Rahman fills the bill Boxing: Baltimore's Hasim Rahman can be seen on billboards across town, and tomorrow the heavyweight contender puts his perfect record on the line against David Tua in Miami.

December 18, 1998|By Alan Goldstein | Alan Goldstein,SUN STAFF

Home-grown heavyweight contender Hasim Rahman is taking on a new image.

The evidence can be seen all over town, with the boxer's visage gracing 17 billboards touting him as one of the leading challengers for Evander Holyfield's championship belt.

Rahman (pronounced ROCK-mon) hopes to improve his standing tomorrow in Miami, where he tests his 29-0 record against rugged David Tua of New Zealand to determine who will be ranked No. 1 by the International Boxing Federation.

Rahman's $300,000 purse for appearing in the 12-round bout will place him near the $1 million mark in career earnings.

The billboards were conceived and paid for by Rick Levin, who operates urban fashion apparel stores in Baltimore.

"I know he's a good athlete," said Levin, "but there is also a gentleness and shyness about him. I try to do a lot for the community with my business, and I just see him as a role model for the kids from Baltimore.

"He's unspoiled right now, and I hope he never gets spoiled. Reading all this stuff about Mike Tyson, to have a genuinely nice person as heavyweight champion would be so refreshing in this day and age. Baltimore should be proud of Hasim and support him."

Levin has produced a brief documentary of Rahman's life and philosophy titled "The Next Heavyweight Champion of the World." It includes highlights of past fights and scenes of him with his three children at home in Harford County.

Levin is planning a major marketing campaign geared to city youth and envisions the articulate boxer as an attractive spokesman for area businesses and charitable organizations.

It is all intoxicating stuff for Rahman, who turned 26 last month. Only three months ago, he appeared down and out in Baltimore with his boxing career in limbo. He had stopped training, and he had pulled out of a September televised bout with Tua at the urging of promoter Don King.

HBO programming executive Lou DiBella threatened to ban Rahman from future telecasts. Rahman also faced possible legal action from Tua's manager, Lou Duva. It took a lawsuit by Cedrick Kushner -- Rahman's longtime promoter -- against King for attempting to "steal and bribe" his fighter to restore the status quo.

The $12 million suit, filed in federal court in New York, is pending.

Rahman blames this chaotic period on a financial dispute that his co-managers, Steve Nelson and Robert Mittleman, had with former trainer Janks Morton. "I didn't think my managers were doing their job, although it was ultimately resolved," he said.

Sensing a problem, King wooed Rahman and gave him a $125,000 signing bonus.

"Basically, King told me that he runs boxing," recalled Rahman, "and that there would be no No. 1 heavyweight unless it was going through him. And, you see, today, there is still no No. 1 [in the IBF].

"Had Francois Botha stayed with King, he'd be No. 1 now, no doubt in my mind," Rahman said of the South African boxer. Botha signed with British promoter Frank Warren and spurned the proposed IBF elimination tournament for an opportunity to fight Mike Tyson, another King defector, for a $2 million purse in Las Vegas Jan. 16.

Reunited with Kushner, Rahman harbors no bitterness over his brief hiatus.

"I feel I learned from it and can appreciate the experience of dealing with guys like King, listening to how they talk. It's a plus for me down the road. Now, I can concentrate on fighting."

Recalling the uncertain times, Nelson said: "I think Rock was surprised how events were controlling his life. He didn't have a full grasp of what was transpiring.

"He told me a long time ago that I'd be with him throughout his career, and I took him for his word. Now, he wants to prove to everyone who supported him that he's worth the effort. He's going to take care of business against Tua Saturday in a way that will surprise a lot of people."

Climb to the top

The big surprise is how far Rahman has come in such a short time, climbing to the brink of a heavyweight championship fight in four short years as a professional after a relatively brief amateur career.

In fact, a near-fatal accident almost ended his boxing career before it began. At 18, he was a passenger in a friend's truck heading for Baltimore Community College.

"We were speeding, and the truck flipped," he said. "The driver got killed. I fell out the door and, somehow, my face got pinned under the gas tank. The medics had to tear just about all the skin off the right side of my face to cut me loose."

Left with a deep scar on his cheekbone, Rahman retreated into a shell in his family home in Randallstown.

"I was up and around in a couple of weeks, but there was one point I was feeling really vulnerable," he said. "I told my best friend, Melvin 'Winkie' Walker, that I didn't feel comfortable mingling with people in my house because my face was all messed up.

"He grabbed my arm and said, 'You better get upstairs, man. You are you. That's who you are, and they're going to have to accept you.'

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