Rahman can teach a life lesson

April 26, 2001|By Michael Olesker

ON THE DAY Hasim Rahman returned from his miracle in South Africa, he could not get enough of himself. He bundled his family around him and happily toured every television station in town. A more delighted human being on the planet could not be found from South Africa to South Baltimore.

About 5 o'clock, he showed up at WJZ-TV and stuck around for two hours. He sat in front of a videotape machine and watched himself throw a right hand into the middle of Lennox Lewis' expression. Down went Lewis, dispatched simultaneously from his heavyweight boxing title and all consciousness.

"Ooh," Rahman called out, watching the moment for perhaps the 37th time and laughing. "Boxing is a bad sport. Oh, I can't watch it."

"Bad," somebody yelled back heartily.

"Very bad," Rahman laughed. "Show that tape again."

All references to his sport's problems were intended ironically. For Rahman, boxing is the gift that gave purpose to his life, the thing that took him off of the city's street corners and, as now becomes clear, out of its police precincts and its criminal courtrooms.

In the early 1990s, the cops commenced a dozen arrests of Rahman on charges including handgun possession, theft, drug dealing, loitering, battery and robbery. Most charges were dropped by prosecutors before trial. But, in 1993, when Judge Roger W. Brown sentenced him to probation on a drug conviction, Rahman began to see the light of day.

Wiser heads took him and his street-fighting instincts to the East Baltimore gym run by Mack Lewis, the legendary trainer who brings dignity and discipline to this brutal sport. Rahman took his lumps the first few times he stepped into a ring, but he learned: not only boxing, but a greater sense of who he might be - not a street thug, but the boxing king of the whole world.

And now on the video screen, with his family gathered around him the other afternoon, here was Rahman watching himself again. And here was the right hand, and Lennox Lewis was going down and down, in real speed and then in slow motion, and then somebody was rewinding the tape to show it one more time until a voice in this room, giddy with whoops of laughter from Rahman, and from his family, and from assorted well-wishers, yelled through the din, "What were you thinking when you saw Lewis fall?"

Rahman threw his hands into the air like a fellow at his own coronation.

"The new heavyweight champion of the world," he said, crowning himself all over again and bathing in the pleasure of that moment. "That's what I was thinking."

He laughed again, and rocked himself happily like a child in a high chair. The moment was pure, undistilled joy, and everybody in the room felt wonderful for him. Whatever happens down the road, and whatever happened before in his 28 years, nobody can take this hour of his life away.

And nobody has to take it away. The beauty of this moment does not have to be diminished by his unruly past - it can be built upon. Here is the moment for greatness from Rahman, the time for him to say, "Yeah, I was that kid. I had nothing, and I wanted something, and I didn't know how to get it the right way - and here is how I triumphed over my worst instincts."

He thus becomes a champion role model for all those haunting street corners the way he once did.

In the boxing writers' lexicon, Rahman's triumph over Lennox Lewis is compared to the great boxing upsets of all time. This is an echo of the kid named Cassius Clay beating up the old head-buster Sonny Liston. Or it's Leon Spinks stunning the fellow who was now Muhammad Ali, or it's Buster Douglas coming out of oblivion to beat the bully Mike Tyson.

But none of those fights compares with the thing Hasim Rahman has accomplished in his life, if only he will tell his story truly and let the lesson sink in for others: There is a way out. Maybe not boxing - but something.

Rahman is the right guy to tell that story. He's strong and tough. He's also smart and funny and enormously personable. And he knows the things that move people. This one's for Baltimore, he said after winning the title. Nobody wins a title without going through Baltimore, he said, alluding to the football champion Ravens. He was the world's champ, but he was still Baltimore's child.

Now he can talk to the rest of our children, all of whom will be watching. His previous life was like thousands of kids who never imagine a way out. He is the proof there is a way, and his is the story waiting to be told in all of its fullness.

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