He was the world boxing champion renowned for his leopard-skin shorts and backflips over the top rope as much as his ability to defeat opponents in the ring.
For seven years ‘Prince’ Naseem Hamed not only dominated his sport but, with his cocksure swagger and irrepressible rags-to-riches back story, became synonymous with the hope and hedonism of the 1990s Britpop era.
Feted by celebrities — the rap star P. Diddy once flanked him as he arrived for a fight on a flying carpet — and beaten only once in his entire career, the 5ft 4in, 9st featherweight was so idolised 11 million Brits tuned in to watch his last fight in 2002.
But then, just as emphatically as he had courted fame and set the sporting world ablaze, and aged just 28, he quit both boxing and the limelight. Granted, the father of three made headlines in 2006 when he was jailed for 15 months after a 90mph collision in his £320,000 Mercedes McLaren, for which he was stripped of his MBE.
But the working-class son of Yemeni immigrants, raised above a Sheffield corner shop, was rarely spotted in public and rejected mainstream media attention.
Until this week, that is, when the ‘Prince’, once so famous U.S. fans thought he was royalty, re-emerged waving from his open-top Corvette Stingray in Windsor, of all places, where he is renting a £1.2 million house near the Queen’s residence.
Looking all but unrecognisable from the wiry powerhouse of his 1990s heyday, if he feels any sadness at the demise of his athletic stature then he disguises it well.
‘Prince’ Naseem Hamed (pictured walking in Windsor last week) says he has never been happier than he is now
The former Flyweight boxing champ looks almost unrecognisable from his appearance in the 1990s
Naseem was widely known for him flamboyance and swagger. He would perform somersaults, christen every fight with a flip over the top rope and appear in leopard print shorts
Breaking his silence to talk to the Mail from the steps of his Georgian terrace, almost exactly 20 years since his last fight, Naseem, 48, insisted: ‘I’m the happiest I’ve ever been. I’ve never been in a better place.’
A devout Muslim, he said he had joined a mosque in Windsor, described the people of the town as ‘beautiful’ and claimed he’s still something of a celebrity in the royal town, saying: ‘I wish I could walk around with a camera, the number of people who stop and talk to me.’
While his cockiness remains, he admits — ‘100 per cent, but I’m more humble now’ — the aggression has gone, and although he declines to talk further he is affable and, on the surface at least, anything but arrogant.
So what on earth is Naseem doing in Windsor? What is life like for the semi-recluse who still boasts an estimated £50 million fortune? And why did he retire from the sport he loved so early?
The answers to all these questions, the Mail found, are as complex as you might expect from a contradictory man who craves adulation but appears to abhor scrutiny, and whose audaciousness is undermined, believe some, by self-doubt and errors of judgment.
For a start, says one well-placed family friend, Naseem might be a member of the town’s mosque and so well known by locals that the first person the Mail’s reporter met was able to direct us to his house — but he’s not living in Windsor, but the Surrey home he’s had since 2008.
Instead, they reveal, he’s renting the Berkshire property for his wife of 24 years, Eleasha, ‘for some family members that have come from abroad on his wife’s side. He just goes and visits that house [in Windsor] to see the family’.
Prince Naseem Hamed and wife Eleasha at the premiere of the film ‘Wild Wild West’ at the Odeon, Leicester Square
Yet when the Mail visited Naseem’s £6 million Surrey mansion, an Argentinian woman said she was renting the property for three months until the end of July and didn’t know where the owners were.
One local shopkeeper in Surrey told the Mail he still sees Naseem, occasionally popping in with his wife and sons, adding. ‘They’re a very nice family and I’m always pleased to see them. They’re humble people.’
They are, however, having to deal with a growing family rift, in the form of Naseem’s younger brother, Ali, 44. Most of Naseem’s large family has been involved in the management of the boxer’s career.
But Ali is estranged from the clan and blames Naseem’s exodus from boxing on his ‘absolute betrayal’ of his trainer Brendan Ingle, who was a second father to the boxer but from whom he parted in 1997, leaving the rest of the Hamed family in charge of Naseem’s finances and career.
‘He was boxing royalty but the shame and the sadness is that he was too arrogant to hold onto that,’ Ali, a personal trainer in Sheffield, told the Mail this week. ‘He did not have the intellect to match the unique talent he’d been given. Now he has turned himself into a recluse who has spent 20 years eating non-stop and becoming morbidly obese.’
Many of the WhatsApp messages Ali sent to the Mail after our reporter spoke to him cannot be recounted for legal reasons, and one might be able to dismiss his words as the bitter ramblings of a jealous sibling. Indeed, he admitted he’d lost his identity aged 16 because he was no longer known as himself but Naseem’s younger brother.
But Ali seems hellbent on trying to sell an unflattering documentary on the ‘Hamed dynasty’ which could, if commissioned in any form, heap further embarrassment on his older brother, who spoke recently about his desire to release his own book and autobiographical film.
‘I’m looking forward to the future, to revealing some amazing stuff,’ Naseem said on a podcast interview with his former promoter Frank Warren in 2020.
Whoever’s version gets told first, theirs is, undoubtedly, a remarkable story. Two of nine siblings, they were raised in a tiny home above the corner shop run by their late parents Sal and Ciara, who moved from Yemen in the 1960s.
Naseem Hamed in Windsor town centre driving his new £120,000 corvette sting ray supercar, unrecognisable to many
Naseem, who shared a bedroom with two brothers and a sister, says his parents ‘scrimped and saved’ to keep their family afloat, his home life an apparent refuge from the outside world.
‘I was bullied as a kid and called all kinds of horrible names — chocolate drop is one of the milder ones that I remember,’ he recalled. ‘I was a small kid and I’m black —the bullies thought I was easy prey. They told me I was useless, a waste of space and a lot worse.’
He found solace in boxing aged seven, after his dad took him to the gym run by Brendan. ‘You don’t feel pain in the ring,’ said Naseem, who trained two hours a day after school and shocked contemporaries with his agility, reflexes and power.
So much so, that Brendan — who produced four world champions at his gym, including Naseem — launched his protégé’s professional career with a sandwich board in Sheffield centre declaring Naseem ‘the next world champion’.
Which he was, by 1995, aged just 21. Yet while he publicly revelled in the limelight, the attention could be intolerable, believes John Ingle, son of Brendan, who died in 2018.
John is speaking to the Mail from the Ingle family gym in the rundown Sheffield area of Wincobank, that he now runs, and where he last saw Naseem in 2020.
He is joined by Amer Khan, a former national amateur champion turned full-time firefighter, and another childhood friend who saw Naseem a fortnight ago (‘he came to the mosque in Upperthorpe [near Sheffield] and he was mobbed’).
Khan remembers: ‘Coming down to the gym after school and there was the best BMW I have ever seen, bright blue. Inside the gym was David Beckham and he was waiting for Naz.’
As his fame soared Naseem, who said he never ‘had a proper girlfriend, never loved somebody, never got me heart broken’ in his youth, met wife Eleasha at a country club. She was a Roman Catholic who Naseem insisted convert to Islam before they wed. They married in February 1998.
Prince Naseem only lost one fight throughout his whole career, coming in his penultimate bout. During the first round, Hamed was floored, for the first time in his professional career
Their romance appeared, initially at least, to tether him to reality. He said: ‘She’s not like anybody else I ever met. Really, really genuine.’
After their eldest son Sami was born, fatherhood provided both fuel for Naseem’s career and, perhaps, the impetus to stop.
‘My wife and my parents would be happy for me to quit now,’ he said in 2000.
‘They think I’ve done everything, proved my point. They say I don’t need boxing any more. But I do. I’ve still got so much to do.’
Yet he did it without the support of Brendan, who announced he could no longer work with Naseem in 1997, because, he said, the wealthier the boxer grew, the more ‘obnoxious’ he became.
Certainly, his exploits, from flying his barber in from Los Angeles to sending someone to Mexico to make sure his gloves were made of goatskin, make even the most badly behaved of today’s sports stars seem tame in comparison.
With Brendan gone, Naseem’s family took over his management.
An injury to his left hand in 1999 gave him an excuse to relinquish his strict training, succumb to his love of junk food and develop ‘love handles’. Tellingly, although he enjoyed his unprecedented opportunity to eat the food he craved, he admitted: ‘I’m the sort of guy who doesn’t like to see myself out of shape and I could feel the condition of my body going.’
Hamed suffered the only defeat of his career in 2001 to Marco Antonio Barrera in Las Vegas in the second round of their IBO featherweight championship bout at the MGM Grand Hotel &Casino in Las Vegas
He’d lost over 2st in eight weeks and had returned to fighting fitness before his Las Vegas bout against Mexican Marco Antonio Barrera in July 2001. But it was his first, and only, defeat — a fight he has since said he regretted agreeing to.
Naseem has said he quit because his injured hands ‘couldn’t hold up’ and he wanted to spend time with his three sons (in addition to Sami, 22, he has, Aadam, 20, and Sulaiman, 16). Naseem’s older brother Riath, his former managing director, says that Naseem was ‘exhausted’ and that the brothers moved into the ‘property and agriculture business’.
Yet it seems without the ruthless discipline boxing required, Naseem was rudderless. In May 2005, while speeding in his McLaren-Mercedes, he crashed into a VW Golf, breaking every major bone in its driver Anthony Burgin’s body. Eleasha, pregnant with their third child, cried as he was sentenced at Sheffield Crown Court.
‘It was a big, big learning curve,’ Naseem would later say, while a family friend told the Mail this week he was ‘very remorseful’.
After moving to Surrey he became a boxing manager, signing up Scottish Commonwealth Games light-heavyweight gold medallist Callum Johnson. ‘Boxing has lost its glamour and excitement,’ he said in 2010. ‘I’m going to bring it back.’
Yet there has been little glamour in the casually-dressed figure Naseem has cut in rare appearances since. At a charity boxing gala in November 2018, when Strictly judge Anton Du Beke mocked Naseem, saying he’d have trouble ‘getting up the stairs’ to the ring, Naseem responded: ‘Before you come out with all the fat jokes always remember you don’t f*** with boxing royalty, b**ch.’
This week, when asked why so little has been seen of Naseem, John Ingle said: ‘Look at the size of him. He is unhealthy so that might be a reason to avoid the limelight. He needs to get a dietitian and a personal trainer.’
Others are less concerned. ‘Having to train and look after yourself for all those years, it is no wonder he has let himself go a bit,’ says Ryan Rhodes, his former sparring partner.
Certainly, Naseem appears to be enjoying himself, doing, ‘a bit of golf’ and ‘a lot of travel’.
In the perennially silent Eleasha, he has, he said in 2020, ‘possibly the best wife in the world’.
And he added, in what was perhaps a rare moment of candour: ‘I’m not going to say it’s been the easiest thing ever, coming out of the game when you’ve been very successful. But right now, I can honestly say that I’m so at peace.’
Additional reporting: Stephanie Condron and Ross Slater.