Upsetting frame of mind

Boxing: Baltimore's Hasim Rahman hopes to pull off a shocker on Saturday against champion Lennox Lewis.

Boxing

April 19, 2001|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa - These are heady times for Baltimore fighter Hasim "The Rock" Rahman.

Three weeks ago, he was so unknown that the South African media waiting for him at Johannesburg International Airport mistook an African-American priest stepping through the arrival gates for the young boxer.

When they finally identified Rahman, 28, they couldn't pronounce his name either.

And why bother learning? If the oddsmakers were right, Rahman (pronounced ROCK-man) would be a name you could forget once he stepped into the ring with world heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis. The fight, scheduled for 5 a.m. Sunday local time (Saturday, approximately 11 p.m., Eastern time), would feature Rahman's being knocked out so quickly that Lewis would be relaxing on a safari before sunrise. Rahman, it seemed, was here just to whet the boxing world's appetite for the fight it really wanted to see: Lewis vs. Mike Tyson.

But what a difference three weeks can make.

Rahman is now the darling of the South African media, which have turned him into almost a household name. "A likeable fellow," one reporter called him recently. Local newspapers run glowing photos of the challenger: Rahman poses with Ms. South Africa. Rahman cradles an AIDS orphan. Rahman displays his sledgehammer-sized fists. Fans just call him "Rock" as if they were old pals.

And now the boxing world is taking seriously threats by Rahman to spoil the predictions of a quick victory by Lewis.

During an unofficial weigh-in Tuesday at Carnival City Casino near Johannesburg, talk of an upset was heightened when Lewis stepped on the scales. Fully clothed, the British champion weighed in at 268 - nearly 20 pounds heavier than he was for his November 2000 victory over David Tua.

And then there are those signs of gray on the 35-year-old's sideburns. Critics say Lewis, who has been busy filming a movie while preparing for the fight at his camp outside Las Vegas, may not be taking Rahman as seriously as he should.

Rahman, who weighed 247 clothed, may be gaining the upper hand in the pre-fight public relations game, too. Surrounded by a pack of sullen-looking bodyguards, Lewis has been lashed by South Africans for hiding inside a protective bubble. The fight's promoter, in an interview with a local paper, described the Lewis team as "arrogant" for showing up more than an hour late to news conferences and public sparring practices.

Rahman, who at times has appeared almost shy and uncomfortable talking up himself at news conferences, displayed his growing confidence in the spotlight yesterday. Asked how he hoped to survive in the ring with Lewis after other bigger, world-class fighters like Michael Grant and Andrew Golota have crumbled before him, Rahman collapsed in laughter. Then he became serious as he picked up the microphone to answer.

"They might have been bigger than me. But you can't see my heart. Believe me. It's big," he said to a crowd of onlookers, who responded with warm applause.

But Rahman's heart has been broken more than once during his climb to the top of his sport. His record of 34 wins with 28 knockouts is marred by two devastating losses in his biggest fights. And those losses have provided critics with plenty of evidence that Rahman will topple at the hands of the World Boxing Council and International Boxing Federation champion, who boasts a 35-1 record with 27 knockouts.

Loss 1: In 1998, Rahman was dominating a fight against Tua with sharp jabs and quick combinations. He was leading comfortably on all three judges' scorecards. But at the end of the eighth round, Tua buckled Rahman with a left hook, sending him to the ropes. It was a late hit, according to the Rahman camp, and should have entitled Rahman to a five-minute rest. The referee disagreed, and the fight continued. Rahman never recovered and lost by a technical knockout.

Loss 2: In 1999, Rahman found himself knocked clear out of the ring by Russian Oleg Maskaev, who went after him with a devastating combination in the eighth round.

Rahman views the embarrassment at the hands of Maskaev as the rebirth of his career, the moment he realized he had underestimated his opponents and needed to respect everyone he faced.

His new outlook has produced results. Last year, he returned to the ring to win three fights, capping the year with his eighth-round knockout of Frankie Swindell for his World Boxing Union title. And now he is one step away from winning the top crown in the boxing world, an achievement that would undoubtedly be another rebirth for the Baltimore fighter.

Raised in Randallstown, Rahman got his first taste of fighting on the street, where he was always on hand to protect his eight brothers if they got into trouble.

"If somebody did something to my brother, I would avenge it immediately," he recalled. For a while, he turned his intimidating talents into profit as a bodyguard.

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