Rooney grooms another heavyweight

March 06, 1994|By Alan Goldstein | Alan Goldstein,Sun Staff Writer

In the early '80s, the late Cus D'Amato and his assistant trainer, Kevin Rooney, were busy in their Catskill gym grooming a young heavyweight named Mike Tyson for the amateur championships and a possible spot on the 1984 United States Olympic boxing team.

Tyson, who fought too much like a pro to suit amateur judges, fell short of both goals only to become heavyweight champion of the world in 1986, before his 21st birthday.

Now, a decade later, Rooney is back in that same Catskill gym tutoring another promising amateur heavyweight -- Hasim Rahman of Baltimore -- with the same goals in mind.

After winning the New York State Regionals in Lake Placid last month, Rahman, 21, will compete in the U.S. Nationals at Colorado Springs, Colo., tomorrow through Saturday.

"Hasim is a diamond in the rough," said Rooney. He's big -- 6 foot 2 and 250 pounds. He's got power, but he also has surprisingly light feet for a man his size.

"He's very raw, with only eight or nine amateur fights under his belt, and he's still developing a style. But the way Hasim has handled himself against pros in the gym, I give him a shot at winning the nationals. And if politics don't take over, he could become the early-line favorite to represent us in the 1996 Olympic Games."

Heady stuff for the youngster from Randallstown who laced up boxing gloves for the first time less than two years ago, when his uncle, Haleem Ali, delivered him to Mack Lewis' Broadway gym in East Baltimore.

"I had the idea I could handle myself in a fight," Rahman said. "When my neighborhood friends would get in a hassle, they'd bring me along to serve as the peacemaker, and the fights usually ended."

Rahman found the competition a little tougher at "Mr. Mack's gym."

"I was too big and strong for most of the amateurs in the gym, so Mr. Mack had me sparring with his pro heavyweights -- George Chaplin, Mike Whitfield and Alex Stanley. I'd hit them solid, but they wouldn't go anywhere, and I'd be tired after one round. That taught me I had a lot to learn about boxing."

As Rahman continued to show promise and explosive power, his stablemates started calling him Mr. Mack's "million-dollar baby."

But the lack of amateur boxing tournaments in the area -- and the feeling he wasn't getting enough individual instruction -- led Rahman to seek a new trainer.

His uncle compiled a list of respected managers and trainers in the country, but the first phone call proved fruitful.

"We called Bill Cayton, Tyson's former manager," recalled Ali, "and he referred us to Steve Lott, who used to run Tyson's training camp. Lott invited Hasim to audition for Rooney last June, and he obviously made a good impression."

Good enough to receive free room and board in the Catskills in order to concentrate full time on developing his boxing skills.

"I've learned a lot here in nine months," Rahman said from his Catskill apartment. "I'm becoming a much better defensive fighter, slipping punches, but I've also developed a left hook to go with my right hand."

Rooney wasted little time testing Rahman against seasoned heavyweight contenders who shared the training facility.

"He had me sparring against [third-ranked] Lionel Butler and undefeated Jeremy Williams," Rahman said. "Williams keeps kidding me that he wants to have won a title and be retired before I turn pro."

Rahman enjoyed his first measure of success in the recent Region I tournament by knocking out New York City champion Ronald Brown and winning a lopsided decision over Hugh Holquin in the final.

"He was too good to start off as a novice, so we threw him right into the Open class competition," said Rooney. "Yeah, I'm excited about how far he's come in such a short time. But I'm trying to keep it quiet. You know, in boxing, there are a lot of broken dreams."

But Hasim Rahman has set his sights on the end of the rainbow.

"There's no sense turning pro early and fighting for $500," he said. "If I can get to the Olympics and get lucky, than I've hit the jackpot."

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