Both sides agreed it was a rough and tumble fight. What they couldn't agree upon was where to put the blame.
Flamboyant WBO featherweight champion Prince Naseem Hamed said he would win by knockout. Instead, he used a series of body slams and takedowns worthy of the WWF and won a unanimous decision over WBC titleholder Cesar Soto in their 12-round unification bout Friday night.
"He's a paper champion," Soto said through an interpreter. "I know in my heart that I'm the real champion because I came to fight. He came to wrestle."
"I don't know if I was fighting a fighter or Hulk Hogan."
Bob Arum, who runs Top Rank Boxing and promotes Soto, called it the worst fight he had ever seen.
"It made me puke," Arum said. "That wasn't boxing. That was wrestling."
Hamed said it was Soto, the Mexican warrior who has never been knocked out, who started the rough stuff.
"Bob Arum was watching a totally different fight," Hamed said. "He just didn't want his guy to get beat."
Hamed, an Englishman of Yemeni descent, was clearly the favorite of the crowd, announced at 12,500. There are an estimated 250,000 to 300,000 people of Arab heritage in the Detroit area and chants of "Naseem, Naseem" echoed around the arena as the fight wore on.
The fight turned early in the ninth round when the unbeaten Hamed bloodied Soto's nose. Hamed kept jabbing at it in brief flurries the remainder of the round and Soto appeared hurt.
"I broke his nose," Hamed said. "He took it well. There was blood all over his face, but he came back."
Hamed, looking fresher, kept jabbing and dancing away in the 10th, but things deteriorated after that as both fighters went back to clutch and grab tactics. Hamed drew boos from the crowd for a takedown in the 11th round. The 12th was filled with more hanging on and the fight, fittingly, ended in a clinch.
Hamed, heavily promoted by HBO, which televised the fight, is noted as a hard puncher. Yet this bout was mostly a wrestling match.
With celebrities like retired Detroit Lions running back Barry Sanders, local fight favorite Thomas Hearns and heavyweight Lennox Lewis looking on, Hamed cut his entrance which can last up to 10 minutes to just four.
Still, it looked like he was still playing for entertainment alone as the fight started slowly with few punches thrown in the first round.
But Soto, who has never been knocked out, got Hamed's attention with a solid left hook early in the second round, followed by three more good lefts before the round was over.
Hamed used his catlike quickness to dance out of harm's way after that, to the chagrin of the crowd which had been primed by an exciting fight during which Mexican Erik Morales won a 12-round decision over Irishman Wayne McCullough in the preceding bout.
"Hamed is a very difficult fighter," said Moraleswho stayed to watch the main event. "But he doesn't come to fight. He doesn't want to get hit."
Referee Dale Grable took one point away from Hamed for holding Soto in the fourth round. In the fifth, Hamed flipped Soto over his shoulder and down to the mat judo style and lost another point as a result.
"I didn't want to body-slam him, but I wanted to show him that he couldn't get me down psychologically," Hamed said.
Emanuel Steward, the trainer for Hamed and founder of Detroit's famed Kronk Gym, rushed across the ring between rounds and yelled at Soto's trainer that the Mexican was fighting dirty, too.
"It was not a beautiful fight," Steward said. "But, a lot of fights are different."
Soto was pushed to the mat coming out of a clinch during the eighth round, and lost a point later in the round for a head butt.
This was the 12th successful defense for Hamed (33-0), his 14th in world championship fights. It was the first attempt at a title defense for Soto (53-8-2), who took the crown from Luisito Espinosa in May.
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