The Ring awarded the 1997 Fight of the Year to Arturo Gatti vs Gabriel Ruelas, but another epic showdown between Naseem Hamed and Kevin Kelley was deserving in its own right.
Both men were vying for supremacy at 126 lbs with Hamed’s WBO featherweight championship on the line.
Hamed came into the fight with a 28-0 record and the conceit to show for it. He entered the ring dancing, gloating, taking up ring space, and getting all in the face of Kelley, who owned a respectable 47-1-2 record for himself.
Kelley had previously been the WBC featherweight champion after winning the belt in a unanimous decision victory over Gregorio Vargas on Dec. 4, 1993.
A common saying is that the loudest man in the room is often the weakest man in the room, but that does not always apply in the world of boxing.
Hamed did everything he could to get in Kelley’s head in front of a massive Madison Square Garden crowd, but Kelley held his ground and did some barking of his own.
What transpired was for the ages. It’s not every day you hear about either fighter when talking about the pantheon greats, neither do we see reruns of the fight with regularity, but what Hamed and Kelley put on display is worthy of recognition to this day.
Both fighters were playing “ring around the rosie” in the center of the squared circle, letting off their right hands exclusively. Both southpaw fighters wasted no time getting to the nitty-gritty, with Hamed getting very low and Kelley showing off great agility. They were as spry and sharp as you’ll see.
Hamed landed an uppercut to Kelley’s body and was evading punches like Muhammad Ali. The first flurry of the bout came when Hamed got Kelley on the ropes. Kelley timed a perfect counter of a right cross that sent Hamed to the canvas in shocking fashion. Getting up quickly, Hamed went back to the jab but Kelley matched him in that department and took the round.
The second round became a jab affair once more. A straight right from Kelley tagged Hamed again. A vicious left hook sent Hamed spiraling and once he recovered, another left hook snapped his whole body back, scoring Kelley another knockdown. In unforeseen fashion, Hamed found himself in a terrible situation.
He did not let it weigh him down, though, as Hamed rose from the floor dancing. After taking a series of hooks that did discernible damage, Hamed let off a deceptive right hand that dropped Kelley and gave him a much needed boost. While both fighters secured a knockdown in the round, Kelley got the better of Hamed for much of the three minutes.
The third round was the only one that saw both fighters remain on their feet. Kelley was masterful with his jab, landing several times, while Hamed scored on right crosses and hooks as well as a right-to-left combo at the end of the round in an even affair.
As the fourth round ensued, both fighters threw wild and errant punches that put them at risk for major damage. They would also throw zealous, lunging shots that asked for counters. Kelley got the ball rolling with a thunderous overhand right, but he would pay for his risks as Hamed landed a short left cross followed by a more extended left cross that knocked him down.
Kelley came back with a right hand of his own that made Hamed’s glove touch the canvas, scoring another knockdown. Coming to a boiling point, a lightning quick short left hook ended the fight as Kelley could not recover.
Hamed would go 7-1 in his final eight fights. Though he lost by a unanimous decision to Marco Antonio Barrera in 2001, he would end his career at age 28, beating Manuel Calvo the following year.
As for Kelley, he would go 13-8 in his final 21 appearances, fighting into 2009, including losses to Barrera and Erik Morales, among others.