Don't knock the `Rock': Champ won't drop guard


April 23, 2001|By Mike Preston

HASIM "THE ROCK" Rahman is no Buster Douglas, but he is not Muhammad Ali either.

He is, however, the heavyweight champion of the world, a legitimate fighter with decent ability and a lethal right hand.

Rahman, 28, joined Douglas in the history books Saturday night by staging one of the biggest upsets in heavyweight boxing history when he knocked out Lennox Lewis in the fifth round for the World Boxing Council and International Boxing Federation championships in Brakpan, South Africa.

But unlike Douglas, who shocked the world when he knocked out heavyweight champion Mike Tyson in February 1990 only to lose his title eight months later to Evander Holyfield, Rahman (35-2, 29 knockouts) is no one-fight wonder.

As Douglas was, Rahman is a journeyman, but the comparison ends there. Before he fought Tyson, Douglas had the reputation of quitting in the ring, and he was known for being a picky eater (everything he picked up, he ate).

By the time he fought Holyfield, Douglas was about a ton heavier, which ended his short title reign.

Rahman's tenure may be just as short if he fights Mike Tyson for possibly $10 million to $15 million next instead of some palooka, or if Lewis trains harder before a rematch with Rahman, but at least Rahman has a reputation for being committed to the sport and having loads of potential.

He might be a champion or contender for some time. Lewis is 35 and Tyson 34, and George Foreman is now selling mufflers and electric grills full time, thank goodness.

Rahman can hang with just about everyone else in the division.

"He is the fertilizer of the field," said Bert Randolph Sugar, a long-time boxing historian. "All of a sudden, there is a new face and a new man draws a lot of interest. The heavyweight championship is still the single most-recognized title in all of sports.

"When Douglas became the champion, he self-destructed," Sugar said. "In between rounds with Holyfield, he went out for pizza. Then there are guys like Frank Bruno. He crossed himself 47 times before he got in the ring with Mike Tyson, so much that I thought I was in church. But Rahman doesn't have that fear. He has a great right hand, and a pretty good left one, even though he didn't use it against Lewis. He hits with power like a Joe Louis or a Jack Dempsey. Heavyweights are supposed to be able to take you out with one punch, not dance for 12 rounds like a feather or lightweight. He is not the consummate fighter, but the consummate puncher."

Lewis found out about Rahman's power. That shot was no fluke.

The right cross 2 minutes, 32 seconds into the fifth round put Lewis into submission. But that's only part of the Rahman package - a factor that separates him from being a one-fight wonder, just another Buster. Boxing requires rigorous training, and Rahman never complains.

Even when he was on the brink of a career collapse after being knocked out by David Tua on Dec. 19, 1998, and by Russian Oleg Maskaev on Nov. 6, 1999, Rahman rededicated himself to the sport.

Before meeting Lewis, Rahman arrived in South Africa a month before the fight to get used to the rarefied air in South Africa's high veldt, a region of rolling fields and gold-rich ridges more than a mile above sea level. Rahman weighed in at 237 pounds, lighter than his previous fight, when he knocked out Frankie Swindell in August.

Lewis came in only two weeks before the fight. He was too busy taking part in the filming of an "Ocean's Eleven" remake in Las Vegas. He weighed a career-high 253 pounds, and where was Julia Roberts when he began sucking for air in the second round?

Rahman has never had those problems. His first trainer, Mack Lewis, doesn't expect that to happen.

"He always came to the gym and did everything you asked him to do," Lewis said. "He'd shadowbox, hit the heavy bag, skip rope. He was an easy kid to work with. This kid never rebelled against anything you asked him to do. He had the body of a fighter and a desire to be a fighter."

But the champion's biggest fight isn't always inside the ring, but inside himself.

Now that he has become heavyweight champion of the world, Rahman will discover long, lost friends and cousins. Everyone will want to sell him something. They will want his money and his time. There will be distractions galore.

Just ask Lewis. He may have been looking ahead to a rumored $100 million fight against Tyson.

"Before the Lewis fight, Rahman was defined by two losses," Sugar said. "Now he is defined by one of the greatest upsets in boxing history. Now what does he do with it? Does he get in trouble via the associates he hangs around with, like Ray Lewis? I hear he [Rahman] is a nice guy, a solid person. Hopefully, he can stay that way. But Baltimore is not an easy place to remain yourself."

Rahman hasn't had many problems. With eight brothers and three sisters, he always had his share of support. His parents made every effort to keep their children shielded from the temptations of the streets in West Baltimore and focused on schools and sports activities.

Rahman was no innocent as a teen-ager, accompanying his friends to bars and pool halls. But those close to him say those days are long over. He is as committed to family as he is to boxing.

Now it's time to move from one stage of boxing to another, from long shot to defending champion. The public needs to know he is no Buster Douglas.

"I think he is real," Sugar said. "He's got good skills. You've got two champions in Baltimore, the Ravens and Rahman, and that's unusual. That's something the city should crow about. Baltimore should be beating on its chest about the football team and Rahman. That's what sports is all about."

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