On Saturday night, April 7, The MGM Grand in Las Vegas hosted a Featherweight showdown that was being billed as “Playing With Fire”. “Prince” Naseem Hamed (35-0, 31 KOs) was set to square off against “The Baby-Faced Assassin” Marco Antonio Barrera (52-3, 38 KOs). It was a boxing fans dream.
The year was 2001.
Although known as a relentless Mexican warrior, Barrera entered the ring as a 3-to-1 betting underdog. A two-time world champion, Barrera had been in with the likes of Junior Jones, Kennedy McKinney and most recently an epic war with Erik Morales.
The three-time champion Hamed was cocky, flashy, flamboyant, and most importantly, undefeated. His unorthodox style led him to victory over nine current or former champions en route to meeting Barrera.
The bout, scheduled for 12 rounds, aired live on HBO’s pay-per-view arm, TVKO, with Jim Lampley, Larry Merchant, and “Big” George Foreman seated ringside to call the live action.
A wildly enthusiastic packed house was on hand as Barrera left his dressing room to enter the ring first. Cheers and jeers rained down from all four corners of the arena. A large contingent of Barrera fans wore sombreros and waved the Mexican flag while cheering their man.
With Barrera now safely in the ring, those that weren’t standing rose to their feet in anticipation of Hamed’s entrance. Fireworks lit up the back of the arena as Hamed was carried to the ring above the crowd on a trapeze. All went according to plan until Hamed was hit with a beer thrown by a nearby fan.
Perhaps it was foreshadowing as the moment symbolized the troubles that soon lie ahead. The Prince was lowered back to earth and walked the rest of the way to the ring. Merchant seized the moment, “Bring in the clown. Bring in the fighter. Same guy. I love it.”
After referee Joe Cortez was introduced, the packed house went ballistic when Michael Buffer introduced the fighters. Finally, Round 1 was underway.
Barrera, wearing blue and silver trunks, looked to hammer Hamed with his signature left hook bombs to the body. True to form, Hamed moved side to side and in and out with his hands down at his sides, inviting Barrera to come forward and punch.
Barrera accepted the invitation.
Less than a minute into the fight, Barrera launched two left hook missiles that landed flush on the face of Hamed. Lampley went into another stratosphere, “Gets to the body! Wobbled Naz with a left hook upstairs!”
The roar from inside the MGM Grand Garden was deafening. Outfitted in leopard print trucks, Hamed, a Southpaw, looked to even the score in the power game. As he reared back to rock and fire, Barrera stuffed a left jab into his face, constantly snapping his head backwards.
The first three minutes of action were dominated by Barrera.
Round 2 began as if it would be more of a boxing match. Hamed’s right eye had already begun showing signs of swelling as the two began trading at close quarters. As the fighters locked in a clinch, both tumbled to the canvas in what looked like a Roddy Piper and Hulk Hogan grudge match.
Cortez called time to separate the two fighters as Las Vegas police and Nevada State Athletic Commission officials now stood on the ring apron.
Order was restored, however, there was no doubt from anyone in the arena or watching from home that the war was on.
Hamed continued to pursue but couldn’t connect cleanly. Barrera slipped the incoming assault and fired first-class counterpunches that were landing flush. Lampley again boomed over the crowd, “Right hand and a left by Barrera! Rocking Naz back!”
While Hamed swelled, Barrera now had a trickle of blood dripping from his nose. Both fighters continued to take turns pursuing each other. The action was fierce with Barrera appearing to be quicker, sharper, and landing the harder punches.
At the midway point of the bout, Merchant had the fight four rounds to two for Barrera. Concern showed in the Hamed corner as trainer Emanuel Steward told his fighter that he was behind in the fight.
The early nonsense had long faded away as each man loaded up and fired howitzers. Barrera continued to get the better of the exchanges as blood now began to flow from Hamed’s nose. Merchant saw the trickle begin, “I think I saw blood from the Prince’s nose. The royal nose with some royal blood.”
Round 9 was ushered in with each fighter boxing and trading exclusively in the center of the ring. As the timekeeper pounded the mat signaling just 10 seconds remained in the round, Hamed charged in to seize the moment.
Instead, he ran into a sweeping left hook that thundered home flush on his jaw. The crowd again rose and roared as the sound of the punch reverberated around ringside.
Lampley went nuts, “Big left hook by Barrera! And that was another round won by Marco Antonio Barrera.” After the bell had sounded, replays were shown in the arena and to those watching at home that showed Barrera’s left hook lifting both of Hamed’s feet off the canvas. The crowd moaned and groaned at images of Barrera’s power.
After nine rounds, Harold Lederman’s scorecard confirmed that Barrera was pulling away. The two slugged away at one another in Rounds 10 and 11 as the crowd again stood and cheered the sizzling pace of the action.
With the help of Cortez, both fighters grudgingly touched gloves to begin the 12th and final round. Despite being ahead on the scorecards, Barrera poured it on and looked to finish strong.
As time was running out on Hamed, he threw a haymaker left hand that Barrera ducked. As Hamed’s momentum carried him into the corner, the action once again looked more like a page taken from the world of wrestling.
Barrera hooked Hamed with his right arm and, with his left, slammed Hamed face-first into the top turnbuckle. Lampley wailed, “Barrera pounds Naseem into the ring post! Risking disqualification! Furious at Naz’s antics!”
Cortez quickly called time and deducted a point from Barrera. With just seconds remaining, it didn’t matter. The bell sounded to end the fireworks while the fans inside the MGM stood and applauded.
Lampley summed up the scene, “Can there be any doubt? Tremendous celebration in Barrera’s corner. And Prince Naseem is wandering around aimlessly in his own. Round 12 was all Barrera.”
The final scorecards read 116-111, 115-112, and 115-112. Marco Antonio Barrera had won a unanimous decision while handing Hamed his first loss.
Hamed would step back into the ring 13 months later, winning a unanimous decision. Unexpected to most, that would be his last bout as he announced his retirement soon thereafter. The Prince was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2015.
Barrera went on to fight another 10 years, meeting the best the sport had to offer in Kevin Kelley, Johnny Tapia, Manny Pacquiao, and Juan Manual Marquez. He ended his career with 75 fights and 67 wins.