By Nat Gottlieb
This Saturday, HBO Boxing airs its 1,000th fight. To commemorate the occasion, HBO Boxing Insiders selected their favorite fights from the HBO catalog and wrote about them.
April 7, 2001
I don’t recall how the promoters billed the Hamed-Barrera fight back in April 2001, but in retrospect I’d name it “Marco’s Metamorphosis."
At the time, "Prince" Naseem Hamed was the reigning Beast of Boxing, unbeaten in 34 fights, with all but two of those coming by knockout. And oh what knockouts they were!
Although he was a diminutive featherweight, Hamed had been blessed with the kind of other-worldly punching power that made jaws drop when he unleashed the thunder. The Brit was a veritable knockout machine, a terrible force of nature whose fighting style defied the laws of the Sweet Science. He was sloppy, awkward, rarely balanced, and kept his hands down low, just inviting his opponents to hit him. He was also arrogant, disdainful, flamboyant, and disrespectful in ways that would make Floyd Mayweather Jr. look like a choir boy. Not surprisingly, the fight was seen as a classic case of good versus evil, although it must’ve seemed strange to cast a boxer whose alias was the "Baby Faced Assassin” as the good side of the equation.
Marco Antonio Barrera was a much-beloved brawler who never left fans screaming for their money back. He was a poster boy for all-out aggression.
In the lead up to the much-ballyhooed fight, Barrera was portrayed in the media as a ferocious, one-dimensional fighter, a typical Mexican warrior who was expected to stand flat-footed in front of Hamed and take as much punishment as he could for as long as he could stand it. Certainly this is how Hamed and his camp regarded him. But the Brit apparently hadn’t been watching recent tape of Barrera.
Following an emotionally-devastating loss to arch-rival Erik Morales in February of the previous year, without announcement or fanfare, Barrera and his trainer Rudy Perez went about transforming the Mexican’s style of boxing. In the three fights leading up to the Hamed showdown, to those who were paying attention, Barrera began to look more like a classic boxer-puncher than a brawler.
Come fight night, while this new style would stun both Hamed and the millions watching on HBO, in retrospect maybe it shouldn’t have. After all, as an amateur Barrera was a five-time Mexican national champion with a gaudy 104-4 record. He always knew how to box. He just didn’t choose to do so as a pro.
The fight started in typical Hamed fashion, with him clowning around, pawing at the Mexican in a taunting way, and trying to goad him into a brawl. Barrera wasn’t having any of it. He had a game plan, and he stuck with it: box behind a stiff jab, be patient, throw punches with precision, and always circle away from the southpaw’s powerful left hand.
From the opening bell, Hamed had to know this was not the fighter he and his trainer, the great Emanuel Steward, had prepared for. The new and improved Barrera put Hamed on notice right away by exploding out of a high-glove defense and nailing him in the head with a perfect left hook that staggered him back a few steps.
Despite that early assault, the Brit kept clowning for the audience and mugging at Barrera. As the fight wore on, however, and Barrera continued to stick to his plan, Hamed’s smile began to disappear. To anyone watching it was abundantly clear that Hamed had no Plan B. He was being out-boxed and outpointed, and his only answer was to keep trying to land his awkward, wide-sweeping left-hand bombs. Against Barrera’s tight defense, it wasn’t working.
By the later rounds, it was apparent to Hamed, Steward, and a sellout crowd of screaming fans in the MGM Grand Arena, that Barrera was not only winning, he was putting on a boxing clinic, more Salvador Sanchez than Julio Caesar Chavez.
Barrera beat Hamed that night, winning a unanimous decision and exposing the Prince's flaws to a public that once thought he was superhuman. After his coming out party as a boxer-puncher, Barrera would go on to extend his career as an elite fighter for eight more years. As for the moody, eccentric Hamed, he waited a year before his next fight. After that, he never stepped in the ring again.