December 19, 1997 - Prince Naseem Hamed v Kevin Kelley.
past his best. It was to be Hamed’s ninth defense of the WBO title.1997 was a busy year for Hamed. He unified the IBF and WBO titles in February with a thrilling win over Tom "Boom Boom" Johnson and had made three subsequent defenses defeating Billy Hardy, Juan Cabrera and Jose Badillo. As soon as the match was announced the battle of words begun. Kelley, never shy in these situations gave as good as he got. It was also a battle of the southpaws. It was a crackling atmosphere in Madison Square Garden on the evening of the fight. It had been a good night for the Brits too as earlier on the bill, prospects Ricky Hatton and Danny Williams scored wins.
The bout was intended to be a double main event to Junior Jones v Kennedy McKinney’s WBO super bantamweight bout with Hamed being the first part of the joint doubleheader. However, such was the demand for Hamed’s American debut that Jones v McKinney was on first. In a thrilling fight, McKinney dethroned Jones in four rounds. It was now time for Hamed v Kelley. The bout commenced calmly in a battle of the southpaw jabs with both men probing for an opening trying to establish supremacy. Suddenly one minute before the end of the opener, Hamed backed Kelley to the corner and "The Flushing Flash" countered with a quick right to send the champion to the canvas.
In an amazing round two, Kelley got back to work and it was obvious that his right jab was causing Hamed problems. The champion’s balance was all over the place and early in the round, he was forced to take another count. It was obvious that he was being out-boxed. Hamed had one thing going for him though, "the equalizer". In the last half of round two, the champion fired a quick right hand over Kelley’s defense scoring a knockdown. Kelley smiled and acknowledged it.
Round three continued where they had left off. Hamed was now looking to get closer to Kelley as it was obvious he was getting picked off by the right jab if he stayed at distance. However, Kelley still had successes and his left hand was connecting too. Hamed looked to be finding the range in round four slipping more punches. A combination floored Kelley early in the round and it looked like the champion was finally establishing control. Kelley was not yet finished though as Hamed was down again and forced to take an eight count. He was not badly shaken though. Hamed’s "equalizer" was finally the deciding factor and as a hammer of a left hand connected and Kelley fell to the canvas again. This time the referee reached the count of ten in a breathtaking fight.
The American dream lived on for Hamed but interestingly enough this bout was a turning point in his career. Prince Naseem Hamed would only fight twice a year at the most and a year after the bout with Kelley he severed ties with promoter Frank Warren and trainer Brendan Ingle. Six defenses after the Kelley fight he would suffer his first professional defeat to Marco Antonio Barrera in 2001. After one comeback win against Manuel Calvo, he disappeared from the public spotlight although he has never officially announced his retirement. However, on that night in New York, Hamed proved he had the heart of a champion. Many boxing writers who have seen all the greats fight at The Garden still rate that night in 1997 as one of the most exciting nights they have experienced.