ROCHESTER, N.Y. -- Hasim Rahman grew up in Baltimore and lives in Las Vegas. So why did he prepare for Saturday's defense of his World Boxing Council heavyweight title in this New York city?
Simply put, he likes Rochester, and it likes him.
Local businessman Neal Bauman often tells the story of a scene in a restaurant nearly two years ago when Rahman trumped another local hero - Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb.
"Donovan went to Syracuse, so he's pretty popular when he comes to town. And people in the bar were swarming around Donovan at the time," said Bauman, 55, owner of a financial planning firm. "All of a sudden, Rock walks in, and all eyes shift to him. Even Donovan stood up and went, `Rock, my man!' "
That scene took place in July 2004, only days before Rahman would score a second-round knockout over Terrence Lewis in front of more than 5,000 rain-soaked fans at Rochester's Frontier Field.
The victory was among four consecutive knockouts scored by Rahman during a six-bout winning streak that would lead to his position as the No. 1 contender for the WBC crown owned by Vitali Klitschko.
Klitschko's retirement in November meant the canceling of a defense against Rahman (41-5-1, 33 knockouts), who replaced the Ukrainian as WBC champion. Rahman, 33, will make the first defense of his crown against 37-year-old James Toney (69-4-2, 43 KOs) in a bout that will be televised on HBO from Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, N.J. The telecast will begin at 10 p.m.
Rochester resident Steve Nelson has managed Rahman's entire career, including his April 2001 one-punch knockout of Lennox Lewis for the undisputed crown, which he lost in a rematch seven months later. It was Nelson's idea to bring Rahman to Rochester, where support of Rahman has been unwavering.
"Rock is a fan favorite here in Rochester because he's fought so many times. Rock's done a lot of public appearances, gone to the local high schools and spoken to the kids, really built his fan base up," said Ron Resnick, who promoted Rahman's fight with Terrence Lewis.
"Rock's had a nice successful camp here. And now, as world champion, people are excited that he's picked Rochester to hold his training camp. There've been a lot of fight fans who have wanted to come in and be a part of it."
Rahman's muscular frame was on display Saturday when he conducted a light workout that ended nearly six weeks of training at a fitness and boxing center attached to a body shop located in the heart of the city's industrial district.
The facility, coincidentally called, "The ROC," was crammed with nearly 100 fans who cheered Rahman's every move, whether he was jumping rope, throwing punches at hand pads worn by longtime sparring partner Mo Gray or hitting the speed bag.
As Rahman pounded the bag near the end of his workout, a well-dressed man who calls himself "The Godfather" - a recruited Las Vegas-based rapper with the gift of gab - worked the crowd into a frenzy by repeatedly asking, "Who's the champ?" The crowd would respond, in unison: "The Rock!"
"This is a working-class town of blue-collar people, and it's an indescribable feeling to have people taking time out of their day, altering their schedule because of you," said Rahman, who told local television news anchor Mark Gruba: "I know the feelings are genuine in Rochester, because I got it from almost Day One. I feel like Rochester is my home away from home."
Rahman has felt that way since his first of four victories in Rochester in October 1995.
"I'm no better than them," Rahman said. "I'm not special. But I know how much it means to them to be able to talk to, take pictures of and shake hands with the heavyweight champion of the world. They've been good to me, so my team and I want to be good to them."
"Hasim Rahman is what the boxing world needs," said Mike Gustin, 46, after placing his 3-year-old son, Ryan, on Rahman's right thigh and taking a snapshot. Others, such as 80-year-old Richard Fairchild, noted Rahman's presence at three local high schools. "He's effective as a speaker in reaching out to the youth in the community," Fairchild said.
"We know his background, the kind of life that he's lived, what he's had to overcome," said Rochester-born George Tobin, 36, when reminded of Rahman's past problems, including his youthful brushes with the law and his bankruptcy.
Closed to the public, Friday's workout took on a more serious tone as Rahman battled in the ring with Jermell Barnes, a 30-year-old Rochester high school science teacher with a 17-14 heavyweight record that belies his toughness.
In a camp during which 10 different sparring partners were used to emulate Toney's slick, defensive style, Barnes proudly proclaimed himself, "The last man standing."
"Rock's had over 100 hundred rounds of boxing and done miles and miles of conditoning. You name it, we've done it," said Rahman's trainer, Thell Torrence, who turns 70 in June. "Rock is psychologically ready for this fight."