Inside The Vault #1: Hamed vs Kelley (December 1997)

‘Inside The Vault’ looks back at moments in history which shook the sporting landscape. In our first edition, Ronan Mullen marks the 18th anniversary of Prince Naseem Hamed’s American debut against the great Kevin Kelley.

‘If ego was a crime, the Prince would be on death row.’ remarked HBO’s Larry Merchant. The fact that the legendary announcer could never be accused of biting his tongue was something of a saving grace on this occasion. After all, the rest of his countrymen had been left lost for words.

Not since 1814’s Battle of Bladensburg had Americans witnessed such ostentatious advances from an Englishman. Back then, it was the Prince of Wales who led the charge, the British Empire ultimately seizing Washington D.C. in what was dubbed “the greatest disgrace ever dealt to American arms”.

Fast-forward to 1997 and, while the scale might have been slightly different, the intention was very much the same; Naseem Hamed had global domination on his mind.

Indeed, the 23-year-old was already well on his way by the time he first made the trip Stateside. Having been crowned European Champion while still in his teens, Hamed’s  career trajectory seemed to know no bounds.

His meteoric rise had begun in earnest, the Sheffield man’s ascent through both rankings and weight-classes a rapid one. Indeed, such was his dominance in that respect, by the time he eventually made a two-step to the featherweight division, the WBO had already installed him as their number one contender.

As he had with 18 of his 19 opponents to that point, Naz turned the lights out on Steve Robinson, ending the Welshman’s two-year-title reign with a concussive left-hook. The Prince finally had his crown.

Eight knockout defences would follow, Hamed adding the IBF strap to his collection with an obliteration of teak-tough titlist Tom Johnson in 1997.

Although the victory sent ripples across the Atlantic, it was nothing compared to the Yemeni tidal wave which would descend on New York City by year’s end.

Hamed’s American debut was eventually set for December 19th, the Big Apple’s famed Madison Square Garden a stage befitting boxing’s hottest commodity.

Hometown hero Kevin Kelley wasn’t there just to make up the numbers, however. The 30-year-old was an elite operator by any metric, his 50 professional fights to date had yielded two world titles and just one defeat.

And while ‘The Flash’ was not exactly shorn of chutzpah in his own right, Hamed’s antics in the build-up made even those of a young Cassius Clay look reserved.

In a year proliferated by damp squibs, fears abounded that the action in the ring could not possibly match that which had unfolded outside it; for boxing fans of the 90’s, forewarned meant forearmed.

As it turned out, they need not have worried. Hamed/Kelley would prove to be that decade’s answer to Hagler/Hearns.


Ronan Mullen