Naseem Hamed: If he hadn’t retired when he did?

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Former featherweight king “Prince” Naseem Hamed celebrates his 44th birthday today. The super-powerful southpaw – long retired and long content to live a low-key existence, vastly overweight, in fact barely recognisable from his peak fighting days – by his own admission retired too soon.

It was that April day in 2001 that did it: Hamed was humbled, and clearly beaten (something devout Muslim Hamed perhaps never believed Allah would permit to happen) by Mexican warrior turned technician Marco Antonio Barrera. Hamed was not knocked out in Las Vegas (he was bounced around pretty good though, Barrera even lifting him clean off his feet during the exciting fight) but he was suitably embarrassed. And, aside from one dud of a 12-round win over a guy from Spain named Manuel Calvo a little over a year later, that was it. “The Prince” had exited the throne, with his majesty having no intention of returning.

Bad hands and the fact that long training camps robbed him of precious family time were forwarded as the reasons for Hamed’s early departure from the sport (he was just 28) but the critics point firmly at that Barrera drubbing as the real reason. Hamed, they say, had the wind, and the sheer self-belief he previously enjoyed, knocked out of him.

But what if Hamed hadn’t quit when he did? Suppose he didn’t suffer from bad hands (the way Floyd Mayweather Junior did, yet refused to prevent him from reaching 50-0) and suppose he wasn’t as comfortably wealthy as he still is today. Had Hamed, 36-1(31) carried on fighting – and there was, some time after the Calvo bout, talk of a HBO fight against Manchester’s Michael Brodie – there would have been no shortage of big fights for him.

There was that rematch clause Hamed could have exercised for the Barrera return, Hamed could certainly have boxed a rematch with Kevin Kelley (Kelley didn’t stop asking, for the longest time, for a second go at the man he lit up New York with in that December 1997 classic), and/or Hamed could have shot for true greatness by taking on either Juan Manuel Marquez (a Mexican warrior Hamed is said to have purposely swerved, only taking on Barrera after HBO put significant pressure on him to step up his quality of opposition), Erik Morales (“Is Hamed still fighting?” Morales replied when asked about his thoughts on a potential fight with the Brit, some time in 2002) or new terror Manny Pacquiao.

Hamed, as young as he was, could have boxed on for a further two or three years had he had the desire to do so. But while he might have be able to beat Brodie, a 29 or 30 year old Hamed would likely have struggled mightily against either Barrera in a return, or against Marquez or Morales. While it seems likely Hamed would have struggled mightily to see the final bell in a fight with Pacquiao.

Come to think of it, maybe Hamed was smart, smart, smart in retiring when he did – his money, his health intact.

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