Rahman arrives early, optimistic in S. Africa

Baltimore boxer set to face Lewis April 21


March 28, 2001|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa - After a grueling, 15-hour flight from the United States, Baltimore boxer Hasim Rahman landed in South Africa yesterday, appearing confident he would return home the world's next heavyweight champion.

Rahman (34-2, 28 knockouts) will be looking to defeat World Boxing Council and International Boxing Federation champion Lennox Lewis (35-1, 27 knockouts) on April 21 at Carnival City Casino's 7,500-seat arena outside Johannesburg. The bout, the biggest of Rahman's career, will be televised by HBO.

"I believe my style and my heart, and just my fire about fighting and my refuse-to-lose attitude will enable me to be the next champion of the world," Rahman told a packed news conference at Johannesburg International Airport.

It will be his first fight since an Aug. 4 knockout of Frankie Swindell. And it will be his biggest payday - reportedly a guaranteed $1.5 million.

A Randallstown native now living in Bel Air, Rahman, 28, dismissed oddsmakers who have been predicting an easy win for Lewis, 36. After eight weeks of intensive training in New York's Catskills, Rahman said he has developed different strategies to defeat Lewis.

"Sometimes Lewis looks like a world-beater. Sometimes he looks devastating and unbeatable, and sometimes he looks downright sloppy and amateurish. So, it depends on how he shows up," he said.

Lewis, Rahman predicted, will attempt to take him down in the early rounds.

"I believe this will be his downfall," Rahman said. "I am going to win this fight, and I'm going to win this fight impressively."

Much of the boxing world, however, appears to be overlooking the bout, being more interested in the possibility of a Mike Tyson-Lewis matchup later this year. Such speculation would be a mistake, Rahman said.

"The more likely scenario will be a Rahman-Tyson fight in the future," he said.

More than a display of confidence, the hourlong news conference allowed "The Rock" Rahman to introduce himself to the world. That he is relatively unknown was made clear by about two dozen South African photographers, television camera crews and journalists who whispered they had no idea what Rahman looked like as they waited at the arrival gate.

When a tall, black man in a bowler hat and black trench coat stepped through the doorway, the throng of journalists pressed toward him. Cameras flashed and questions flew. The man looked puzzled. He was a priest.

Several minutes later, Rahman (pronounced ROCK-man) walked out of the arrival gate. His sweatshirt clearly identified him as "Rock." Reporters and South African dignitaries, however, pronounced his name like it was Japanese instant noodles - "RA-men."

"How are we supposed to address you?" asked one local journalist.

"Champ would be nice," said Stan Hoffman, Rahman's handler.

Rahman still has nearly a month to train before he enters the ring to fight. He will be spending the next few weeks preparing at DuRandt's Gymnasium in downtown Johannesburg, where he will spar with several partners that flew over with him from Baltimore.

Before the fight, Rahman will need to adjust to not only a new time zone, but also a new altitude. At 5,748 feet, Johannesburg is higher than the mile-high city of Denver. Baltimore is at a mere 20 feet.

"I think I'll have plenty of time, and I'll be acclimated and I'll be adjusted and I'll be ready to go and ready to fight in South Africa," he said.

Lewis is scheduled to arrive in South Africa on April 9.

Asked if Lewis' later arrival was another sign that perhaps Rahman was not being taken seriously by his opponent, Rahman replied: "He's a world champion. He's a professional. He's been beating everyone in his generation. If getting here on the 9th suffices for him, then so be it. He knows what he is doing."

When Lewis does land in South Africa, he is expected to have his mother by his side. The champion from Britain eats only food prepared by her.

If there is a parallel in the Rahman camp, it may be Rahman's father, John Cason, who arrived yesterday. Devout Muslims, Cason and his son pray together five times every day.

"His religion is very important to him," Cason said.

Rahman's arrival in South Africa follows his initial refusal earlier this year to fight in South Africa, preferring to stay in America. But in February, Rahman changed his mind.

If the local press did not recognize Rahman, reporters did know something about his reputation for being a serious, but humble, young fighter. A local newspaper ran a story yesterday with the headline: "Rahman a likeable fellow."

One of his only contacts with the country was last year in Atlantic City, N.J., with his defeat of South African fighter Corrie Sanders. Asked if he was afraid he would not be welcomed in this country because of his victory over a popular South African fighter, Rahman said he had discussed that question with his family before he left Baltimore.

"Some of my family members said, `They should give you credit because you beat their man, and now it would be all love,' and that's what I've been feeling since I got off the plane," Rahman said.

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