Naseem Hamed charged $39.95 to watch him get beat up by Marco Antonio Barrera, and it was worth every penny. Not that this was the Fight of the Year... it certainly wasn't. Many of the middle rounds lulled as both fighters looked at each other for long stretches. But it was worth it to see Naseem Hamed's cocky grin eat clean punch after clean punch. It was worth it to see Hamed's unorthodox style solved by a patient, accurate counter-puncher. It was worth it to see Hamed finally pay severely for leaving his hands down and his chin up. And it was absolutely worth every cent to see Marco Antonio Barrera finally make the jump to superstardom that has eluded him for years.
The most lucrative fight in featherweight history took a long time to get started. After Omar Sheika demolished Stephan Ouellet in less than two full rounds, which capped off a complete undercard of short fights, there was plenty of time to kill before the 8:00 Las Vegas start time. Back in the dressing room, Marco Antonio Barrera stood ready to enter the ring. Across the hall, the Prince was having one of his hands completely re-wrapped. As Barrera continued his warm-up, Hamed put on his new gloves, had them taped, hit the pads a bit, then determined that the fit still wasn't right. The glove was cut off, yet more gauze was added to his thumb, and another glove was taped on. A cold Hamed requested and received time to warm-up again. For another 10 minutes he hit the pads with co-trainer Oscar Suarez.
By this point, Barrera had long been in his robe, with his entourage assembled, waiting and waiting for a sign to enter the ring. All told, it took nearly 30 minutes. Near the end of the wait, Barrera cracked a wide grin and began laughing. The former "Baby Faced Assassin," who had earned a reputation for not altering his visage even in victory, was uncharacteristically relaxed. Finally, he made his way to the ring, and patiently waited while a barrage of fireworks and glowing Arabic messages announced Hamed's entrance. At one point, Barrera was joined in the ring by Johnny Tapia. Tapia hugged Barrera, proving that no hard feelings remain from when Tapia knocked out Barrera's younger brother, Jorge, in their 1997 bout.
For awhile, Hamed half-heartedly danced to some music while the sparks flew... and then he mounted a small metal circle which hoisted him above the crowd and lowered him from a his light-show riser to the aisle on the floor. Just before he touched down, a member of the crowd nailed him with a full cup of beer. Hamed was incensed... but he asked for it. Moving slowly up to the ring apron, Hamed prepared for his customary flip, then suddenly ducked through the ropes to begin the introductions. He may later question whether this jinxed his evening.
The capacity crowd had been forced to wait, and they were anxious for some action. They got some. After one minute of each fighter jabbing and missing, Hamed missed with a left, found himself squared-up with his chin in the air, and got tagged with a gigantic Barrera left hook at center ring. The punch swiveled Hamed's head and he floated back a few steps on rubber legs. The crowd erupted when this punch landed, but it was nothing compared to the sound of the arena when Barrera followed up 10 seconds later with a right to the body and a left hook upstairs that also caught Hamed flush. The cheers were deafening. Hamed was not in trouble, but he had been stunned. Barrera chased after him, landing two hard jabs on a retreating Prince. Even these blows turned the Prince's head, and the fight was on.
Barrera wisely pulled back at this point, rather than rush in to finish a la Kevin Kelley. Marco kept his stance tight, gloves high and elbows pinned to the body. Hamed continued using a wide stance and bought some time. Hamed swung back at Barrera after a minute of regrouping, and twice the men exchanged left hooks simultaneously. Hamed momentarily switched to a conventional stance, but was forced to switch right back after Barrera stuffed a left hook into the center of his stomach. Hamed may have cleared his head, but he was still eating punches... including three more head-snapping jabs from Barrera just before the bell ended the opening round. 10-9 Barrera.
The fight was now on, and Hamed upped his output to begin the second round. Loading up with one punch at a time, Hamed wildly missed a few haymakers, including a big left that sent him flying into a sloppy clinch with Barrera. As Joe Cortez sought to break them, the two fighters wrestled. Within a moment, their legs tangled and as they fell to the canvas Hamed cinch the arm that had wrapped behind Barrera's head and pulled him down with him. Both men landed hard, but Hamed wouldn't let go of Barrera's head. He held him in a headlock on the canvas while Barrera strained to stand up. Eventually Hamed let go, but Barrera was incensed. But he would get his revenge for this maneuver in the 12th round.
As the fight continued, Barrera kept his composure and continued to tag Hamed upside the head. Every time Hamed ducked under a Barrera right hand, and even when Hamed would miss and correctly wind up crouching low, Barrera nailed him with two clean shots. It was clear that Barrera had spent a lot of time in the gym on the double end bag, because he caught Hamed's swiftly moving head flush each time he tried to bob out of harm's way. Barrera followed up these mini-combos with a nice straight right hand that snapped Hamed's head as well. A few more hooks from Barrera put him in firm control of another round and even started a mouse under Hamed's right eye. For his part, Naseem could do little more than smile after eating each set of fists. His only significant punch of the round was a crisp left uppercut that caught Barrera on the forehead near the end of the round.
Barrera was having good success with Hamed, and as such Hamed began giving him fewer chances to counter. But as the fight slowed considerably in the third, the distinct impression was that the slower fight benefited Hamed's single-punch strategy. For most of the third Hamed followed Barrera around, jabbing just enough to bloody Barrera's nose. Naz had failed to land a good clean shot, but even his misses and glancing shots revealed the power he was hurling. Hamed could even be seen peeking down to the canvas, judging how close his feet were getting to Barrera's. And while he had shortened the distance, he couldn't find the opening to launch the one-punch kayo shot he was looking for.
While Hamed took the third while Barrera exercised caution, he quickly gave up the fourth to his Mexican challenger. Barrera fought a textbook conservative style, and ended every attempt with a left hook. Most of these left hooks caught part of Hamed's head, and a few of them so severely swiveled Hamed's noggin that the crowd gasped before cheering. Strangely, Hamed spent most of the round smiling and laughing, especially after Barrera would wow the audience with a big crunching hook to the head. Perhaps Hamed felt that these big exchanges would yield a chance to land his weapons, yet he hardly threw any punches.
Hamed's inactivity nearly brought the fight to a halt as Barrera waited and waited for a chance to counter. The fifth round was a real snoozer. Barrera would occasionally flick out a jab, and Hamed would occasionally miss with a telegraphed wild left hand. The fifth was such an uneventful round that Hamed was able to win it solely on the blistering straight left and follow-up right hook that he landed flush on Marco Antonio in the closing seconds of the round. But Barrera had now tasted Hamed's best shots, and he didn't seem fazed in the least.
Although Hamed's shots didn't wobble Barrera, they earned his respect. Barrera never felt compelled to bull rush Hamed as he had other opponents. Instead, he showed excellent discipline by sticking to his game plan and making minor adjustments along the way. One such adjustment was shown at the start of the sixth. Hamed came out quickly in this middle round, and for the first time Barrera's footwork had him in retreat. Hamed gladly gave chase, throwing a few sloppy bombs that missed as he came towards Barrera. After a few such attacks, Barrera again moved back. This time when Hamed came in, Barrera quickly planted his feet and nailed Hamed with a beautiful straight right hand down the pike. Hamed ate the punch flush and was stopped in his tracks. Barrera opened up a bit, following with some crisp body shots and yet another combination ending in a flush left hook that yet again tilted Hamed's head.
Simply put, Barrera was in full control. Even when Hamed tried to bully him, Barrera had an answer. With seconds to go in the sixth, Hamed hooked Barrera just as Cortez was calling for a break. Barrera immediately fired back and landed an even better hook in return. Cortez deemed the move tit-for-tat and didn't warn either fighter. But Barrera's normally stoic face had wrinkled in anger, and he looked incensed at Hamed as he returned to his corner up two points on the Boxing Chronicle scorecard.
Although Barrera was winning the fight, Hamed was not yet folding under the pressure. Unable to make his own adjustments, he was stuck throwing one punch at a time... and even then not very often. Nonetheless, this strategy was enough to win him the seventh round, as Hamed and Barrera exchanged in short bursts. Hamed would land a crisp left, and Barrera would answer with one of his own. Hamed actually dug a nice shot to the body, and again MAB retaliated in kind. But Hamed's punches were heavier, louder, and thrown with more velocity... and it made the difference in the scoring of this round. Hamed also temporarily rediscovered his jab. And while he only lifted it up from his waist occasionally, it was enough to set up an extremely heavy straight left at the end of the round, a punch which may have been Hamed's best of the night.
As the fight wore into the eighth round, it actually began to heat up. While the chess match had played out with only occasional bursts of action, the race to the finish line truly began in this round. In his corner, Naseem Hamed was being told in no uncertain terms that he was losing the fight. Co-trainer Emanuel Steward bore the brutally honest news as he begged Hamed to keep his chin tucked. Steward reasoned that Hamed's swiveling chin made Barrera's punches seem more telling, even though Hamed had begun to land some awkward heavy shots of his own. Hamed never tucked his chin, but he did start the eighth with his most aggressive attack of the fight.
Hamed came at Barrera and quickly landed three successive straight left hands. Finally Hamed was taking full advantage of his southpaw stance, and he punctuated his effort with a dipping right hook to the body. Barrera answered with a right and left of his own to the body, two of many shots that pounded into Hamed's midsection this night. In a brilliant move, Barrera again began his retreat. As Hamed looked to parlay this sequence, he again chased Barrera without caution. But when Barrera's back hit the ropes, he stepped forward into a chopping right hand and caught Hamed right on the mouth. The punch wobbled Hamed in place, and he grabbed the top rope as he cleared his head. Hamed suddenly grew passive, and hardly threw another punch for the rest of the round. Barrera cautiously hit him with a few one-twos, and ended the round with yet another big left hook just before the bell.
Hamed's face was now a mess. He looked much like Erik Morales did in his fight with Barrera. Dark circles shaded the puffiness on each of Hamed's cheeks. His nose trickled blood on and off, and his eyes looked dark and cloudy. And he kept getting hit. Barrera was now brilliantly outboxing Hamed at every turn. Occasionally Hamed would lead, and Barrera would counter with a right hand and left hook that landed. Sometimes Barrera would lead, but even when Hamed successfully countered, Barrera would answer with a hook of his own. Over and over, Barrera had an effective answer for everything Hamed threw... and he always landed last.
Round nine was shaping up to be an easy Barrera round, but he removed all doubt with an explosion of offense in the final minute. One of Barrera's big left hooks caught Hamed leaning back, again with his chin dangling out in the open. The punch lifted Hamed off of the canvas and his body was momentarily shaped like a boomerang as hovered over the canvas from the blow. Marco followed up with two more crowd pleasing hooks, and all Hamed could do was smile through a wide open mouth. We're still not sure what he found to be so funny.
Round ten continued the Barrera boxing clinch. The biggest punch of the night landed about 45 seconds into this round, as Barrera again countered a Hamed miss with a hook. As Hamed stood squared up and defenseless in front of his opponent, his chin went left and his forehead went right while his neck flew straight back. Hamed's head was so severely snapped by this punch that no one would have been surprised if he had slumped to the canvas with a broken neck. Say what you will about Naseem Hamed, but he has an incredible granite chin. Barrera not only hit him with major league punches, but hit him again and again while he was drastically off balance and with his chin fully exposed. It's a miracle that some of these punches didn't put Hamed out for the count.
Hamed tried to answer Barrera's dramatic hook, and for the first time the two men's exchanges began lasting beyond compact short combinations. But even as Hamed came forward and landed punches, Barrera never failed to answer with shots of his own. But after losing the first half of the round, Hamed kept it incredibly close by finishing up with a series of heavy punches. While each and every Barrera punch drew screams of excitement and horror from the crowd, Hamed unspectacularly landed some thudding blows on Barrera in this round. Hamed was winging short hooks from his waist, and Barrera absorbed them well enough to prevent Hamed's rally looking more effective than it was. Still, Hamed was in the fight, still trying to land the one shot that could turn it around... and he just barely earned this incredibly close round on our scorecard.
But if the tenth gave hope for a potential Hamed rally, the door was slammed shut on his hopes when Barrera won every second of the eleventh round. Before this championship round began, Emanuel Steward was still telling Naz that he was behind and needed a kayo. Trying to fulfill the request, Hamed began the round throwing exaggerated roundhouses that missed Barrera by a mile. But after every wild Hamed miss, Barrera would back him up with a flush jab, a flush right and another head wagging hook. Time and again Hamed was pushed back three steps, one with each blow. This pace continued for the duration of this one-sided round.
Back in the corner before the 12th round, Hamed looked finished. He looked tired, worn out from Barrera's body attack, frustrated from his inability to avoid Barrera's counters, and his face was a mosaic of bumps, bruises, swelling and discoloration. Hamed would need a knockout to keep his record unblemished. It did not come.
Barrera lived up to his claims that he would fight all 12 rounds. He started the final round coming right at Hamed, hitting him with two clean punches before falling into a clinch and landing two more good body shots as Cortez tried to separate them. Hamed was swinging for the fences, and looked ridiculous as he swung huge hooks that missed and then spun his body with the follow-through. At one point, Hamed spun around after such a miss and Barrera grabbed his body to start a clinch. But realizing the position he had the Prince in, Barrera lifted his arms so that he now held Hamed in a full-nelson and them slammed him face first into the turnbuckle. It was payback for the roughhouse wrestling that took place in the second round, and it was insult added to injury.
Joe Cortez correctly deducted a point from Marco Antonio Barrera, and indeed the move was intentional. The weakened Hamed even stuck out his arm to shake hands when the fight resumed, but Barrera would have none of it. Instead he made sure that the penalty wouldn't affect his victory by finishing the fight strong. Again and again, Barrera reached out and tagged Hamed with a right hand and a left hook. Again and again, Hamed's head rotated from the blows. This was highlight reel material, and Barrera was putting an exclamation point onto his decisive masterpiece.
Still, there was a bit of concern as the official decision slowly made it's way into Michael Buffer's hands. Luckily, the judges got it right. 116-111 and 115-112 twice for Marco Antonio Barrera (Boxing Chronicle also scored the fight 115-112 for Barrera). Hamed suffered his first professional loss as Barrera notched the biggest win of his 56 fight career.
The featherweight division now lies at Barrera's feet. Having conquered the biggest box office draw the weight class has ever known, Barrera has a number of high-paying assignments awaiting him. Having earned $1.9 million for this fight, more than four times what he earned for his epic battle with Erik Morales, Barrera will likely earn twice as much in the rematch that Hamed claimed was mandated in the contracts. But Barrera will also have the option of rematching with Erik Morales. Ironically, Morales currently wears a belt in the division (the WBC trinket he took from Guty Espadas) while Barrera wins only the worthless IBO strap for this victory. Everyone knows Barrera won the Morales fight... and a rematch will be a lucrative opportunity to prove the point. And we wouldn't be surprised to see Junior Jones, who twice defeated Barrera and recently announced yet another comeback, take an unneeded beating in a Barrera tune-up. Finally, Barrera has all the options that a true champion has. Oh yeah, and he's also the new best featherweight in the world, belt or not.
No matter what you think of Naseem Hamed's pre-fight bravado, you have to credit him with unmitigated sportsmanship in defeat. He made absolutely no excuses, admitted that Barrera won the fight, and seemed completely content despite losing his zero in the ring. Hamed insisted that he would be back for a Barrera rematch, although we guess that he'll take a tune-up in between. We also wouldn't be surprised to see Hamed clean house and lose Steward and Suarez. While the two trainers can't be blamed for Hamed's loss (if anything, he looked his best under their tutelage in previous fights)... the confusion over who is the authority figure in the corner must be a distraction. Perhaps a loss will lead Hamed back to his boyhood trainer Brendan Ingle, although significant patchwork will need to be done on their shattered relationship. With some hard work and focus, Hamed can come back. Although his power wasn't a factor this night, he still cracks with the best of them. He's had better nights, but he's also had worse. His career has been set back, but is far from over.
Hamed-Barrera topped off a night of swift fights. In a co-feature attraction, Omar Sheika kayoed rigid Stephan Ouellet in under two rounds. Sheika began the first round by clubbing the tattooed Ouellet with a heavy right hand. Ouellet didn't respond very often, but after only a few punches, Sheika's scar-ridden face began to swell. Still, Ouellet's chin was never properly tucked, and early in the second round Sheika stunned Ouellet with another crisp right hand. As Ouellet backed up from one set of ropes to another, Sheika patiently pounded him. After about twenty unanswered blows, Sheika finally landed a right hand right on Ouellet's ear, and he stiffened up before tipping over onto his right side. Ouellet was on his feet quickly, but he appeared unaware of his surroundings while blinking his eyes rapidly and the fight was correctly stopped. While Ouellet was not a major threat, this ranks as a good win for the mid-level Sheika (now 22-2/15). He showed good power and excellent composure as he took apart Ouellet in a workmanlike fashion. His only weakness is his skin, and a top fighter will likely close his eyes and/or cut him with little effort.
In the card's opening attraction, featherweight contender Juan Carlos Ramirez suffered a humiliating upset loss at the hands of 18 year-old Fernando Velardez. Velardez, a high school senior, took this fight on three days notice. But his 16-4-1 record did not hint at his punching power, which stunned Ramirez early and often. Although Ramirez took the first two rounds, Velardez found his opponent incredibly easy to hit with both an overhand right and left hook. Velardez rallied back to knock Ramirez down twice in the second round. The first dropping came from a short right hand that sent Ramirez rolling into a back somersault. Ramirez got up but was soon down on his knees again after eating a short left hook. Ramirez rallied in the fourth, but was suffered a cut over his left eye. The cut was ruled to have been cause by a punch. Ramirez lost a point for a low blow in the fifth round, a round he also lost, and was getting beaten badly in the sixth. Velardez scored another quick knockdown, but the end came when a doctor was called to the apron and ruled the cut was too bad to allow Ramirez to continue. Velardez got the win by TKO, and showed almost no emotion after notching a major upset.
In other action, 2000 Olympian middleweight Jermain Taylor used fantastic handspeed and crisp power to dominate Kenny Stubbs with a second round knockout. Stubbs was down from the first big punch Taylor threw, a short right and left hook follow-up in the first 20 seconds. Stubbs bravely rose to take further punishment, including some crunching body shots to end the round. Stubbs didn't offer much more in the second round, and tasted canvas again after bouncing off the ropes from a flurry into a heavy Taylor right. Stubbs was hurting, but gamely rose again. Say what you will about hand-picking opponents for this young superstar-in-training, but this 9-4 steppingstone showed true guts by getting up to take more. Soon Stubbs was down again from a big overhand right and referee Tony Gibson erred by not stopping the one-sided beating. But Stubbs beat the count, and Gibson let him continue. Taylor rushed Stubbs and nailed him with a perfect one-two while his hands were down. Again Gibson could have ended the fight here. Taylor now beat a mostly defenseless Stubbs on the ropes, yet rookie ref Gibson failed to jump in. Finally Stubbs' corner threw in the towel, and it's a good thing they did.... Tony Gibson looked like he was going to let the fight go on until Stubbs was knocked unconscious. Taylor improved to 2-0/2KO.
Finally, Olympic heavyweight Michael Bennett needed only one round to drop severely outclassed Billy Zumbrun three times in the first round. The first two knockdowns came from routine body shots, which the novice Zumbrun seemed ill prepared to take. The final knockdown came with Bennett throwing a big right hand and his opponent wilting in surrender to the canvas.
Overall, while this undercard failed to look good on paper, this was an exciting night of quick fights. The main event may not have been a barnburner from start to finish, but it provided plenty of big time thrills en route to a decision that will be long remembered. This was a good night for boxing, even if it wasn't a good night for Naseem Hamed.
ROUND 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 TOTAL BARRERA 10 10 9 10 9 10 9 10 10 9 10 9* 115 HAMED 9 9 10 9 10 9 10 9 9 10 9 9 112
* = One point deduction for wrestling