Rahman's legacy rides on outcome

March 17, 2006|By RICK MAESE

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — ATLANTIC CITY, N.J.-- --As professional boxing weigh-ins go, it was more a business meeting than a circus act -- which is to say the theatrics and absurdity were certainly present but hummed at a relatively low volume. Members of both fighters' camps shouted back and forth, volleying the term "champion" all over the ballroom.

To be accurate, there is a heavyweight title at stake tomorrow night when James Toney challenges Hasim Rahman. But for Rahman, so much more is on the line.

Toney, 37, is fighting for his future, a shot at a few more paydays before he hangs up his gloves. Rahman, though, is fighting for his past, present and future. A win tomorrow night legitimizes him as a champion. A loss exposes him as a one-hit wonder.

Steve Nelson, Rahman's long-time manager, was talking with his fighter before yesterday's weigh-in. They were discussing how fight fans will remember this bout.

"This is the fight that creates your legacy," Nelson told Rahman. "Lennox Lewis was a great victory, but this is the one that will prove to the world that you're the real deal. This will define you."

That's a double-edged sword. The risk and reward both dent the scales.

Right now, Rahman's relationship with the championship belt has been as meaningful as a one-night stand. He was trailing on the judges' scorecards when he knocked out Lewis in 2001. Lewis answered seven months later, dropping Rahman and winning back the title.

Entering tomorrow night's bout, Rahman again carries the "champion" title. But he inherited it this time, didn't earn it.

We speak of heavyweight champions with reverence and awe. Rahman's name is included on the list, but it's scribbled hurriedly in the margins. He's a champion with a lowercase c.

You know what makes a Champ? Defending the title. Joe Louis defended his belt 25 times. Larry Holmes defended his 20 times. Rahman? He's held it twice now. Tomorrow would be his first successful defense.

Even before the bout, Vegas oddsmakers have already decided that Rahman isn't a legitimate champ. The challenger is a 2-1 favorite to win. And when you look over the two fighters' resumes, how can you argue?

Toney has outfought two guys who beat Rahman -- Evander Holyfield and John Ruiz. (Toney's win over Ruiz was later ruled a no-contest after he tested positive for an illegal substance.)

In Rahman's first four fights after beating Lewis, he suffered three losses and a draw. He's since strung together six wins against guys who wouldn't be cast as extras in an indie movie.

"Hasim Rahman is an ancient Egyptian phrase that translates into `hasn't had a big win in five years,'" says Bert Sugar, the legendary boxing historian.

Toney didn't even bother watching video of Rahman's most recent fights. His trainer said there's nothing hidden in the film that reflects the skills of a true champion.

"Since he knocked out Lennox Lewis, I'm just not impressed," says Freddie Roach, Toney's trainer. "Other than one punch, when has he been impressive?"

It's a legitimate charge, and the Rahman camp has no retort. Not until tomorrow night, they say.

Rahman weighed in at a trim and svelte 238 pounds. Toney, a middleweight champion 15 years ago, tipped the scales yesterday at 237 pounds, more than he has ever weighed in his career. If this was a beauty contest, Rahman would get the sash. Toney looks like he's done most of his training at a buffet table.

But the Detroit boxer has a style and game plan that won't be affected by the extra pounds. He's smart and methodical, not quick and sneaky. Toney is understandably the favorite and understandably the fighter whose legacy is already safe, no matter what happens tomorrow night.

"If [Rahman] loses, his sole legacy will be that he had this knockout over Lennox Lewis, who was the premier heavyweight of his time," said promoter Bob Arum.

Arum is the head of Top Rank and is in his 40th year promoting fights. He's mostly avoided the heavyweight ranks since George Foreman traded in gloves for grills. But Arum came back because he sees potential. He hopes the fighter's lasting legacy comes from what happens tomorrow and beyond. Arum readily admits that he's making a big gamble on a champ still seeking legitimacy.

A loss tomorrow means Rahman is forever the guy who threw only one punch that mattered -- but then lost to every fighter who mattered.

A win redefines the 33-year-old boxer and, his promoter hopes, it redefines the disheveled heavyweight ranks.

"That's my vision. That's all it is, though," Arum said. "You can't go to the bank and cash a check on it. ... My hope and the only reason I'm involved ... is that he's a really talented guy who's been an underachiever."

The time to shake that label is now. Rahman's future and his legacy hinges on tomorrow.


Read Rick Maese's blog at baltimoresun.com/maeseblog

Fight facts

Who: Hasim Rahman vs. James Toney, for Rahman's World Boxing Council heavyweight title

When: Tomorrow

Where: Boardwalk Hall, Atlantic City, N.J.

TV: HBO, 10 p.m.

Records: Rahman 41-5-1, 33 KOs; Toney 69-4-2, 43 KOs

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