In 1974 Muhammad Ali performed the first heavyweight miracle at dawn in Africa when his fists defied the odds, the senses and the approaching storm. It was Hasim Rahman’s turn to vanish expectations in 2001 with a repeat of wonder.
Rahman knocked out Lennox Lewis to win the world heavyweight title and reverse all the wrongs in a life shaped by gore, violence and near-death scrapes on the streets of Baltimore. Lewis went down heavy from a perfect right and escaped into the night with excuses and blame in a blatant attempt to weaken Rahman’s glory.
Last Friday at the Royal Albert Hall, a venue beloved by Lewis, I found Rahman gazing with starry eyes at the old hall’s grand and eloquent sweep, his eyes shining in awe, not from booze, anything illegal or the secret leftover damage from a long career as a fighting man. “This place is fantastic,” he said. Two hours later he watched his friend Travis Reeves dismantled by Anthony Yarde.
Before Reeves fought, Rahman took me back to Johannesburg and the morning his life transformed forever when he connected through a tight gap to drop Lewis. “I have heard so many things since that night,” continued Rahman. “So many excuses; man, Lewis was a world champion, he had been at two Olympics, he had a gold medal. He knew what to expect and he lost. It was not lucky, I was not lucky. I knocked him out.”
In the fight’s odd aftermath, as people scratched about for clarity, a good lunch and a word from Don King, Lewis and his squabbling retinue were in open conflict, deep in denial and raw with anger. Rahman deserved praise for the joyful stop in his extreme tale of suffering.
It was a windscreen and not a machete that left 500 stitches in Rahman’s face and neck, but it was the bullets and the stab wounds that left other filthy scars across the rest of his body. He has been under the skilled hands of too many surgeons in his brutal life. His friend died in the crash that changed Rahman’s face - a lot of his friends died.
In 2001 against Lewis he defied the odds set by the Baltimore streets and the bookies when he sucked in the rare air at altitude in Brakpan to send Lewis down and out. Rahman, the street thug, survivor, victim and feared enforcer from a part of Baltimore known as The Store - given its name because of the spectacular choice of narcotics on sale on each corner - was the new heavyweight champion of the world.
Fairy tale? A bit more than that, to be honest. Rahman had no chance that morning against Lewis and the biggest problem for Lewis and his people in Africa was the scheduled fight with Mike Tyson.
Rahman wrecked that night. “I was not given any respect - that motivated me, that showed me Lewis had flaws. Why would any heavyweight overlook another heavyweight? Any heavyweight over 200 pounds can hurt you. I knew I would beat Lewis, I just knew,” added Rahman. He got it right that morning and very wrong a few months later.
There was - after some legal dancing - a rematch: Lewis knocked out Rahman and he looked sensational as he won. “That’s heavyweight boxing,” said Rahman, who was paid 10 million dollars for the second fight, which was in Las Vegas. Rahman continued fighting, but the morning in South Africa when he won the world heavyweight championship is all that really matters. At the Royal Albert Hall he was in philosophical mood, perhaps at peace with his spotlight moment and perhaps lulled by the excess of purple velvet in the old hall.
“Even if it was for only one night,” Rahman said. “For one night I could say I was the baddest man on the planet. Nobody in the world could beat me. I was the champion, the best fighter on the planet. That’s a special feeling.”
Rahman is part of a small group, the group of heavyweights with the genuine right to make that claim, that “for one night only” claim. It’s part of a rich and rare club and Rahman was made a member when he knocked out Lewis and it makes no difference how long he reigned.
“It was just so special,” he added last Friday, perhaps right then there was another reason for his starry eyes. Not pain, not awe, just memories.
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