Rahman revels in title: `That's how you fight'

Boxing world stunned by upset

Tyson next?

April 23, 2001|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BRAKPAN, South Africa - His left eye swollen shut, Baltimore's Hasim Rahman struggled to focus on world heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis, prowling to inflict more damage.

"There was blood dripping in my eye. It was blinding my left eye. I really couldn't see some of Lennox's punches," Rahman recalled of yesterday's early-morning title fight. "But I'm a fighter. I'm a fighter with one eye or whatever. I'm just going to keep throwing punches. I knew which area he was, generally. So you keep throwing punches, and that's how you fight."

And 2 minutes, 32 seconds into the fifth round, one of those punches, a right cross, caught Lewis on the jaw and flattened him. The British heavyweight was champion no more.

It was a punch heard in Baltimore and round the world yesterday, as Rahman, a 20-1 underdog largely unknown in his hometown, pulled off one of boxing's greatest upsets.

Confetti rained down on the 6,000-seat arena at Carnival City Casino outside Johannesburg, as the 28-year-old who picked up boxing just eight years ago was declared the new heavyweight champion of the world, holder of the World Boxing Council and International Boxing Federation belts.

And what of the punch that made it all possible?

Lewis dismissed it as an act of chance.

"You have to give Hasim Rahman a lot of credit. He came in. He wasn't scared. He was looking to win the fight. He was throwing some good punches. It just so happens that I stepped into one of them," Lewis told a packed news conference yesterday. He then turned to Rahman and asked: "Hasim, you know that was a lucky punch, right?"

Rahman, however, had another explanation.

"I feel that luck, as someone told me before, luck is being prepared when opportunity presents itself. And I believe we were fully prepared," he said.

Rahman (35-2, 29 knockouts) trained 10 weeks for the fight. He had arrived in South Africa nearly a month ago to adjust to the altitude (5,748 feet - higher than Denver) and weighed in at 237 pounds, one of his lowest fighting weights ever.

But perhaps just as important, Rahman was prepared mentally and emotionally. Commentators and fans were moved by the fighter's "heart." Not a swagger or cockiness, Rahman possessed a certain self-assurance and composure in the ring. "You can't see my heart," he had said. "Believe me. It's big."

In every other measurable attribute, Lewis (38-2-1, 27 knockouts) held the advantage. At 6 feet 5, Lewis towered over his 6-2 challenger. He was 16 pounds heavier. And the champion's reach allowed Lewis to launch long-range punches that made Rahman look like a man trying to dodge a wrecking ball.

"I felt that I was winning every round comfortably, but you know Hasim Rahman never gave up. I actually felt that Hasim had eye problems, and I felt the fight was swinging more in my direction," Lewis said. "And what can I say? It was a great punch."

Critics say Lewis looked sluggish in the ring, perhaps because he had not taken the challenge by Rahman seriously enough. Lewis weighed 253 pounds for the bout, his heaviest ever for a championship fight. And he arrived in South Africa less than two weeks before the fight, raising questions about whether he had enough time to adjust to the altitude.

Lewis and his trainers, however, dismissed such speculation.

"Obviously, I definitely was ready. I was well-prepared. I had no altitude problems. Nobody's seen me breathing hard in there," Lewis said. "This is what happens in heavyweight boxing. You get caught with a good shot and you don't get the count and the referee stops it. I never recovered from that punch. I landed on the canvas pretty hard with my head."

Said Emanuel Steward, Lewis' trainer: "Hasim Rahman did what he was supposed to do. He knew he was outclassed with Lennox overall and he was shooting for his big power punch and he landed a punch, a very beautiful clean right hand. And Lennox didn't do anything wrong. ... He just got hit on the chin. That's what makes our sport so dramatic compared to other sports where you can get a comfortable lead and you're secure. One punch can change the entire course of a fight."

The Lewis team was clearly stunned by the defeat. The fight generated little interest among boxing fans who were too preoccupied by the possibility of a Lewis-Mike Tyson bout to pay much attention to Rahman.

Rahman's manager, Stan Hoffman, recalled how low the expectations were for this fight. Lewis' handlers called him and said: " `No one expects you to win. But we'll give it a shot because we need something for Lennox,' and we agreed," said Hoffman.

But now the boxing world has been turned upside down. The question now is whether Rahman will fight Tyson. Rahman said he would leave the possibility of a Tyson fight up to his managers, who are already discussing another fight in South Africa.

Tyson, who is scheduled to fight David Izon in a 10-round bout June 2 at Washington's MCI Center, is the No. 1 challenger in the WBC rankings, and Tyson promoter Shelly Finkel told the Associated Press that Rahman must make a mandatory defense against the top-ranked contender.

There was a rematch clause in the Rahman-Lewis contract, but, Finkel said, "It's for the fight after the next one."

"I will fight any heavyweight," Rahman said. "If it's more feasible for us to fight Mike Tyson or Lennox Lewis, it really doesn't matter."

And the former champion said he would accept the challenge anytime.

"So you won this round, but I will be back. Any time you're ready, I'm ready, because I felt I was winning the fight," Lewis told Rahman. "But today is Hasim Rahman's day, and all the credit goes to him."

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