Under the strictest, Marquess of Queensbury rules of smack-talking, Lewis was being a little unfair, since Hasim Rahman was not around to make a rebuttal. That was, unfortunately, the point. The Rock, the pride of Baltimore, was busy getting an MRI scan of his head, a precaution after Lewis knocked him cold in the fourth round of their championship rematch. So Lewis had the microphone to himself.
Rahman had done all his speaking in the run-up to the fight--baiting Lewis, goading him into a scuffle on live television, telling the closed-mouthed Brit over and over that he was going to beat him up again. Preparing for his first defense, the new champ had been earnest and cocky at the same time, as if he were starring in a one-man theatrical production of Rocky II: Walk like Rocky Balboa, talk like Apollo Creed.
It was a great act, and a believable one. Everyone wanted to believe it. Before April, following the heavyweights was like watching mastodons sink slowly in a tar pit. The same old names were squatting on their reputations and their personal TV deals, stolidly avoiding each other, nobody willing to make a fight worth seeing. When Lewis showed up in Johannesburg, South Africa, to fight Rahman, he embodied the boredom of the heavyweight division--literally so, with a layer of extra fat jiggling on his torso. Instead of training, he'd been hanging around Las Vegas, shooting a cameo in the remake of Ocean's Eleven.
Rahman, street-tough and trained at altitude, made Lewis pay for his complacent ennui. He did not, as Lewis would claim in his few mumbled public utterances afterward, land a lucky punch. Rahman brought a game plan to South Africa. He worked Lewis over, frustrating and hurting the big man, and then he knocked him out. It was unexpected, but it wasn't a fluke.
If you believed in that knockout, you could believe in anything. Rahman certainly believed in it himself. After taking the title from Lewis, the new champ turned down multifight deals with the cable networks, passing up contracts worth upward of $15 million. He chose instead to sign with promoter Don King, counting on the master schemer to get him the best deal one fight at a time. More flexibility that way. Forced to fight Lewis again by a court order, he cut a deal with no rematch clauses this time. He was going to win and move on.
Who knew how far the parade might go? There would maybe be a unification bout with WBA so-called champ John Ruiz, and probably a huge payday against Mike Tyson. From there, Rahman could do whatever he wanted. He could be the star attraction himself, the undisputed, the untouchable.
Instead, the Rock's reign ended with him splayed on his back on the canvas of the Mandaly Bay Event Center. He was laid out right on the diagonal of the ring, his skull perfectly centered on the Don King logo--so that he appeared, as he lay, to be wearing a gigantic crown. It made an incredible photograph, something else for boxing history to remember him by.
Sadly, that's about all he gets. He's supposed to have a handshake deal with King for his next fight, but Don King's handshake has, as the man himself might put it, an unblemished record of perfect nonintegrity to uphold. King might as well have flipped Rahman a bus token where he lay: Thanks for playing, chump. Have a safe trip. The Rock gambled it all on one fight, and he lost. Lewis has his title and his reputation back in time for the Ocean's Eleven premiere. Has-Been Rahman.
Lewis has room to be smug. Of the 22 boxing experts surveyed by The Sun before the bout, not one picked Lewis to win by knockout. The prognosticators who backed him, 10 of the 22, predicted he would trudge to a 12-round decision, using his long jab to keep Rahman away. If there was going to be lightning in the ring, everyone figured, Rahman was going to be the one generating it. The Sun didn't check with me, but, inspired by Rahman's bravado, I was picking him to drop Lewis again, this time in the sixth.
Wrong answer. The knockout in Africa soured everyone on Lewis, but the champ had earned the title that he lost to Rahman. He's a monster heavyweight, huge and strong, and he hits about as hard as a human being can hit. When he's in shape and on his game, he's an awe-inspiring sight. For the rematch with Rahman, that was how he showed up.
Does this undo Rahman's earlier triumph? The boxing world, having guessed wrong about him twice, is sour on him now. But Rahman was only wrong once. He may have blown tens of millions of dollars by thinking he couldn't lose--but he would never have had a shot at the money if he hadn't believed, back in April, that he was going to win the first fight.
Whatever the verdict may be on Rahman's brief term as champ, this much is true: This time, Lewis fought him to knock him out. He fought him as if he were worth fighting. Rahman took away Lewis' championship. And then he made Lewis a champion again.
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