On Tuesday, during a promotional event in Baltimore, Hasim Rahman and Lennox Lewis seemed to get along pretty well for two guys scheduled to fight for the world heavyweight title on Nov. 17. At one point, Rahman even jokingly handed Lewis a belt.
Yesterday, though, they appeared interested only in belting each other.
During a taping of ESPN's Up Close at the ESPN Zone in Anaheim, Calif., the two exchanged coarse words and ended up wrestling on the floor, knocking over a table, chairs and equipment and bringing their entourages onto the set to pull them apart.
Neither fighter was hurt.
Boxing has had its share of such incidents, some apparently staged. But not this time, according to Rahman.
"Absolutely, this was not staged," Rahman, the champion from Baltimore, said on Fox's The Last Word, recorded yesterday after the incident.
Tensions between the fighters were high before the ESPN taping. In an earlier radio appearance, Rahman had characterized Lewis' legal actions that forced a rematch between them as "gay."
"I wasn't saying that he was gay," Rahman told The Sun last night. "I don't care if he's gay or not."
On Up Close, Lewis said Rahman was questioning his manhood, and their verbal exchange quickly deteriorated further, with Lewis making a crude reference to Rahman's sister. Rahman warned Lewis not to talk about his family, and soon the two were standing, faces inches apart.
At that point, Up Close host Gary Miller could be seen smiling at what he obviously regarded as typical boxing hype theater. But then Lewis grabbed Rahman, and the melee began.
"I had him on the ground, like a child, physically just holding him on the ground," Rahman said. "He was at my mercy. He was kicking like a little woman. I just didn't want to jeopardize the millions of dollars I stand to make by hurting my hand or hurting his face. ...
"It's obvious that I maintained my sense of control. I had the man on the ground and could have beat him to a bloody pulp if I wanted to. But, instead, I used a cooler head and said we could do this in the ring."
Steve Nelson, Rahman's co-manager, said: "One thing we all felt was, when we walked into the place [ESPN Zone], there's no question, there's been a lot of tension on this tour that has been building and building and building. Lennox showed up with three additional bodyguards. ...
"This is absolutely genuine. This is Lennox getting personal, bringing things into the interview that should not be brought into it."
Rahman won Lewis' International Boxing Federation and World Boxing Council crowns with a knockout April 21 in South Africa. Rahman had been scheduled to fight European heavyweight Brian Nielsen before Lewis won a court decision to set the rematch.
"What I don't understand is that a true heavyweight champion would not disrespect an opponent with unjustified taunts and jibes," Lewis said in a statement. "Today, Rock woke up the lion within me. Now, I'm going to crush the Rock in the ring, regain my belt and bring some dignity back to the heavyweight crown."
Asked if extra precautions would be taken for the remaining stops on the promotional tour -- in Las Vegas today and London on Sunday -- Alan Hopper, a spokesman for promoter Don King, said: "We're not expecting any problems."
Sun staff writer Lem Satterfield and the Associated Press contributed to this article.