Baltimore native Hasim Rahman was big, strong and athletic when he turned professional at the age of 22 in Las Vegas in 1994. Already a polished negotiator, Rahman talked his backers into giving him a $100,000 signing bonus - an unheard-of figure considering he was just 7-3 as an amateur.
But after winning his first 29 pro bouts, Rahman began to cut corners in workouts. He began to shed trainers like a snake does skin. And his bad habits caught up with him: Rahman went 6-5-1 during a stretch against some of the heavyweight division's better fighters.
"I was in the most difficult stage of my career, and I was training less than ever in my career," said Rahman, who turned 32 on Sunday. "When I was fighting four-rounders, I was training harder and more regularly than when I was fighting world-class guys. It was on-the-job training."
Rahman (39-5-1, 32 knockouts) promises to show what he has learned tomorrow night at New York's Madison Square Garden, where he goes after his fifth straight win against 34-year-old Kali Meehan (29-2, 23 KOs) of Australia in a 10-rounder on a Don King-promoted, pay-per-view card featuring four heavyweight fights.
The fight is an elimination bout for the right to face World Boxing Organization champion Lamon Brewster, who is not on the card, or whoever emerges from tomorrow night's World Boxing Association fight between champion John Ruiz and Andrew Golota.
Rahman, who lives with his family in Las Vegas, is ranked No. 1 by the WBO and the WBA, and No. 2 by the International Boxing Federation, whose titlist, Chris Byrd, defends against Jameel McCline tomorrow night.
Rahman says he is rededicated under his new trainer - the eighth of his career - the well-traveled Thell Torrence, 68. Having spent 44 years alongside legendary trainer Eddie Futch, Torrence has had a hand in the development of past heavyweight champs Riddick Bowe, Tony Tubbs, Ken Norton and former Olympic gold medalist Audley Harrison of England.
"I've put my trust in Thell, and Thell believes in me," Rahman said. "Fights are won and lost in gym preparation. And I can judge by now, based on the gym work, this has been excellent. It's a winning combination."
Rahman is also the No. 1 contender of the World Boxing Council, whose champion, Vitali Klitschko, will fight England's Danny Williams - who defeated Mike Tyson - next month.
Rahman compared his situation to that of a batter facing a full count with the bases loaded.
"It's like in a baseball game. I've got two strikes. One more strike and it's over and I'm out," said the man who became Baltimore's first and only heavyweight champ when he earned the undisputed title from Lennox Lewis in April 2001, only to lose it seven months later in the rematch.
"Not only do I need to win, I need to win impressively," Rahman added. "I need to hit a grand slam."
If it were Rahman's preference, he wouldn't be fighting in November.
It was just after midnight on Nov. 7, 1999 - Rahman's 27th birthday - that he was knocked out of the ring by Oleg Maskaev in Atlantic City, N.J. And it was Nov. 17, 2001, when he lost his rematch with Lewis in Las Vegas.
In addition, Rahman, a devout Muslim, observes that faith's holy month of Ramadan by fasting - which he did the day before the Lewis rematch. Rahman said he will not do so this time, taking advantage of a loophole pertaining to travel and business.
"It's not my favorite month to fight. I think about it all the time, but I don't believe in jinxes. If I had prepared properly for those fights, I wouldn't have any losses in November," said Rahman, who earned an average of $25,000 during each of his past four victories.
But he looked hungry during that time. In the third fight of his comeback, Rahman froze Rob Calloway with a stiff jab, then unleashed a right hand that knocked out Calloway and which his rival said he never saw.
In his next fight, in Rochester, N.Y., Rahman broke Terrence Lewis' nose with a sledgehammer jab that drove the fighter to his hands and knees for his third straight second-round knockout.
"I had to take some lower-level fights to work my way back up the ladder and do what no other prospect would do. Those fights got me back on rhythm in terms of keeping my body in shape and taking my body to the next level," Rahman said. "I feel like being the youngest fighter on this card, I am the best prospect in the game. Now I want to be champion again."
Torrence said he found Rahman to be a willing student.
"You show him things, and he picks them up. I was surprised at how Rock was more agile than I thought he was," Torrence said. "Rock not only has big hands, but he's a very strong kid. I don't plan on trying to change anything, but there are some adjustments we are making that will enhance what he's already doing."