Long before Conor McGregor gave an amazing performance last year at Madison Square Garden, another brash and talented European battler asserted his dominance in a savage battle under the bright lights of the world’s most famous arena. In November of 2016 Conor violently dispatched lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez in two rounds, to become the first UFC fighter to hold two championship belts simultaneously. And he did it on the biggest stage possible as part of the UFC’s first foray into New York City.
While mixed martial arts is relatively new to New York, boxing of course has its roots firmly planted there. And one of the more memorable matches of recent decades involved another arrogant, fast-talking pugilist, a Brit, the one and only Prince Naseem Hamed. What makes Conor McGregor so popular now is that he never minces his words, is never afraid to stake his claim as the greatest fighter alive. Two decades ago Hamed was the same, always bragging about his supremacy, and never seeing a camera or microphone he didn’t like.
Hamed’s NYC takeover took place 20 years ago against Brooklyn’s own Kevin Kelley and in the ninth defense of his WBO featherweight title and the Prince’s New York debut was one to remember. Even before the bout began, Hamed’s extravagance was on full display, with his customary drawn-out ring entrance, featuring an illuminated catwalk and sparkling confetti. His patented front flip into the ring was not left out either. As far as ring entrances go, Hamed, in retrospect, makes McGregor’s look modest in comparison. And so with The Prince finally in the ring, the pageantry was over, but the real action and the serious thrills were yet to come.
The fireworks started early, with former champion Kelley scoring the first of many knockdowns just two minutes into this unforgettable brawl. After Hamed pressured Kelley to the ropes and unloaded a flurry, his lack of textbook technique got him in trouble. Backing up with his hands down and chin exposed, he was sent to the canvas by a sweeping right from the New York native. Although Hamed got up without appearing visibly hurt, he had definitely conceded the opening round, though that didn’t stop the Brit from boldly staring down his opponent at the bell. Similar to McGrgeor, Hamed was a master of mental warfare, with his efforts at intimidation as prevalent in the ring as outside of it.
Kelley’s success continued early in the second, when he performed a slick maneuver of switching stances to launch a lead left hook that landed clean and forced Hamed to touch his gloves to the canvas, marking another knockdown. Kelley sensed his opponent was hurt and decided to pursue aggressively, looking to land another damaging blow. But trading in the pocket with the always dangerous Hamed proved unwise, as the Prince countered Kelley with a hook that sent the American falling backwards into the corner.
Fortunately for “The Flushing Flash,” the ref ruled it a slip, allowing him to maintain his stranglehold on the round. But Kelley’s advantage would be short-lived as Hamed landed a straight right to the chin that felled his opponent. The intensity ratcheted up for the remainder of the round, with both fighters unloading big shots, seeking to land another convincing bomb to close the show.
The pace slowed in round three, with more calculated boxing and neither fighter establishing clear advantage, but it was a brief respite, as the furious action resumed in the fourth. About midway through the round, Hamed landed two big lefts, the second of which put Kelley on the seat of his trunks, evening up the knockdown tally at two apiece.
Hamed resumed his attack and was beginning to seize control, until he got caught by a counter right hook that again forced his glove to touch the canvas. It didn’t damage Hamed, but his opponent was credited with yet another knockdown. Kelley again decided to pursue the finish and landed a number of hard power punches, but it was this brawling instinct that would ultimately prove his demise as Hamed landed several hard counters, stopping Kelley in his tracks. Then came the finishing blow, a stiff left cross that put Kelley down for the count.
Of course we can all agree that Hamed’s MSG debut was not as dominant and one-sided as that of “Mystic Mac.” McGregor didn’t just beat Eddie Alvarez, he demolished and humiliated him, barely suffering a scratch in the process. Hamed, on the other hand, mightily struggled with his American opponent, having to rise from the canvas three times to pull out the victory.
However, what is also undeniable is the excitement created by both performances. With six knockdowns in total, Hamed vs Kelley featured countless momentum swings and plenty of drama. And, like McGregor’s huge New York City win, it confirmed that the brash and garrulous fighter from Europe was indeed a star stateside. Both men not only talked a big game, but they backed it up under the bright lights of the Garden, on the grandest of stages. Fitting enough for the grandest of champions.
— Jamie Rebner