I've lost track of the number of years in a row that I have voted for former featherweight champion "Prince" Naseem Hamed on my International Boxing Hall of Fame ballot. But, once again, I have put pen to paper to cast my vote for Hamed, whose exclusion thus far is a disgrace.
With an overhauled ballot for the modern category -- 20 newcomers along with 10 holdovers thanks to the long-overdue decision by the Hall of Fame to adjust the cutoff date for the modern category to being for fighters whose last bout was no earlier than 1989 -- Hamed, to me anyway, is clearly the most deserving fighter on the 30-man ballot that also includes holdovers Donald Curry, Santos Laciar, Miguel "Happy" Lora, Henry Maske, Darius Michalczewski, Sven Ottke, Samuel Serrano, Wilfredo Vazquez Sr. and Hilario Zapata, and newcomers Paulie Ayala, Nigel Benn, Riddick Bowe, Chris Eubank, Leo Gamez, Genaro Hernandez, Julian Jackson, Rocky Lockridge, James "Buddy" McGirt, Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini, Sung-Kil Moon, Michael Moorer, Orzubek "Gussie" Nazarov, Vinny Pazienza, Lupe Pintor, Gilberto Roman, Gianfranco Rosi, Ratanapol Sor Vorapin, Meldrick Taylor and Fernando Vargas.
England's Hamed boxed professionally for almost exactly 10 years (April 1992 to May 2002) and spent about seven years at the very top of the sport, where he not only knocked out most opponents but did so in devastating fashion and became one of the biggest stars in the sport. The guy sold out arenas before his opponent was even named.
But Naz was about more than commercial success, with his flashy ring walks -- the best in the business! -- flip over the top rope and big mouth. Yes, his outlandish trash talk and arrogant attitude rubbed a lot of people the wrong way but it's what happened between the ropes that counts most.
I'll get to that in a minute but outside the ring he totally changed the economic landscape of boxing in terms of the smaller weight classes. Hamed, who left the comforts of home to fight five times in America, ushered in a golden age of featherweights and made it normal for the best in and around that division to reap seven-figure paydays. Fighters such as Marco Antonio Barrera, Erik Morales, Juan Manuel Marquez and Manny Pacquiao, among others, should give thanks to Hamed for making their giant purses possible because of the way he broke through.
In the ring, not only did Hamed have tremendous punching power -- in 2003, Ring magazine listed him 46th on its top 100 hardest punchers in boxing history -- he also compiled a terrific record (36-1, 31 KOs), was regarded as the world's No. 1 featherweight for several years, was high on most pound-for-pound lists and went 10-1 with eight knockouts against titleholders and Hall of Famers.
Yet way too many people who are clueless about the rest of his career hold his one defeat, a decision to three-division world champion Barrera, himself a sure-fire Hall of Famer when he is eligible, against him. That is unfair. It's not like he lost to a bum or even got knocked out. He lost a decision to an all-time great in 2001 and then fought just once more.
His career is about a helluva lot more than one bad night in Las Vegas. It's way more about all the thrilling nights and big wins and knockouts before that.
On the way up he won the European bantamweight title in his 12th fight, made one defense and then moved up to junior featherweight. In 1995, in his first fight at featherweight, he stopped Steve Robinson, a very credible fighter, in the eighth round to win his first world title.
That was the beginning of a run in which he should have been the first fighter in the era of four alphabet titles to hold them all simultaneously. However, boxing politics often actively work against that, so he had to settle for twice unifying titles. But he defeated each of the titleholders: Robinson, Tom Johnson (TKO8 to unify two belts before being stripped of one) and Cesar Soto (W12 in another unification fight). He also beat Vazquez Sr. (TKO7) in what should have been a unification bout but Vazquez had been stripped of his version of the title for agreeing to fight Hamed.
Other quality fighters, all former or future titleholders, Hamed beat convincingly were Kevin Kelley -- their electrifying 1997 fight at Madison Square Garden in Hamed's unforgettable American debut was one of the most exciting fights of the decade -- Wayne McCullough, Paul Ingle, Vuyani Bungu and Manuel Medina. There are those who rightfully dock Hamed points for his blatant duck of then-rising contender and mandatory challenger Marquez.
Overall, Hamed defended his WBO version of the title 15 times and held the lineal 126-pound world championship for three years while bringing extraordinary excitement and showmanship to a small weight class that had never seen the infusion of money it enjoyed during Hamed's heyday. In all, Hamed was 16-1 with 14 KOs in alphabet or lineal world title fights, which stacks up with or exceeds the resumes of many Hall of Famers.
It is time for the "Prince" to take his rightful place in the Canastota, New York, shrine.
As for the rest of my ballot -- voters may select up to five fighters, down from the 10 it had been for years (three will be elected) -- I also voted for Hernandez (38-2-1, 17 KOs), a very underrated fighter and one of the best junior lightweights of modern times.
Hernandez, who died at age 45 from cancer in 2011, boxed from 1984 to 1998. He was an excellent technician but would slug it out if necessary. He twice won world titles at 130 pounds, making eight defenses in his first reign and three more in his second one before losing the title in what turned out to be his final fight against a young Floyd Mayweather Jr., who stopped him in the eighth round to claim the first of his many world titles.
Hernandez's only other defeat was in a lightweight world title bout when he moved up in weight to challenge a young titleholder named Oscar De La Hoya, who shattered his nose in a sixth-round TKO loss in 1995. So Hernandez's only losses came to one Hall of Famer (De La Hoya, who was inducted last year) and one future Hall of Famer (Mayweather).
In perhaps his most significant victory, Hernandez beat Hall of Famer Azumah Nelson to win his second world title in 1997, getting off the deck after a foul when he could have won by not continuing.
I took a good look at the resumes of all 30 men on the ballot and considered several of them strongly, including Bowe, Pintor, Nazarov, Vazquez Sr., Michalczewski, Benn and Eubank but I passed for the time being.
Although I have voted in the modern category for around a dozen years, this year marked the first time I received ballots in other categories. I opted to vote in the observer category, which has 30 people on the ballot. Voters can select up to five and two will be elected.
I voted for two and they were easy calls: HBO blow-by-blow announcer Jim Lampley, simply the best to ever do it in the history of boxing, and Col. Bob Sheridan, the most enthusiastic and passionate announcer ever, who, by the way, has likely called more fights (around 10,000) and world title fights (closing in on 1,000) than anyone who ever lived.