ATLANTIC CITY, N.J — ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- Hasim Rahman had written it before in pencil, and last night he'd hoped to trace over it ink. I am the champion, not some one-hit wonder.
Last night's fight against James Toney was to be the one that defined Rahman, that silenced critics and catapulted the Baltimore native into territory that no heavyweight has chartered since Lennox Lewis held the crown.
You don't have to be a Rahman fan to realize the sport of boxing and the entire heavyweight division needed this as well. And that's exactly how it was playing out on the scorecard of one judge, who gave Rahman an eight round-to-four advantage.
But this is boxing and nothing is simple. Two other judges put a cap on Rahman's pen, scoring the bout dead even, resulting in a majority draw.
The heavyweight division is a fiasco, and last night's exciting fight should have helped the sport poke its head out of the muddle. Instead, the decision means the apathy will linger. It's like cleaning a carpet spill and smearing the mess everywhere.
The bout was intense and frustratingly close. Many ringside observers gave Rahman the edge, but somehow, two of the three judges had Toney leading on their respective scorecards heading into the final round.
Rahman was the aggressor most of the night - throwing 33 percent more punches than Toney - and did what a champion needs to do to retain his belt. But retaining via a draw carries no more meaning than a holiday card from the neighbor realtor.
Rahman has held two titles. Last night marks his only successful title defense.
We put quote marks around those things that are technically accurate, yet still invite skepticism. There is still doubt: Rahman is still just a "champion."
Last night didn't bring the result Rahman needed. It didn't legitimize him, and the fighter will still tow along the same question marks that have hounded him these the past five years.
"Even though it was a draw, it doesn't matter because I'm still the champ," Rahman said, "and I'm the one who can go on from here."
That was the night's good news. A draw didn't deter his promoter's plan to use Rahman to save the heavyweight division. Bob Arum still plans to move forward and says he'll try to put Rahman's next fight in Baltimore - at M&T Bank Stadium, he hopes.
For the past several weeks, Arum has talked about Rahman as a great savior. Arum is in his 40th year promoting fights but avoided the heavyweights over the past decade. He returned to the heavyweight ranks with last night's fight, hand-picking Rahman because he sees charisma, intelligence and potential. All the fighter has lacked is the consistency.
Despite the final judges' scorecards, Rahman did a lot to silence those doubts last night. Even though he owned the title, Rahman entered the fight as an underdog, a one-hit wonder who'd floundered since knocking out Lewis five years ago. Boxing fans will remember his impressive performance, even if the judges' indecisiveness marred 12 rounds of action.
Arum is like a grandmaster chess champion, looking several moves ahead. First, he says he'll sign more heavyweights. Then Rahman will fight in Baltimore. And then pay- per- view. And then they'll sit back and count money.
It's still far from a sure thing. (And both Rahman and Toney were begging for a rematch after the fight.)
Right now, Rahman is one of four men can make a claim as heavyweight champion. Rahman retains his World Boxing Council belt. Chris Byrd has the International Boxing Federation belt. Byrd will face Wladimir Klitschko next month. The World Boxing Association belt is owned by Nikolay Valuev, a 7-foot, 350-pound Russian who is lightly regarded in boxing circles. And Lamon Brewster, who might be the best of the bunch, is the unknown World Boxing Organization title-holder.
To revitalize the heavyweights, all that's really needed is a single figure, just one man who is universally recognized as champ.
"If just one guy comes along, no one will talk about how bad the division is anymore," HBO analyst Larry Merchant said. Barring a rematch, Rahman will likely face Oleg Maskaev next. Maskaev is the fighter who handed Rahman his second career loss, memorably knocking Rahman through the ropes and onto Jim Lampley's lap seven years ago.
The winner there would like face the Byrd-Klitschko winner, a first step toward unifying the titles.
"[Rahman] can't do it in one fight," Merchant said before last night's fight. "He's gone five years without winning an important fight."
Rahman walked out of Boardwalk Hall with the same things he walked in with: a world championship belt and a world's worth of questions.
In the convoluted world of boxing - and you can write this in ink - not moving backward is somehow moving forward, which means Rahman is still on course. firstname.lastname@example.org
Read Rick Maese's blog at baltimoresun.com/maeseblog
Points after -- Rick Maese