Payback Ending Hasim Rahman's seven-month joyride as the heavyweight champion, Lennox Lewis regained the title and a measure of respect for his career

November 26, 2001

Hasim Rahman's American Dream Tour came to a crashing end last
Saturday when Lennox Lewis, claiming the heavyweight title for
the third time, brought the one-hit wonder to his knees. It was,
considering the fighters' pedigrees, absolutely the logical
conclusion. Lewis is much the better boxer, and except for one
"lottery punch"--as Lewis called the Rahman right hand that
knocked him out in the fifth round in South Africa last April--he
might have fulfilled by now his promise as this generation's best
heavyweight. However, as much as this rematch restored order, it
was devastating to the principles of fantasy life, in which you
can be making $13,000 a bout one day, and on the next a man shows
up in your hotel suite with bags of cash, a rather tangible down
payment on a $5 million signing bonus.

Lewis's victory doesn't mean that miracles can't happen, though,
because Rahman, 29, the street thug made good, will have earned
at least $15 million (including the $200,000 in cash promoter Don
King brought him last May) on the basis of his upset of Lewis
last spring. That's kind of a miracle, isn't it? Saturday's
outcome only means that such wonders don't happen over and over.
Neither preparation, nor self-confidence, nor even America's
constitutional right to the jackpot can defend against Lewis's
wicked right hand--not twice in a row, anyway.

Rahman's run was a good one, though, and an inspiration to
nobodies everywhere. In the seven months since clocking Lewis,
the journeyman boxer has enjoyed more fame and fortune than most
champions earn in a lifetime. He became the subject of two
documentaries and of a bidding war between King and HBO, was the
principal in numerous lawsuits, made the late-night talk-show
scene and bought five cars. All this because he gave himself a
chance in that fight in April, when nobody else would (he was a
20-1 underdog), and he outtrained a complacent and arrogant
Lewis. It could happen to you!

But so could this: A superior athlete bides his time waiting for
the rematch and, getting the fight, outjabs you for three rounds,
notices you tend to flail your arms with every left hand you
throw and then, midway through the fourth round, unleashes a
combination so swift that it barely registers. There is the
clip-clop sound of two sudden punches, the second landing right
on the point of your jaw, and down you go, rolling to one knee,
capsized in a sea of reality.

Now Lewis's run resumes, though it might have been fatally
interrupted by that loss in April. He has suffered too many
shocking knockouts (two, the other in September 1994 by Oliver
McCall) to qualify for true greatness. At least he's shed the
shame of the Rahman defeat and can return to the dignified reign
he prefers. Lewis, 39-2-1, has had to endure a lot since then,
including abuse from the cheerfully cocky Rahman (who said Lewis
was "acting gay" in suing for a rematch) and skepticism within
his own camp. He is not a man who seems inclined to realize his
immense potential, but past disappointments--his often overly
cautious style in victories has been even more damning than his
knockout defeats--will dim in the reflection of this powerful win.

At 36, having held titles off and on since 1993, Lewis does not
have much more time to consolidate his legacy. A judge mandated
the rematch on that basis: Lewis was too old to wait around for
the usual boxing shenanigans. Now, with Rahman having been
disposed of, there is really only one way for Lewis to cap his
career, and to cap it soon. "Where is Mike Tyson?" he said almost
immediately after the fight. "Where is he?"

Nobody knows for sure what Tyson's intentions are. After a recent
bout in Copenhagen, against rather unimpressive competition,
Tyson said he might need two more fights before he contends for
the title. At least Rahman had confidence. Tyson seems so
reluctant that not even a $20 million payday in a fight that has
been brewing for five years is a certainty. "Well," said Lewis,
"there are other guys who deserve a chance."

Lewis, who made $11 million to Rahman's $10 million, needs to
beware of "other guys," because they give him the most trouble.
He has a tendency to overlook them, as he did Rahman the first
time around, refusing to cut short the filming of a movie cameo
to acclimate himself properly to the altitude of Johannesburg.
(Rahman showed up a month before the bout, Lewis 12 days.)
Anyway, no matter what dignity Lewis brings to the championship
(he holds the WBC and IBF titles again), he is not a ratings
winner. Not since his fights with Evander Holyfield, the last of
which was two years ago, has he been much of a draw for HBO
pay-per-view. Saturday's bout, despite the intrigue of the
rematch, was expected to be another ratings disappointment.

Lewis is too unpredictable. Even his trainer, Emanuel Steward,
despairs of ever seeing his talent in full flower. The week of
this fight, in Las Vegas's Mandalay Bay, Steward was wallowing in
worry. "If I could get him to unleash all his talent," he said,
"I'd be locked behind bars." Instead, said Steward, he had no
idea what to expect. "I know what he's capable of doing, but I
don't know what he's going to do."

Had Lewis been this explosive in his first meeting with Rahman,
his reputation might have been secure, because everybody prefers
a champion who conducts his career with Lewis's composure. True,
Rahman got under his skin enough to cause a scuffle at an ESPN
taping, but Lewis, ever the British gentleman, has been mainly
aloof from the normal burlesque of boxing. When King tried to
heighten anxiety (read: sell tickets) for the Rahman rematch by
constructing plexiglass barriers between the fighters at the
press conference (the situation was that volatile!), Lewis
refused to play, leaving early and with his usual disdain.

His refusal to join in the fun costs him. Lewis remains too
enigmatic in the ring for boxing fans to get behind him, his
concussive performances too intermittent to inspire a following,
his accessibility too limited to generate interest. Instead his
only utility now seems as a Tyson foil. That was the whole point
of this fight, to determine a Tyson opponent. Never mind that
the last Tyson sighting, only two weeks ago in Zab Judah's
corner, revealed a man who may have spent more time in
Copenhagen eating the Danish pastry than fighting that Danish
heavyweight. Tyson remains the only name that can excite the

That was why King wildly overpaid for this fight, outbidding HBO
to promote Rahman (the capper being that $200,000 in
cash--"Counted every dollar," says Rahman slyly). If Rahman had
won, King would have gained sudden entry to a Tyson fight, and
his investment might have paid off. Lawsuits and countersuits
between King and Tyson would presumably dissolve in the
possibility of a huge payday. That was also why Rahman refused a
long-term network contract with HBO, opting for independence and
free-agent status for a Tyson match.

Both men lost their bets (although King predictably hedged his by
striking up the possibility of a business relationship with
Lewis). Because HBO failed to sign Rahman, it lucked out in not
having to negotiate with him anew, thereby saving at least $3
million, according to one party.

Lewis is back on top, headed for Tyson or not, but at least out
from under this annoying American tradition of underdogs, and the
idea that they win every time.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY AMY BETH BENNETT LAS VEGAS REVIEW-JOURNAL Jaw dropping A devastating right in the fourth round rocked Rahman and restored to Lewis the title he had lost last April. COLOR PHOTO: HOLLY STEIN/HBO Masterpiece Having adjourned to a neutral corner, Lewis admired his own artistry in putting Rahman on the canvas.

"Where is Mike Tyson?" Lewis said almost immediately after the
fight. "Where is he?"

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)