LAS VEGAS -- For five years we've been waiting for the real Hasim Rahman to stand up. Instead, last night, we saw him fall down.
There's been a duality to Rahman's career as a prize fighter. Was he really the fighter who crashed through the ropes and landed on Jim Lampley's lap seven years ago? Or was he the one who threw the amazing punch that knocked out Lennox Lewis?
Last night, we learned in spectacular fashion. To many, Rahman was just three minutes away from a future without limits. A November fight in China. A chance to unify two of the heavyweight belts next spring. An opportunity to be the face of the heavyweight division.
Just three minutes away.
Instead, the bell rang to start the 12th round and simultaneously marked the end of Rahman's short title reign. Suddenly, Oleg Maskaev, who seemed to be standing by only hope and prayer at times, came to life. It was like watching Frankenstein break free of his shackles.
Before you knew it, Rahman was crawling around the mat as though he'd just lost a contact lens. All over the ring, Maskaev pinned Rahman against the ropes and the entire arena was bracing itself, waiting to see whose lap Rahman would fall on this time.
Finally, with Rahman essentially seated on the second ring rope, referee Jay Nady stepped in and waved his hands. It's over. At least all of the questioning is. The boxing world no longer has to wonder whether Rahman is a legitimate world champion. He isn't.
He inherited the World Boxing Council's title belt and had just one successful defense - a draw with James Toney in March. Since he landed the punch that beat Lewis five years ago, every swing Rahman has made has had one goal: to legitimize him and his place in the sport.
When Rahman fell, you felt like he was grabbing at branches to save himself, taking a lot more down to the mat than just his muscular frame. The heavyweight division needed Rahman to win. He was to be the savior, to make heavyweights relevant again.
Used to be a heavyweight title fight would have enough electricity to light up the entire strip. That's when being the heavyweight champ made you an American icon. Now it means you aren't even American. All four titleholders are from former states in the Soviet Union. We were continually reminded during the lead-up to the fight that Rahman was "America's last line of defense." He told us he was fighting for the entire country.
He stepped into the ring with an American flag waving behind him, and thankfully once the first bell rang, we could forget the silliness and actually witness a pretty exciting fight.
What the two lacked in speed, they made up for in power (seriously, when Maskaev drew his arm back, you had time to do a crossword puzzle, knit a quilt and run to the store for some pizza rolls before the punch actually landed.)
Though the bout was close throughout and Rahman looked as impressive as he has in several fights, he lost the 10th and 11th rounds. Two of the judges had Maskaev ahead entering the final round, and both fighters were punching with desperation. There were no jabs. Every punch was a haymaker, every throw was targeted for a knockdown.
We've been waiting for the real Rahman and we've found him. Champions defend their belts, champions win final rounds. The division's savior was crawling all around the mat. Each big blow to Rahman's face and body battered the sport's future.
An American audience barely wanted to see Rahman; there's no chance they'll root for guys named Oleg, Nicolay, Serguei and Wladimir.
Boxing's lower-weight divisions are thriving, but for most, the heavyweights will always be the face of the sport. There isn't a single heavyweight fight looming that will make anyone reach for the remote control. The division is marked by anonymity. It's like the sport struck some co-op agreement with the FBI's witness protection program and they've been hiding people in the heavyweight ranks these past few years.
Now with Rahman out of the picture, we can forget it altogether.
His performance last night and his admirable effort ensures that he'll get more fights. But they'll be different.
We're no longer asking questions. We're no longer waiting for validation. We have that now. Rahman's legacy will be a single punch that sent Lewis to the mat in 2001.
The real Rahman did stand up. And then he walked out of the ring, hanging his head low.