Rahman insists he'll be one breathing easier

Confidence still high for Lewis bout tonight

April 21, 2001|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BRAKPAN, South Africa - Attitude and altitude.

Those are the two factors that may play the biggest roles in tonight's world heavyweight title fight between champion Lennox Lewis and Baltimore's Hasim "The Rock" Rahman.

During last night's pre-fight weigh-in, Rahman, 28, continued to display his unfailing winning attitude by promising to pull off what would be one of the great upsets in boxing history.

"I'm feeling really good. I'm just anxious to get it on," he said after tipping the scales at 237 pounds - several pounds lighter than he weighed before his last fight in November, when he knocked out Frankie Swindell.

"I've never been in this type of shape," he said. "I'm ready to go 12 rounds hard. I can show you. I'm ready to start right now."

Lewis, 35, came in at 253 pounds - 4 pounds heavier than he was for his last fight, a 12-round victory over Samoan David Tua in November. The extra pounds fed into criticism, which has dogged the champ since he arrived in South Africa, that his attitude has been somewhat lax for this fight.

Not true, said Frank Maloney, Lewis' manager.

"He was focused from the minute he got here," Maloney said. "He knows there is too much at stake not to be focused."

And that weight?

"There's no problem," the manager said.

What may be a problem for both fighters is the altitude. Much has been made of the rarefied air in South Africa's high veldt, a region of rolling fields and gold-rich ridges more than a mile (5,280 feet) above sea level.

Rahman flew to South Africa nearly four weeks ago to acclimate himself to conditions that can leave even the most talented athletes gasping for air. Lewis came here less than two weeks ago, a fact that, like his weight, has raised questions about his conditioning.

Rahman's trainer, Adrian Davis, said Rahman completed his 10 weeks of training yesterday morning with a two-mile run. He took no comfort in the rumors swirling around Lewis.

"We don't want to fight any weak Lennox Lewis," Davis said. "We are expecting a tough, hard fight. [Rahman is] expecting war."

So is Lewis' trainer, Emanuel Steward, who shrugged off the altitude questions. A frequent worldwide traveler, Lewis (35-1, 27 knockouts) adjusts quickly to new time zones and conditions, Steward said.

"I think it will be a knockout," Steward said last night. "Lennox feels aggressive. When he feels like that, he knocks guys out."

If that's true, it will be a long day for Rahman. The fight is scheduled to begin at 5 a.m. local time - 11 tonight on the East Coast - to accommodate American HBO viewers.

Carnival City Casino, the fight venue, is a circus-theme gambling and entertainment center that would look comfortable on the Las Vegas strip.

In South Africa, the complex's festive flags and circus-tent architecture stand out against a dreary backdrop of suburban homes, squatter camps and mine dumps in this town about 20 miles east of Johannesburg.

About 5,300 people are expected to pack into the casino's Big Top Arena to see the pre-dawn bout that has been dubbed "Thunder in Africa." And although the fight has not drawn much interest overseas, it is expected to bring at least two celebrities to town: former middleweight champion "Marvelous" Marvin Hagler and actor Will Smith.

But what is clearly one of the biggest sporting events in South Africa's history is not sold out. Some 200 tickets remain, promoter Rodney Berman said. One of the problems is cost, which, at $100 per ticket, is the equivalent of about a month's salary for much of the country's population.

Lewis has expressed disappointment this week that more South Africans could not see him fight. The champion had hoped the fight would be a historic event similar to the 1974 Muhammad Ali vs. George Foreman "Rumble in the Jungle" bout in Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo.

For Rahman, however, the fight for the World Boxing Council and International Boxing Federation belts - win or lose - is historic. The boxer from Randallstown who now lives in Bel Air has been heaped with more attention than ever in his eight-year boxing career.

He will step into the ring tonight with a record of 34 wins, two losses and 28 knockouts. He will step out either a champion or perhaps another soon-to-be-forgotten victim of Lewis.

A loss is a possibility Rahman is naturally reluctant to entertain.

"It always depends on what the circumstances are," he said during an interview this week. "I'm not willing to start from scratch again and go through this whole hike. If I go in there and I'm just totally outclassed, then I'm fooling myself." ... But if it's a tough, rugged fight and he wins a split decision, you can't expect me to give it up."

After the weigh-in, Rahman lingered in the spotlight briefly. While the television cameras focused on him, he appeared to enjoy the moment as he signed autographs and answered questions.

Is he nervous?

"Not at all," he said. "I haven't been nervous the whole time I've been here. If it does come, it's natural for some nerves to come, but I haven't been experiencing them as of yet. So whatever happens, happens."

And what will he do in his final hours before the fight?

"Just relax," he said. "Take some walks, some leisurely walks, and wait in anticipation for the big day."

Fight facts

Who: Lennox Lewis (35-1, 27 KOs) vs. Hasim Rahman (34-2, 28 KOs)

What: For Lewis' WBC-IBF heavyweight titles, 12 rounds

Where: Brakpan, South Africa

When: Tonight, approximately 11 p.m. Eastern time

TV: HBO, 10 p.m.

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