Baltimore's newest hero

Hasim Rahman goes from unknown boxer to name of a burger

April 23, 2001|By Laura Barnhardt, David Nitkin and Lem Satterfield | Laura Barnhardt, David Nitkin and Lem Satterfield,SUN STAFF

Two days ago, Hasim "The Rock" Rahman was an unknown with a shot at the heavyweight boxing title. Today, a hamburger is named after him.

Rahman's instant fame flows from a single punch that floored champion Lennox Lewis in a title fight that will go down in the annals of boxing as one of the biggest upsets ever -- a fight the fans in his hometown will never forget.

"No one thought a Baltimore kid would become world champion," said Frank Mitsos, owner of Wahoos Sports Bar and Grill in Randallstown, which is naming a burger after Baltimore's first heavyweight champ. "We needed a good sports story. ... This is the kind of thing that keeps us going. "

Rahman grew up not far from the neighborhood around Wahoos. The bar, where locals were intently watching the HBO broadcast of the game Saturday night, is caught up in the heavyweight hysteria around Rahman, who arrives home today and will be greeted by a throng of family and friends at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

His stunning upset has caught many off guard. Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger, who missed the fight, said they were unsure when and how they would stage an official civic celebration.

But several celebrations were in the works. Dozens of friends, fans and relatives will greet his plane, and neighbors in Abingdon were having a banner made that will hang on his front porch: "Welcome Home, New World Champion Hasim Rahman! Congratulations!"

Fans watching the bout say they still can't believe it. "All of a sudden, the knockout flashed up on the screen," said Mitsos. "The whole bar was in awe. It was a great surprise."

Rahman's victory comes on the heels of this year's Super Bowl win by the Baltimore Ravens and the University of Maryland men's basketball team's first trip to the Final Four.

Rahman, 28, has all of the characteristics a hometown looks for in its sports heroes. He has a nickname, "The Rock," and ties to the region, from the Baltimore streets, where his first opponents were local bullies, to Abingdon, the Harford County neighborhood that he, his wife and three children call home. Even better, he hasn't forgotten his roots.

O'Malley said he was pleased to hear that Rahman mentioned the city when he took a turn at the microphone after he knocked out Lewis in the fifth round to win the World Boxing Council and International Boxing Federation titles in South Africa.

"He said, `Mayor O'Malley, get ready. I'm bringing it home,'" O'Malley said.

Rahman made a point to thank trainer Mack Lewis, 82, who has operated a gym at Broadway and Eager Street since 1943. "It's the first gym I ever went to," Rahman said after screaming Lewis' name during the post-fight interview.

"For him to say that, it brought tears to my eyes," Mack Lewis said. "A lot of people, you do things to help, they don't say nothing about you. All of a sudden, they take all of the credit. I've had fighters I've done a whole lot for and they've said nothing.

"He's the right kind of man, an intelligent man, to be the first heavyweight champion for Baltimore, because of what he's been through and where he came from, and he's a decent man."

Lewis, who handled Rahman for a few of his 11 amateur fights, said Rahman "came to the gym and did everything you asked him to do. He'd shadow box, hit the heavy bag, skip rope. He was an easy guy to work with. ... And he had the body of a fighter, along with the desire to be a fighter."

Rahman credited his managers, Stan Hoffman and Steve Nelson, for keeping their promise to make him a champion. He thanked his trainer, Adrian Davis. And he told his mother, Joyce Rahman, that she could "tell the state of Maryland to take that job and shove it. She don't got to work there anymore."

Rahman's mother quit her job last week as a correctional officer after more than 10 years, said Rahman's sister, Kamilah Rahman-Fly.

But Rahman said he doesn't expect life to change much. "I'm still going to go to the same places. ... I'm not going to be one of these guys who needs 12 or 13 bodyguards. I'm going to walk to the same malls."

His neighbors in Abingdon weren't sure how long Rahman would stay, though. "It's hard to imagine that a world champion would live in this middle-class, suburban neighborhood," said Gene L. Miller, 37, an insurance manager who lives nearby.

The Oates family put a big-screen television on the porch and invited the entire neighborhood over to watch the fight. "There were probably close to 20 of us there, cheering and hollering. We were ecstatic," said Victor Tritto, 37, a podiatrist who lives across the street from Rahman.

Even before his victory, Rahman was popular, especially among the children who live nearby. To celebrate one of his children's birthdays, Rahman rented ponies for all the neighborhood children to ride, Tritto said.

Although Rahman quickly became a household name in South Africa during the past few weeks, he is largely unknown in Maryland.

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