the ring. In the squared circle, Williams (who will always hold a special place in my boxing heart for being the first fighter I saw live) methodically cuts down Amos and scores a fourth round TKO.

Williams would go on to become a decent heavyweight contender who is best remembered for knocking out Mike Tyson in four rounds in 2004. In his next fight he got halted by Vitali Klitschko in a WBC title fight, but he kept fighting…and fighting…and fighting. Sadly, he’s still competing, most recently losing a decision to Nelson Hysa last month at the age of 49.

6:30pm – The HBO broadcast crew arrives. A few feet away from me are Jim Lampley, Larry Merchant, and Harold Lederman. No sign of Big George yet.

Soon, a young man with a 1-0 record named Richard Hatton was in the ring against Brooklyn’s Robert Alvarez. You may know the Brit from Manchester as Ricky Hatton, and the future world champion won a competitive decision over the hometown kid.

With the arena empty, you can hear the punches landing. You don’t get this type of action while watching at home.

Oh no, you don’t.

6:50pm – Big George Foreman arrives along with his brother. Some of the boxing writers have arrived (Steve Farhood, Herbert Goldman, Thomas Hauser) and some shout at George that “You won the fight”, referring to Foreman’s controversial points loss to Shannon Briggs. George smiles and points to the writers in acknowledgment.

Fight #3. Junior featherweights. Joan Guzman, a member of the 1996 Dominican Republic’s Olympic team, goes for his second win against the Bronx’ Henry Bowden, who was making his pro debut. Guzman, who has Merqui Sosa in his corner, is straight out of the Rodman / Hamed school of sportsmanship, complete with blond hair. There’s got to be a villain on every card, and he’s it. The crowd has started to file in, and Guzman is the recipient of some boos. But Guzman ignores this, and scores a kayo at 2:51 of the second. Meanwhile, the HBO team is practicing their monologues for their broadcast, now less than two hours away.

Another future world champion on a stacked Frank Warren card that gave the paying folks their money’s worth, for sure. For those complaining about the lack of depth on shows these days, this lineup shows what it used to be like. And don’t get me started on a Don King card that might have started at 3pm, had two flyweight title fights, a matchup between heavyweight contenders, a couple of local favorites and a “special attraction” before the pay-per-view card started. Ah, the good ol’ days.

7:20pm Promoter Frank Warren, England’s answer to Don King, makes his appearance and schmoozes around the ringside area. Warren has to be happy with the ticket sales for this fight, Naseem Hamed’s debut in America. Vendors are selling champagne at ringside, this must be the big time.

7:30pm – Eight rounds. Junior Middleweights. Jason Papillon scores a second round TKO over an overmatched “Honeyboy” Smith.

7:44pm – Some more press heavyweights stroll in (Nigel Collins, Wally Matthews, Ron Borges), and Teddy Atlas makes an appearance. In the ring, undefeated (21-0) Michael Clark wins an impressive first round TKO over Jersey’s Roberto Nunez.

The final preliminary, a snoozer between undefeated Charles Shufford and Brooklyn’s Felton Hamilton. Hamilton wins, but gets jobbed by the decision. But no one really cares now, as it’s getting close to showtime. The luminaries are piling in now, Larry Donald, David Reid, Buddy McGirt, Murad Muhammad, Art Mercante Jr. One guy offered to buy my pen for a $1, but I politely refused (maybe if he went for $3, the price of a 20oz bottle of Coke, I may have gone for it). It’s nice to see kids mobbing these guys for autographs. I’m just happy that they even know who they are.

At 9pm, the HBO card begins, and what a co-main event it was, as Kennedy McKinney faced off with local hero Junior Jones. With the hype behind the main event, and Hamed-Kelley living up to that hype, a lot of people forget how good McKinney-Jones was for the nearly four rounds it lasted.

When ringside, it is easier to tell when a fighter is hurt, either by the sweat flying or by the look on the fighter’s face. Mc Kinney got rocked many times during this fight, and the haggard look on his face made me feel that he had seen too many wars. But all can change with one punch, and one punch took out Junior Jones in the fourth round. It was sudden, and exciting. As the fight was stopped, a cup of liquid went sailing towards the ring, with the perpetrator quickly apprehended and taken out. Things might get hot here. Jones’ legs were still wobbly as he left the ring, and the look on his friend (NBA star Jayson) Williams’ face told the story of the fight.

If the show ended there, who could complain, but there was still a main event featuring the 23-year-old kid from that grainy VHS videotape against a local favorite and former world champion who many believed had seen better days, despite bringing an eight – fight unbeaten streak into the Garden ring. Remember, there was a lot of money riding on Hamed becoming a superstar, so pundits and fans expected a showcase, not an overly competitive fight. And the fans wanted to show to go along with it. Well, they soon got what they asked for.

9:43pm – The Naseem chant begins, followed by equally fervent chants of Kel-ley, Kel-ley. The ringside luminaries are introduced: Spike Lee, Rosie Perez, Hugh Grant, Liam Neeson, Kid Gavilan, Pierce Brosnan, Pernell Whitaker, Daniel Day-Lewis, and Red Holzman are all at ringside. This is an event!!! Kevin Kelley arrives first at 9:55pm and he is pumped for the fight. This will be no walkover for the Prince. A minute later, the song “Men in Black” starts pumping from the Garden sound system.

The Prince starts dancing behind a white screen, giving off a silhouette type effect. The crowd goes wild, people are dancing and smiling. The US has never seen anything like Naz’ entrance. A Mike Tyson he is not. Eight minutes later, Naz makes his way towards the ring, with confetti streaming into the air. Kelley is up on the ropes, waving for the Prince to get into the ring. This is Kelley’s house.

I believe I counted nine minutes between Kelley stepping between the ropes and Hamed doing the same thing. Winner of round one? Hamed. But there was still a fight to be fought, and Kelley showed up to do just that, as evidenced by a quick knockdown of Hamed in the first frame.

When Naz tastes the canvas in the first, his head snaps back violently, and the crowd senses an early finish. Naz rises, but he continues to get rocked. The Naseem chants have silenced, while the Kelley chants engulf the arena. I have never seen so many smiling faces as these guys go at it. While it is definitely the best fight I have seen live, it may also be one of the best I’ve seen, period.

I’ve been prone to hyperbole before, during and after Hamed-Kelley. I actually wrote that the Felix Trinidad-Ricardo Mayorga fight was “the Latino Hagler-Hearns.” It wasn’t. But 25 years later, and upon another viewing this morning, my opinion stands. As you all know, Hamed got off the deck, visited it twice more while sending Kelley down three times. In this scrap, last knockdown wins, and it was Hamed finishing matters at 2:27 of the fourth round.

I would have loved to see it again, but Hamed was off to bigger and better things and Kelley went 13-8 before retiring after a 2009 loss to Vicente Escobedo. Some would say Hamed never reached those heights again, even though he went 7-1 over his final eight bouts. And maybe he didn’t, but to have one night like that is more than most can claim. That’s worth something.

They say you never forget your first, and this is most certainly true in this case. Twenty-five years? That’s a lot of words, a lot of fights and a lot of memories. Hamed-Kelley at MSG was one of my favorites. Thank you, gentlemen.

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