Hasim Rahman once knocked out Lennox Lewis in one of the biggest upsets in boxing history. Rahman always knew it was coming, as Chris Walker discovers
We catch up with the man who scored one of the biggest upsets in history
WHEN YOU SAY ALI, FOREMAN AND TYSON YOU HAVE TO SAY MY NAME. I’M PART OF THAT LINEAGE”
TODAY, Hasim Rahman is closing in on his 45th birthday in Los Angeles. He’s working with the Backstreet Boys. What that work involves exactly, he doesn’t want to say. Perhaps the eternal fighter, like the evergreen boy band, is seeking fame again. Exactly 17 years ago, while at the peak of his boxing career, Rahman was enjoying supersonic fame. World heavyweight champion fame. He was preparing to take on Lennox Lewis in a rematch. In their first fight, Rahman’s first real shot at stardom, Lewis was knocked out in a stunning upset in South Africa. Life was never quite the same for “The Rock” after that.
Before his African odyssey, Rahman – despite what he now tells Boxing News – was not expected to win sport’s biggest individual prize. Rahman teetered in the background, making just enough noise to be taken seriously. Outside of his small circle, not many observers believed in him.
Rahman was a late starter with minimal amateur experience, but a fearsome street reputation had instilled a confidence that remains noticeable today. A survivor of multiple shootings, Rahman felt invincible when turning professional in 1994 on a show headlined by Riddick Bowe, a figure he believed he could emulate. Bowe, by then in decline, outpointed Larry Donald several hours after Rahman opened the show by wiping out Gregory Harrington in 95 seconds. The fighting smarts that had been ascribed to Rahman in Maryland ghettos were the tools he took into the ring with him.
“I had no Olympic medals to take to promoters. All I had was me, but I believed that was enough to take me far enough,” reflects Rahman. Armed with respectable power and a wealth of enthusiasm, Rahman’s ascent through the heavyweight rankings was steady rather than stunning. Although he elicited nods of approval at the distance he had travelled in such a short time, seasoned pundits were not encouraged to label Hasim Rahman a future king.
Ross Purrity and the shadows of Trevor Berbick took him 10 rounds to provide valuable experience. In November 1997, fringe contender Obed Sullivan lasted 12 to further fatten Rahman’s ledger. A year later, however, the dangerous New Zealander, David Tua provided a cruel awakening in an IBF eliminator. Rahman performed admirably for large portions of the contest before Tua rattled Rahman with a trademark left hook that appeared to land after the bell sounded to end the ninth. The full minute’s rest was not enough, and he was stopped on his feet seconds into the next session.
“To me, that fight is not even a loss,” insists Rahman. “You saw what happened. That punch landed after the bell and the referee would not disqualify him. Watch me in that fight and you see what I’m all about. My jab, my timing, the way I was making him miss. The only way David Tua could land on me that night was by being dirty and throwing a punch after the bell had gone to end the round. What chance did I have when I had taken a clean punch off a puncher like Tua? That fight means nothing to me. It may say I lost and that Tua won, but all it did was delay my chance to become heavyweight champion of the world. I should’ve got that belt a few years sooner.”
This Rahman excuse can be afforded a level of tolerance and understanding, but bitterness becomes a continuous theme as we discuss his journey from wayward teenager to heavyweight champion.
PEOPLE FEEL THE NEED TO TALK ABOUT THE REASONS WHY LEWIS LOST RATHER THAN WHY I WON”
Eleven months after the Tua controversy, Rahman tasted defeat again, this time against Russia’s Oleg Maskaev on a heavyweight extravaganza show that served as a showcase for a cluster of big men such as Maurice Harris, Derrick Jefferson and Eric Kirkland. A right hand from Maskaev forced the exhausted Rahman to fall between the ropes and for HBO commentator Jim Lampley to frantically yelp, “He’s on the floor next to me!” Rahman’s quest for redemption hit a roadblock as his once-rising stock fell to an all-time low.
“That’s another fight I don’t really accept as a loss,” echoes Rahman. “I’d taken a look at his record in the build-up and thought nothing much of it. He was an ordinary fighter who had lost to an old man in Oliver Mccall, so there’s no way he was going to beat Hasim Rahman. No real training took place for that fight because I was just going to get in there and do what I wanted to him, but it was another lesson learnt for me and after that I tried not to make those same mistakes.”
Rahman rebuilt again, showing off his newfound education against the underrated Corrie Sanders in 2000. The pair traded knockdowns during a seven-round classic and the resilience of Rahman – an attribute missing against Maskaev – was abundantly clear as he traded with the South African. Referee Eddie Cotton rescued Sanders in the seventh. Rahman’s improved form attracted the attention of then-heavyweight ruler, Lennox Lewis. The Englishman’s long path to supremacy finally concluded in 1999 when defeating Evander Holyfield in their rematch, and his position was cemented further with victories over Michael Grant, Frans Botha and Tua. Lewis was chasing a legacy-enhancing tussle against Mike Tyson but, with Mike Tyson-style chaos preventing that bout from occurring, Lennox made do with Rahman. The champion’s team accepted Nelson Mandela’s invitation to stage the fight in Brakpan, just outside Johannesburg. It was an unlikely opportunity that Rahman grabbed with a monstrous right hand which removed Lewis’ senses and his heavyweight title. “The Rock”, complete with scars that provided souvenirs of a troubled past, had overcome every setback. He was champion of the world. But, as with almost every huge upset, excuses from the loser followed. Without question, Lewis had not taken the fight seriously. On route to South Africa, Lewis stopped off in Las Vegas to shoot scenes for the remake of Ocean’s 11. But while Rahman is quick to offer excuses for his own losses, he dismisses those that may have played a part in his biggest victory.
“It was a shock to everyone, but I don’t want to hear that,” declares Rahman. “He had all these excuses about altitude [the fight was 5,200ft above sea level] and Ocean’s 11 but that was as good as Lennox Lewis has ever been. People feel the need to play down the reasons why he lost rather than why I won. I would’ve beaten Lewis straight after the first Tua fight if Tua wouldn’t have sucker-punched me, and I’d have won the world title then, but I was prepared to wait.”
Rahman became an overnight sensation and the subject of ferocious bidding wars between HBO and Showtime. The presence of Don King, the enigmatic showman and a permanent fixture on the heavyweight landscape at that time, frustrated the new champion. But it was Lewis who held the most control due to a rematch clause that had been inserted into the contract for their first meeting. A series of fights to inflate Rahman’s finances were put on hold as he renewed hostilities with Lewis in November 2001. Revenge was emphatically served.
“I was overconfident. It was a mistake looking back,” admits Rahman when recalling his fourth-round KO loss to Lewis. Arguably the most potent one-two in heavyweight history was all it took for Lewis to reclaim his crown. Rahman lay motionless, his defeat indisputable. “The fight in Africa, the way we wrestled in the [TV] studio [two months] before the rematch, I didn’t think he had the power or strength to do what he did to me. The plan for that fight was to always come from behind. I believed that Lennox could have 11 rounds in the bank and all I had to do is walk out for the 12th and land one right hand. That was pretty much my strategy.”
One senses Rahman would return if given the chance. He papers over the cracks of his career in a manner that suggests he would do anything to turn back the clock. But what he managed to do to Lennox Lewis is a boast not many can share. Rahman struggled for form after losing to Lewis, as losses to Evander Holyfield and John Ruiz sandwiched a draw with Tua in another rematch. But he would once again capture a title in 2005 when his interim WBC belt (captured when beating Monte Barrett) was upgraded due to Vitali Klitschko’s first retirement. An entertaining draw with James Toney ensured he retained the strap, but Maskaev stopped him once again when they renewed hostilities in 2006. Rahman would continue fighting for another eight years, but his career – like so many – went full circle as he faded to such an extent he could perform in name only against Wladimir Klitschko (2008) and Alexander Povetkin (2012). A loss to Anthony Nansen, a five-fight novice, was the end for Rahman as his giant right hand waved goodbye. His record read 50-9-2 (41). “Everything I wanted out of boxing, I got, so I guess my career is as successful as anyone else’s,” he reasons. “I was champion of the world, made good money, and I travelled to a lot of places I had no idea I was going to see. I’m part of that all-time lineage now with Muhammad Ali, George Foreman, Joe Louis, and Mike Tyson. When you say their name then you got to say mine because I’m the man who beat the man who beat the man. That win against Lewis gave me so much and it’s still creating opportunities for me today and that’s why I’m out here with the Backstreet Boys today about to do some s**t. It’s given me opportunities since I retired from the sport and it’ll continue to give me opportunities tomorrow as well.”
KING OF THE WORLD: Rahman celebrates [above] after landing the punch of a lifetime to dethrone Lewis in South Africa [below]
OUT COLD: Rahman’s brief reign ends when Lewis ԵDWWHQV KLPin four rounds
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