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Remembering Naz and the meaning of the razzmatazz

Prince Naseem Hamed's flair is not a trivial part of his legacy.

Phil Cole/Getty Images

Who do you know who could come out on a flying carpet?"

Those entrances were bombastic and ridiculous but they mattered. Much has been said about the mind games of leaving a frustrated opponent waiting for an age while the Prince strutted through a lengthy performance. It wasn’t, however, just a way of asserting power over his opponent but over the whole sport. Watching them, you saw a man determined to show that he could get away with more than anybody else. You also got a preview of the very particular way he was going to approach the sweet science once he somersaulted over those ropes. 

Boxing doesn’t leave much room for fun. The serious mood of the ring is dictated by its occupants’ realisation that they are potentially just a fraction of a second from abruptly losing consciousness. Plenty of fighters love the challenges of boxing while only being able to enjoy moments of their fights. In this sport where greatness is so often defined by endurance of suffering, Hamed almost always seemed to be having fun. In defiance of Joyce Carol Oates’ famous verdict, he absolutely did "play" boxing. With that smile came a breezy ease that made the sport seem like a game of his own creation. We admire the technicians who efficiently execute their carefully honed plans but the greatest compliment we reserve for awe-inspiring ability is to say that someone "makes it look easy." Brilliance with his swagger was brilliance magnified. 

Fighters and coaches sometimes like to emphasise quite how seriously they are taking the sport by reducing it to the language of an ordinary job and talking about how a victory is just "taking care of business". Hamed recognised that boxing was about more than that. He believed that his duty to entertain didn’t stop when he got off his flying carpet or golden palanquin. He didn’t just want to give his supporters the satisfaction of seeing their man win but the exhilaration of seeing the extraordinary. His antics in the ring often involved utter disrespect for his opponents and the etiquette of the sport yet they were rooted in a respect for the crowd. I hated watching his taunts but somehow always felt that they were more for the crowd than they were against his opponent. While commentators talked about how he was demeaning the sport, the crowd cheered harder. In the end, their loyalty lasted only as long as his flair did. When, clearly a faded force, he struggled to a workmanlike victory against Manuel Calvo in his final fight, the boos rained down.

"And now he’s going through the razzle-dazzle."

There was a slight weariness in Ian Darke’s voice as he said this during Hamed’s victory against Jose Badillo. It is easy to dismiss such "razzle-dazzle" as unnecessary frivolity that had nothing to do with the honest toil of winning fights. Watching Hamed, however, the distinction between fooling around and fighting always blurred. Sometimes he moved almost as if he was dancing; seconds later he’d be dancing. The gap between showmanship and sport narrowed to nothing. All this fooling was made deadly serious by the fact that it was backed up by serious power.  Imagine it from the perspective of an opponent. You see those feet break out into a taunting dance and you’re infuriated. Moments later those same feet are speeding into range to set up a string of power shots. You better hope that your concentration didn’t waver, that you weren’t mesmerised.

Reflections on his legacy can’t escape hard questions about potential unfulfilled or the way his out of the ring mistakes have tainted his name. But when I find myself drawn back to the videos of his best nights, I’m reminded that while some demand status through what they achieved, others sneak their way into our memories with how they did it.

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