“I’m here training the greatest featherweight of all time.”
None other than Emanuel Steward spoke those words, three weeks before Prince Naseem Hamed faced Marco Antonio Barrera in the biggest little fight money could buy in 2001. Manny had just arrived at Hamed’s Palm Springs training camp when he made his declaration to a cameraman filming for British television. Steward was always a sucker for big punchers, so with that in mind perhaps we can turn a blind eye to a rather suspect statement which no doubt caused George Dixon, Jim Driscoll, Johnny Kilbane, Willie Pep, Sandy Saddler and several others to spin in their graves. But despite Steward’s high praise and spirits, what he encountered upon his arrival in Palm Springs represented a wake up call which both the legendary trainer and his champion could not ignore.
While Hamed had already been training for four weeks before Manny’s arrival, he’d spent most of that time trying to get rid of about 35 pounds of excess weight which hung stubbornly to his 5’ 4’’ frame. This helped explain his subpar performance in sparring that day, which left Steward annoyed and apologetic before the cameras. “Gotta do a lot more work!” was Steward’s cold retort when the journalist asked whether he liked what he saw in the ring.
Looking back, it may be hard to appreciate the massive media phenomenon Naseem Hamed had become. Steamrolling tepid opposition and upping the showmanship ante with each subsequent ring entrance, Hamed cultivated unparalleled popularity amid the lower weight classes, which helped him accrue over $40 million in purses before meeting Barrera. Thanks to a stoppage win over a faded Wilfredo Vasquez three years before, he was the lineal champion, boasting an undefeated record of 32 knockouts in 34 fights. The encounter with the “Baby-Faced Assassin” would net him an extra $8.5 million, an amazing sum for a featherweight, even in this day and age. To put things in perspective, Manny Pacquiao didn’t make even half that for any fight during his featherweight heyday.
Marco Antonio Barrera was also preparing in California for the fight, in the small city of Big Bear just a couple hours’ drive from Palm Springs. Marco was a far more accomplished boxer than anyone Hamed would ever face, not to mention more accomplished than Hamed himself. Nevertheless, the Mexican was a solid 3-to-1 underdog, and among the boxing intelligentsia his odds were considerably worse, as only two out of 30 “experts” polled on fight night would pick him to win. But none of this bothered Barrera, who, when asked whether he felt jealous of Hamed’s popularity, declared he was grateful for it. At $1.8 million, his cheque for this fight was easily the largest he’d ever cashed.
In retrospect, perhaps those who so confidently picked against the Mexican were guided by recent history and nothing else. Despite his highly unorthodox fighting style—his hands hanging by his waist, his punches wide and lunging, his legs always struggling awkwardly against gravity’s pull on his unbalanced upper body—Hamed harnessed punching power of the sort that left fans’ mouths agape and opponents lying flat on the canvas. Eight months previous, Naz had scored an impressively violent knockout over Augie Sanchez, who had to be carried away on a stretcher.
Barrera, on the other hand, was on the comeback trail after his grueling war with Erik Morales, which saw him drop a controversial split decision. In contrast to Hamed, and despite being the same age as the Brit, the 27-year-old Barrera was already a well-tested former champion with memorable battles against Kennedy McKinney, Jesse Benavides, Junior Jones and Morales under his belt. Additionally, in challenging Hamed for the featherweight championship, Marco was coming up in weight, a less-than-ideal circumstance for someone about to face a dangerous puncher. But with a punishing jab and a dynamite left hook to the body, the brave Barrera was unafraid to mix it up, possessing an uncanny awareness for when to press the action and when to wait and react to his opponent to unleash his offense.
The contrast in fighting styles was only part of the story. A sort of fable was being written, to which their championship bout would provide the ending. While Hamed’s luxurious lifestyle and extraordinary ego were well documented, there was a feeling that his success had arrived too soon, and perhaps too easily. The clash with Barrera would mark a long overdue step up in competition, and would become the ultimate litmus test of the champion’s true quality. Victory would serve as vindication of his God-given talent and go some way towards justifying his vanity. Defeat, on the other hand, would represent a major fall from grace, and perhaps even opprobrium from his fans who had swallowed whole the idea of Hamed as a once-in-a-lifetime talent, despite his lack of credentials and complete disregard of classic boxing technique.
In trying to find just the right opponent for Hamed’s crowning, Manny Steward had steered clear of another talented Mexican in Juan Manuel Marquez, whose counterpunching style Steward considered the perfect antidote to Hamed’s, and settled instead for Barrera, whom he perceived to be more of a brawler and thus a better target for Hamed’s explosive punches. Observers and odds-makers seemed to buy into this storyline, but what many failed to realize was that Hamed’s lack of focus in training and his overconfidence were colluding against him. In addition to his struggles to make weight, Hamed appeared less worried about “The Baby-Faced Assassin” than about looking good for the cameras, getting the best suite at the MGM Grand, and flying in his hairdresser in time for the fight.
To compound all this, instead of an over-the-hill Barrera, the version Hamed encountered at the MGM Grand was one ready to put on the performance of a lifetime. In preparing for Naz, the Mexican had a terrific camp, training with the ascetic focus and intensity of a Tibetan monk. “Hamed talks and talks about Allah, but Allah won’t help him when he’s in the ring,” a confident Barrera, unbothered by Hamed’s notions of predestination, told the press. Additionally, the Mexican went out of his way to emphasize his desire to go to war with Hamed, psyching the champion into thinking he could rely on his thunderous left hand to counter-punch the Mexican.
Thus, in retrospect, the stage was set for a major upset. After all, Hamed was not alone in believing his God-given talent would be more than enough to defeat Barrera. Thousands of British faithful congregated at the MGM Grand Garden Arena to see their hero go to battle, and the odds and experts also backed Naseem’s power over whatever Barrera had left in the tank. But if the Mexican took offense to the unflattering odds or the put-downs from the media, he didn’t show it. A serene Marco walked to the ring sporting a poker face which made it clear that going to war with a dangerous puncher stressed him about as much as a visit to the post office.
At the bell, the contrast of personalities was quickly evident. The first round saw the flashy Naz play to the crowd and grimace at Barrera as he head-hunted with his powerful left hand, ready to pounce as soon as Barrera attacked. But it soon became evident Marco was not going to bring the fight to Naseem. Instead, the challenger boxed cautiously: probing with a stiff jab, occasionally followed by a straight right, and landing some heavy counter left hooks that rocked Naz’s unsteady head when The Prince got off first. At the end of the round, to punctuate his dominance, the Mexican shot three fierce jabs in succession at Hamed’s head, an irreverent and unexpected move which made it clear that Naz was in for a long night.
In the second, Hamed turned up the rough tactics to try and assert himself, shoving and grabbing after he missed with left hands to deny the challenger a chance to counter. Barrera, always the proud warrior, refused to be bullied. With a little over a minute left in the stanza Hamed lunged forward and missed with a wild right, only for the Mexican to tackle him to the canvas and then pin him there as if saying, Enough of that!
By the middle rounds, both fighters were fully committed to their strategies. Hamed tried again and again to land his power-shots, but Barrera’s plan to circle away from Hamed’s left put him in a great spot to fire his own left hooks, which connected with authority on Hamed’s body and head. At this point it became evident Hamed had no plan B and, unless he got in the lucky shot that could turn things around, his one-dimensionality would be his undoing. On the other hand, despite his success, Barrera remained patient and refused to engage in a brawl, knowing this would give Naz the best chance to capitalize on his power.
In the second half of the fight Barrera pulled ahead on the scorecards, further exposing Hamed’s tactical weaknesses and lack of creativity. At the same time, the Brit’s inexperience and poor preparation disallowed him from competing against a top talent who—despite the incantations of the media–was not the least bit over the hill, not yet anyway. As thousands of Mexicans cheered his countryman on, the ticketholders who had travelled across the Atlantic—not to mention the “experts” who had picked against Barrera—wondered just what the hell was going on. Not only was Barrera winning the fight; he was putting on a boxing clinic against a dangerous puncher when every statement he had made before the match indicated he wanted to brawl. Barrera had completely re-written the script everyone had memorized, turning what was supposed to be Hamed’s coronation into a humiliation.
By round ten Manny Steward started begging Naz for a knockout, but by the time the bell rang for the twelfth Barrera was just three minutes away from a dominant win. Nevertheless, Hamed came out swinging in the final stanza, searching for the one big shot that could salvage the night and his undefeated record. Hamed’s reckless attack did not impress Barrera, however, who decided to put an end to Naz’s frenetic swinging by trapping Hamed in an arm-lock and pinning him face-first to a corner post, like a cop apprehending an insolent hoodlum.
Barrera lost a point for that move, but this would prove a mere footnote in what became one of Marco’s greatest performances and perhaps his biggest win. Or, perhaps Marco’s arm-locking of Hamed serves as a nice allegory of the contest: a visual representation of the domination of consummate professionalism and hard-won wisdom over Hamed’s unrefined ring gymnastics. In any case, it was now clear to all who was the superior fighter; all three scorecards declared Barrera the winner and new featherweight champion of the world.
Barrera had tested the phenomenon that was Hamed, and despite his mass following, millions of dollars in the bank, Manny Steward being in his corner, and a wicked punch, The Prince failed to come up with any answers on fight night. Barrera proved that in the face of a great challenge the best recipe is a focused approach and full dedication to the task at hand, as opposed to arrogance and self-entitlement. In boxing, true greatness can’t be manufactured, and it certainly isn’t God-given; on the contrary, it has to be earned through hard work and sacrifice. Barrera understood this truth; it’s hard to know whether Hamed ever did.
Steward would claim years later that Hamed’s overconfidence got in the way of his preparation for Barrera. “It’s a shame Hamed never fought Barrera again,” Steward said, believing the result would’ve been different in a rematch with a fully-focused Prince. However, despite Hamed’s declaration in the post-fight interview that he would exercise his rematch clause against the Mexican, Naz never did; he fought one more time before retiring for good. The Prince cited his brittle hands as the reason for hanging up the gloves, but instead of fragile bones one wonders if it wasn’t more a case of Naseem’s fragile confidence sustaining a blow from which it could never recover. The lights were never brighter, the stage never grander, and on that night Hamed was not only defeated; he was embarrassed. The fact he never took his shot at redemption only adds to the case against him as a truly great fighter.
As things turned out, the night of April 7, 2001 was not about Naseem Hamed, as so many had thought. Instead it was about the resurgence of Marco Antonio Barrera who, after his great upset win, embarked on a long run at the top, going on to earn millions in battles with Morales, Marquez, Johnny Tapia, Kevin Kelley and Manny Pacquiao. Barrera certainly made the most of his shot at glory, and by doing so changed our perception of his abilities. The Hamed fight marks a watershed in Barrera’s career, as he shifted from a brawling style to that of an efficient boxer. Showing patience and intelligence, but without abandoning his ferocity, Barrera took center stage on the theater of the unexpected and dismantled the wild and dangerous opponent favored to defeat him. Given the stakes involved and the surprising manner in which the match unfolded, it’s the sort of victory we’ll remember for a long, long time to come.