How Prince Naseem Hamed Shaped British Identity

In the 1990s, a Yemeni-British boxer showed the UK what multiculturalism looks like

How Prince Naseem Hamed Shaped British Identity
The boxer known as Prince Naseem makes his entrance on a magic carpet. (Jon Buckle/EMPICS via Getty Images)

Though few remember his legacy now, there was once a 5-foot-5-inch British Yemeni who shook up the boxing world in the 1990s. Naseem Hamed, known as “the Prince,” was as recognizable as Michael Jordan, feted by talk show hosts like Jay Leno and fawned over by P. Diddy. Now, only boxing aficionados see how Hamed inspired the bombastic showmanship of Tyson Fury, Conor McGregor, Israel Adesanya and Mick Conlan. Hamed redefined boxing not only through his exceptional skills, but also because he turned pugilism into show business in all its fistic glory. He was, rightly, inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2015. However, another facet of his identity is often ignored. Hamed, an Arab, was a cultural icon who helped shape the identity of the British South Asian diaspora. He also offered an alternative model for those of us who found that identity too reductive in an increasingly multicultural country. For a brief moment in the pre-9/11 world, Hamed became an argument for what multiculturalism could look like and, later, a lament for what could have been in the U.K. and beyond.

In the 1990s, Britain was still wrestling with multiculturalism. If you had told me then that, three decades later, we would witness an Asian prime minister, a Muslim Scottish first minister and a Muslim mayor of London, I would have laughed in your face. The country was simply uncomfortable with that possibility. Moreover, there were still areas in London, let alone elsewhere in the country, which were no-go zones for Black and brown people. That Hamed, a featherweight, became a cultural and sporting icon in this context, occupying the upper echelons of a sport usually reserved for heavyweights, was extraordinary.

Hamed grew up in the 1970s in the northern English town of Sheffield, where many Yemenis had immigrated during the 1940s to work in its famous steel mills. Unlike many boxers who grew up in difficult circumstances, Hamed was raised in a devout, loving and stable home of nine siblings. At the age of 6, he started boxing at the local gym under the tutelage of the legendary Irish trainer, Brendan Ingle. Ingle recognized Hamed’s potential when he saw him fight off three white boys who had called him a racial slur and understood his punching power and speed. According to Ingle, Hamed’s father, who ran a corner shop, worried that Hamed was going to be picked on because he was the only brown kid in school and entrusted him to the trainer. Alongside boxing technique, Ingle also incorporated Irish dancing into the training routine, teaching his students the importance of spectacle. To this day, boxing clubs can either sink or swim according to the way they drum up local support, and the allure of showmanship bolsters ticket sales and brings in community grants. By the time Hamed turned professional, he had mastered the arts of both pugilism and spectacle.

In 1992, Hamed made his professional debut as a 112-pound flyweight at Mansfield leisure center, Nottinghamshire. He looked like a typical Bengali kid, a skinny Bilal with an awful ’90s haircut. He jumped into the ring sporting a leopard print poncho and shorts, backflipped, and walked around with disregard for his opponent, Ricky Beard, from London’s East End. Hamed boxed with a southpaw stance, leading with his right hand, throwing punches from angles that Beard hadn’t seen before, dancing to dismantle his opponent. The commentator was so impressed with Hamed’s performance that he remarked, “There’s not too many Asian boxers in the country, it’s good to see them making their mark.” Hamed was, in his eyes, an outsider, indicated by his use of the pronoun, “them.” Moreover, the commentator also assumed Hamed was Asian, which in the British context meant coming from the Indian subcontinent countries of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. For the latter remark, he could be forgiven; even Asians thought he was one of their own.

In the 1990s, British minorities were either Asian or Black. Many found these labels reductive. What if one had Asian heritage but was born and raised in East or South Africa and identified along religious lines? What if one was like Hamed, brown, Muslim and not from the Indian subcontinent? Britain could not see ethnic distinctions like it can today and, arguably, neither could many of the Asians who considered Hamed as their compatriot. Such categorizations infuriated Hamed even at the tender age of 16, when he made an unguarded comment, which turned up years later in a documentary, “Prince Naseem — The Making of a Legend.” “I am looking forward to becoming known as British, Arab and a Muslim,” Hamed said. “You hear my accent. It’s like the normal, Yorkshire white kid. When the Pakistanis talk, they always got an accent. Most of the Arabs have got a normal, Yorkshire accent like me.” The comments were not received well by the Asian community, for it probably dawned on many for the first time that their Prince was not Asian, but Arab.

Even to this day, South Asians find it difficult to “see” Naseem’s Yemeni heritage. For example, in 2018, the artist Kazim Rashid held a video exhibition titled, “2001: Pressure Makes Diamonds.” According to a review in The Guardian, it explored the boom in Asian cultural output during the ’90s and asked: “How come there’s this insane decade of output [by South Asians] that just vanishes? Why are we good enough to do the work, but not good enough to be the work? And why do we have the confidence to pull the strings, but we don’t have the confidence to tell the story?” Even though Hamed was prominently featured, both Rashid and The Guardian reviewer missed that Hamed is Yemeni, and he saw himself as Black, not Asian. In a biography of the boxer, “Prince of the Ring,” Hamed is quoted as saying, “I am proud to be British, I am proud to be Arab, I’m proud to be black.”

Maybe Rashid saw Hamed as the South Asian community saw him, rather than how Hamed saw himself. Maybe it was a way for Rashid to resolve his own identity crisis and — to use contemporary parlance — appropriate Hamed’s identity to serve his own emotional needs. That was understandable, after all, as the Bengali British boxing coach Walid Ali told me, “Prince Naseem Hamed … looked similar to us and gave us a big boost.” Perhaps Hamed filled an emotional void within.

He certainly did that for me. In 1995, when I was a gangly teenager with ears that could lift off from Heathrow airport, the 21-year-old became a world champion. At the time, all I could see was his skill, confidence and supreme ego. As the legendary boxing commentator Larry Merchant said, “If ego was a crime, the Prince would be on death row.” Half of the white audience wanted to see this arrogant boxer knocked out, and the other half wanted him to win. Hamed came up against a seasoned world featherweight champion, Steve Robinson, who fought him on his home turf in Cardiff, Wales. As the fight began, Hamed showboated, sticking his chin out in front of Robinson, daring him to punch him. When Robinson threw, Hamed turned around to watch the punch go past his shoulders and looked into the crowd with contempt to see where it had landed. Hamed boxed most of the rounds with his hands down, switching his stance from the southpaw to orthodox style. He counterpunched, he smiled, taunted, danced and fought Robinson square, and practically disregarded all of the rules that boxing fundamentals demanded from ordinary mortals. Things you are not meant to do, he did. Then a devastating punch dropped Robinson in round five. Hamed knocked him down another time, delivering the punishment with venom. In the eighth round, a hook took Robinson down a third time, and the fight was called off. The crowd gave the Prince begrudging applause, and he remarked nonchalantly that he was “just too good.” Hamed was not given respect; he took it. And that was the thing that made the fight extraordinary to me: Here was a brown man taking his respect, not begging for it.

Watching the fight again two decades later, I see both the British and the Yemeni flags, fluttering side by side in seeming harmony. What is even more incredible is that Sky, the U.K.’s biggest satellite TV channel, and The Sun, one of its largest tabloid papers with a substantial white working-class readership, were sponsoring him, while MBC, the Middle East’s largest broadcaster, was beaming it to the Arab world. It was an achievement for a brown boxer to reach such heights of capitalistic endeavor. With the benefit of hindsight and age, the fight did not appear Fanonian at all but more like a business transaction between two boxers. Hamed, it seems, meant much more to my younger self than I realized. Perhaps I, like Rashid, was guilty of projecting my own feelings onto Hamed. Maybe the boxer was a canvas of my own immature aspirations as an outsider.

I came to London in 1991 when I was 11 years old. I was not quite a “freshie,” as we called South Asians coming off the boat from the subcontinent, but I was an immigrant, an early specimen of a brown Swede who came off the boat in Harwich. I arrived at a crucial period, when the South Asian diaspora looked and felt very different from the time my own forebears settled in the U.K.

My family had been in the country for over 100 years — they were the original freshies. My maternal grandfather, Shamsul Haque, and great uncle, Ayoub Ali, had jumped ship and swam onto Tilbury docks in 1919. They settled in the East End of London, and by the roaring ’20s they had opened businesses and became heavily involved in British-Indian politics, setting up and funding the Indian Seaman’s League, where they helped the sailors write letters, send remittances and escape the rapacious shipping companies. Later, the Seaman’s League evolved into the East London Mosque, which quickly became the largest in Europe. They were also involved in the Indian independence movement in the U.K., hobnobbing with the future fathers of India and Pakistan, like Krishna Menon, Subhas Bose, Mohammad Jinnah and Liaquat Khan. My great uncle was the treasurer of Menon’s All India League in the U.K. Later, when there were calls for the Muslim homeland, which would become Pakistan, he became treasurer to Jinnah’s Muslim League. Both his and my grandfather’s activities brought them considerable heat from the British security services. It was clear that my forebears saw themselves as Indian, later Pakistani Muslim, and, following the 1971 war between West and East Pakistan, as Bengali Muslims.

Yet while they saw themselves as South Asians, white Britain classified them according to their skin pigmentation, lumping them together with Afro-Caribbeans, another group in Britain’s global empire. As the 1970s approached, mass immigration saw racial tensions grow, stoked by politicians like Enoch Powell, then a Conservative member of Parliament, whose infamous “Rivers of Blood” speech emboldened far-right groups such as the National Front to unite around cracking down on mass immigration. Despite South Asians being wholly different, culturally and historically, from the Afro-Caribbean community, a combination of race solidarity and left-wing politics underpinned an alliance between the communities against the racism they both faced. When Altab Ali, a Bengali garment worker, was killed by three white teenagers in the East End in 1978, thousands of Asians and Afro-Caribbeans marched the coffin past Downing Street, where the prime minister resides, in protest. This act, however, led to direct confrontation with the National Front, and the Asian and Afro-Caribbean activists had to find creative ways to neutralize the racists. Ali’s murder was a pivotal moment for anti-racist campaigners and the local community, so much so that a local park was renamed in his honor in 1998 to commemorate the event.

However, at the same time, there were also other movements, which took root in the 1960s, which advocated for a Muslim identity that was distinct from the South Asian identity. There was a growing consciousness among Asian Muslims that they were different from the Sikh and Hindu Asian diaspora. The trauma of Partition in 1947, which drew boundaries between India and Pakistan and caused mass displacement, no doubt contributed to this. So, too, did the rise of the Deobandis, a neo-traditional Islamic scholarly movement, which aimed to preserve Indian Muslims from the “corrupting” influence of the British Raj, as did Jamaat-e-Islami, a modernist Islamic movement that, though it opposed Partition, stressed the special mission that Muslims had in the subcontinent. In the U.K., this manifested itself in many Muslim Asian students forming the Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS), an umbrella organization of Islamic Societies that hosted the likes of Malcom X in 1964 and set up the Muslim Institute in Bloomsbury in the ’70s. So began the slow process of the bifurcation of South Asian identity, complicated admittedly, by the civil war between East and West Pakistan in 1971, which saw the birth of Bangladesh in the same year.

By the 1980s, this divergence of identity had become even more distinct. Following Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979 and the Afghan-Soviet war of the 1980s, many Asian activists became increasingly aware of their Muslim identity. When the Indian-born British author Salman Rushdie published a novel in 1988 that took aim at the Prophet Muhammad, this shift became even more profound. The incident, in the words of Kenan Malik, the author of “From Fatwa to Jihad,” caused “a shift in self-perception and the beginnings of a distinctive Muslim identity.” For Asian Muslims in the U.K., it didn’t matter if they had read the book: Muhammad was sacred. For the first time, the average British Asian Muslim felt that the issue would not be understood by a Hindu, Sikh or Christian Asian. Understandably, there was no solidarity to be had from the left, nor from Afro-Caribbeans nor anyone else for that matter; they simply didn’t understand what the fuss was all about. Religious symbols were often lampooned in the Western secular tradition, and many felt that freedom of speech was a cornerstone of liberal democracy that was higher than the sanctity of Muhammad. The Rushdie affair was a very Muslim issue and politicized ordinary Asian Muslims, perhaps for the first time.

When I arrived in the U.K., the South Asian community was at a crossroads. I had missed all the tussle that had passed over the Rushdie affair, but I experienced its aftermath. Some of it was fueled by ideologues who were increasingly present and sermonizing in London’s mosques, some by discussions that passed between friends and family members over the dinner table. Some were stark images I saw on TV and in newspapers. I still remember from the first Gulf War (1991) the burnt corpse of an Iraqi soldier who looked like he was zapped from outer space, or the image of a blonde, blue-eyed Muslim woman crying in Srebrenica (1992-95) or the Russian convoys taking a pounding in Chechnya (1994-96). This was the first time that we became aware of Indigenous Muslims in Europe. There were, of course, other conflicts like Algeria that found their way into our adolescent consciousness by osmosis or some leaflet handed to you as you walked out of Friday prayer.

For me and, I suspect, many outsiders like me, these parallel currents created a sort of cultural schizophrenia in the Asian community. I felt this especially because I didn’t grow up in Asian enclaves like Tower Hamlets, Southall or Bradford. Like Hamed, I grew up in an area that was multicultural; my friends were white, Black, Arab and Asian. Black youths picked on Asians just as much as white youths did. The Asian identity that was convenient in Bradford, Birmingham and other places with large Asian populations could be an impediment elsewhere. Celebrated and up-and-coming artists of the ’90s, like Talvin Singh and Panjabi MC, meant nothing to us. Increasingly, Bollywood, the great unifier that had taught us Hindi, was something only our parents watched, while we had to learn how to switch from one identity to another. So you were only Asian when you went to the East End or Southall, but even there the English they spoke, as a young Hamed noted, had a certain accent that was different from your own. A lot of things that our parents instilled in us no longer resonated. Of course, it didn’t help that, in the League of Cool, being Asian at the time meant being relegated to the bottom. Then, as now, “coolness,” not studies, mattered to young men.

In those days, we didn’t have Riz or even a Guz Khan. As music went, songs like “Brimful of Asha” by an ironically named band called Cornershop were a disaster. They might top the music charts for weeks, but they reinforced exactly what you were fighting against — the association of yourself with “Mr. Patel’s corner shop.” Any remotely cool Asians who were on the scene appeared just as confused as you. Artists like Apache Indian, who had some chart success in the U.K. and beyond, were the epitome of this confusion: a British Asian from Birmingham, who sang reggae tunes in Jamaican patois and named himself after a Native American tribe. As far as fighting men went, there was no one, unless you counted Dhalsim, a stretchy yogi in loin cloth from the arcade game Street Fighter II, named after a simple Indian lentil soup my mum made: dhal. No, thank you.

Hamed felt like a gift from God. To Asians, he could pass for Bengali, Indian or Pakistani. For those of us who felt the label “Asian” was too restrictive, he represented many of our own adolescent aspirations. “I view myself as a symbol of multiculturalism,” he said, “a champion of all people, a true champion of the world.” He resolved the schizophrenia that was caused by these two forces of identity — the Asian and the Muslim — pulling within. More importantly, he was cool. Hamed entered our lives when “coolness” had its own inflated currency. After all, this was during the “Cool Britannia” era, a period of immense optimism and cultural creativity in the U.K. The country produced Oasis, Blur, The Verve, the Spice Girls, Talvin Singh, Asian Dub Foundation and more. Hamed was at the apex of all of that. American rappers like Nas referenced him, P. Diddy led him out, Michael Jackson visited him. At the same time, he would brazenly play the azan, the Muslim call to prayer. Or he would have the word “Allah” or “Muhammad” written in Arabic in the arena as he made his ring walk while carried on a throne or transported by a Cadillac. Only Hamed could get away with mixing the profane with the sacred, the eternal with the ephemeral. Even his girlfriend, a white English woman, converted to his faith. It shouldn’t have mattered, but for many Asians at the time this was seen as a major achievement and, dare I say it, an aspiration.

Hamed danced to his own tune. In fact, he even released a forgettable song with the rap group Kaliphz titled, “Walk Like a Champion.” Even though the song itself was awful, I listened to it repeatedly. He had a very public punch-up with Chris Eubank, a legendary Black British boxer and an entertainer par excellence who walked around in jodhpurs and spoke in the accent of an aristocrat. Hamed could embrace an American champion like Kevin Kelley, while telling him that he would knock him out. It was enough to take me down to the local boxing club, which was also a mixture of the profane and the sacred, for it was in the basement of a mosque where an old south London heavyweight ran the show. The club was truly multicultural, where you could just as easily find an English Gary boxing alongside an Algerian Noordin, while the trainer — like Ingle — kept us out of trouble.

We were all exuberant when Hamed beat Kelley in Madison Square Gardens in 1997. Shortly after that, he appeared in an iconic Adidas advert titled, “The Assassin.” It was the first time an openly Muslim, British boxer who looked like me had been in such a marketing campaign. It opens with a Black dreadlocked prophet of doom looking over the New York skyline, spliced with images of Hamed. The prophet declares to the world that, “You will fall before him. You will listen to what he has to say. He will not be defeated.” Hamed came, knocked out Kelley and conquered America. He went to fight in Atlantic City, Detroit and, at the turn of the millennium, Connecticut, hospitalizing a rising star, Augie Sanchez, in four rounds. British fighters always struggled in the U.S., but Hamed seemed unstoppable.

His downfall, however, was as meteoric as his rise. On April 7, 2001, Hamed came up against the “Baby Faced Assassin,” the Mexican warrior and future Hall of Famer, Marco Antonio Barrera, in Las Vegas. Hamed didn’t prepare for the fight, instead relying on his knockout power to do the job. He was afflicted — as many warriors are — by hubris and seemed more concerned about flying in his barber to do his hair than preparing for his fight. Hamed made arguably the most spectacular ring entrance in boxing history, arriving on a flying carpet, later to be escorted out by P. Diddy. But Barrera boxed in a disciplined fashion and schooled Hamed with a tight defense, never showing, as he said, that Hamed was living inside his head.

“He would play mind games with me, he would tease me, and when I thought I had him, he would back up and move in different ways,” Barrera recalled. When Hamed lost on a unanimous points victory, it was a punch to the liver. He was not meant to lose. He was too good, too slick, too powerful. We were devastated by his loss. But here’s the thing: So were future boxing champions like Mick Conlan and Carl Froch, who were as pale as the winter sun. The 10-year-old Conlan said he cried watching the Prince lose on the television. Froch had followed the Prince to Las Vegas. The future Hall of Famer, who went on to fill Wembley stadium with 80,000 people, described it as “the worst trip of my life.” Hamed had become what he wanted to be, a champion for all peoples. Though he was no longer invincible, he had transcended the sport. He had shown us what the possibilities were. He had once been a “them” to Britain, now he had become an “us.” What was more, he also paved the way for boxers like Amir Khan, Britain’s first Asian Olympian and world champion.

Hamed was defined by that loss. It should have been a bump in the road. Like many great fighters, he should have brushed himself off and gone on the campaign trail again. Many great boxers had a few losses on their records and went on to become even greater. A loss didn’t define a boxer, it just showed that, as an athlete, you were not invincible. But Hamed was not the same afterward. Perhaps his ego was too bruised, and he retired after fighting only one more bout against Manuel Calvo. Maybe it was, as he said, because of his damaged, brittle hands that ballooned after each fight. Maybe it was an excuse, but it relegated him to being one of the great underachievers of boxing history. Irrespective of the fact that the Prince had, for a brief moment, conquered America, graced the postage stamps of Yemen, and was celebrated by the English, Americans and by Muslim Asians, the boxing fraternity would never crown him king. They were hard task masters, pointing to the fact that Hamed never fought greats like Erik Morales, Juan Manuel Marquez, Manny Pacquiao or even the young Floyd Mayweather.

Four months after his defeat, 9/11 happened. My boxing club in the mosque basement closed down when the management grew afraid that the club might be seen as a jihadist camp. Of course, that was ridiculous but, nevertheless, the tone of the country noticeably changed, as that singular event seemed to wipe away all of the optimism we had felt before. Overnight, the Muslim community became suspect, demonized by the very papers that once celebrated the Prince.

Even the fate of the Prince himself seemed to mirror that of our own community. He severed his TV contracts in the U.S., despite Barrera urging him to initiate the rematch clause so that both could make millions again. Instead, Hamed walked away. A year later, he fought Calvo for the world featherweight title and, even though he won, it was a lackluster performance without any of his signature spectacle. Instead, he was booed throughout the fight. Shortly afterward, the 28-year-old hung up his gloves with 36 wins (31 by knockout) and one loss. Ingle, with whom he split in 1997, said he “could have been better than Muhammad Ali.”

In 2006, Hamed’s reckless driving resulted in a car crash and a 15-month prison sentence for dangerous driving. He was stripped of his royal honors granted by the late Queen Elizabeth II and then vanished out of public life. Occasionally, Hamed made appearances at big sporting events as a pundit, but mostly he played golf, put on weight and accumulated an increasingly large property portfolio in Dubai, Surrey and Windsor, counting the British monarch as a neighbor. As for me, I was then in my 20s. Our coach told us to find another club where it didn’t matter whether we were brown, Black or white — all that mattered was that one could fight. I didn’t try to box like Hamed anymore. In many ways, he was no longer needed; he had served his psychological purpose. He had held my hand when I was at the crossroads, he had allowed me to define myself and paved the way to step into spaces that were unfamiliar to many young brown men.

Twenty years later, I realize that Hamed’s luster does not shine as brightly as it did in my youth. Now, he seems like the great underachiever, the Prince who should have been king. I use him as a parable for my son, a lesson in hubris. Had the Prince listened, worked harder, perhaps stayed loyal to Ingle, he would be mentioned in the same breath as Morales and Barrera. Now, I probably wouldn’t advise any aspiring boxer to fight like him; even his outrageous knockout uppercut seems ridiculous. But if I want to show someone what boxing is, or if I want them to fall in love with the sport, I show them Hamed’s showreel. We are dazzled by the razzmatazz, our eyes widen, we grin with joy, and that’s when I realize how much I love the Prince.

Hamed’s strutting, the screaming fans — white, Black and brown — were a testament to what the world had been before 9/11 and what it could have been afterward. The Prince had been the walking embodiment of multiculturalism, as well as an anchor that many Asians held onto until they found their feet. Hamed was a king without a crown, in harmony with all the different sides of his identity, proof of what multicultural Britain could look like without any of the security architecture and media discourses that hemmed us in after 9/11. He was what any of us could be in Britain if we were just left unfettered, free to realize our dreams.

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