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8 Upper

Rock Solid

By Tom Scocca | Posted 4/25/2001

APRIL 23--Two hours of signing autographs, kissing cheeks, and shaking hands and the champ is still reaching out to his public. He stands, the champ, by the corner of Franklin and Eutaw, on the sidewalk under the glossy black facade of the old Charles Fish & Sons building. A northbound MTA bus has stopped at the light, and the champ's crowd, milling on the sidewalk, wants its attention: Here he is, the champ! Right here! In Baltimore! The bus riders gaze out the narrow open windows. The champ himself waves at them, heartily, eagerly. After a moment, some of them wave back.

Attention, everyone: Hasim Rahman is heavyweight champion of the world. Hasim Rahman is heavyweight champion of the world. We need to be clear about this: Hasim Rahman is heavyweight champion of the world.

This is not about his newly acquired WBC and IBF belts. John Ruiz has a belt; Wladimir Klitschko has a belt. This is much bigger. Hasim Rahman knocked out Lennox Lewis. Lennox Lewis beat Shannon Briggs. Briggs beat George Foreman, who beat Michael Moorer, who beat Evander Holyfield. Back it goes. Holyfield--Riddick Bowe--Holyfield--Buster Douglas--Mike Tyson--Michael Spinks--Larry Holmes--Muhammad Ali. Ali.

"Champ!" the people call out, waving things for him to sign--sports sections, day-planner pages, the little scratch pad from a checkbook. "Champ! Champ!" Small girls doze in their strollers. A pair of Mormon missionaries, from California and Washington state, get in line. A passing Department of Public Works truck honks.

Someone squirts water in Rahman's mouth, as if he's between rounds. The champ was supposed to come in at BWI this morning, but he got hung up in customs in New York and missed his flight. He came down here in a rental car, straight to Franklin and Eutaw, site of the HOBO sportswear shop. Rahman has been endorsing HOBO gear--the name stands of Helping Our Brothas Out--for a year now, company CEO John Day says; they set up the deal, Day recounts, because "he was already wearing our apparel."

It is 2 p.m. now, which would be 8 p.m. in Johannesburg, which would be two hours past the champ's bedtime. The title bout was in South Africa, but HBO set the schedule, which meant Rahman and Lewis went into the ring at 11 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time--5 a.m. in Johannesburg. The whole time he was there, Rahman says, he got up at 3 in the morning and went to bed early.

After the fight, the big story was Rahman's careful preparation--at least, as it related to Lewis'. While the challenger spent nearly a month acclimating himself to the strange schedule and the 5,700-foot altitude, the reigning champ rolled in 11 days before the fight. Lewis had been, among other things, filming a movie, and he showed up 5 or 10 pounds overweight.

The natural (and prevailing) interpretation is that Rahman won because Lewis didn't take him seriously. But this begs the question. Mike Tyson didn't take Peter McNeely seriously. Roy Jones Jr. never takes anyone seriously. Seriousness only counts when a mismatch isn't really a mismatch.

The other, perhaps even more pernicious story is that Lewis lost on a "one-punch knockout." Rahman dropped Lewis with a single blow, it's true--but if it hadn't been that punch, it would have been some other, later punch.

Listening to the tinny 28.8K feed of the BBC radiocast--HBO is beyond 8 Upper's budget--I could hear the doom gathering around Lewis. Even allowing for the natural pessimism of British boxing announcers, it was obvious what was going on. Lewis' countrymen noted, grimly, that he was breathing through his mouth in the second round. When he bounced on his toes in a show of bravado, they pegged it as hollow. Lewis couldn't hit Rahman and Rahman could hit Lewis, solidly and repeatedly. The celebrated right hand was not luck; it was fate.

Out here on Eutaw and Franklin, everybody knows that. Some knew it in advance. Lou Butler is here, telling his story once more--how he took the teenage Rahman into Mack Lewis' gym and swapped body blows with him to introduce him to the sport. "My man Hasim's going to bring it back to Baltimore," he'd told me Friday night, on the phone from West Baltimore's Umar Boxing Club. On that same call, Umar's Marvin McDowell got it precisely: "He's going to stop him in five rounds."

Martin O'Malley has arrived, at last, having misconnected along with everyone else when the champ missed his flight. The mayor--who, word has it, did not watch the fight--has some catching up to do. He embraces the champ, then clasps and raises Rahman's hand like a ref announcing a winner. John Day has been sweating mayoral spokesperson Tony White about a parade--he wants a long route, from the Lewis gym to HOBO to City Hall. He wants a parade like the Ravens'. And why not? Try holding your Super Bowl in Johannesburg at 5 a.m. and see who shows up.

Has the mayor seen the fight yet? someone asks. "We've been working," White says. "He has seen a replay of the punch."

Finally, Rahman peels away from the crowd, heading for a silver Isuzu Rodeo. He's still waiting for stitches over his left eye, where Lewis butted heads with him. "I'm going to get my little brother to doctor me tomorrow," he says. And with that--after another round of autographs through the passenger window--the champ slowly rolls off, heading uptown.

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