What? Lennox Lewis v Hasim Rahman I
When? April 22nd 2001
Where? Carnival City Casino, Brakpan, South Africa
This Week’s Boxing History looks at the figure of Lennox Lewis, a man who was never really appreciated during his boxing career. In Britain there was always an ambiguity about him due to his nomadic upbringing. Although born in London to Jamaican parents, he moved to Canada as a child. As an amateur he represented Canada at two Olympic Games. The British public were therefore a little slow to embrace him as one of their own and always preferred the loveable Frank Bruno.
Across the Atlantic, Lewis received little love from American fight fans either. His personality was unfairly used as a stick with which to beat him. He was portrayed as a tea sipping, chess playing intellectual, the polar opposite of Mike Tyson’s street criminal. In the ring too he was Tyson’s opposite. Lennox was languid and cautious. He used the jab to set opponents up for punches rather than looking to obliterate them with power shots like Tyson. As WWF’s Jim Ross might say, he was a “cerebral assassin”.
However, Lennox knew how to put opponents away and wasn’t afraid to let his hands go when he had an opponent in trouble. His record entering the fight with Rahman was 38-1-1 with 29 victories coming by knockout. The solitary defeat on his record came in an upset loss to Oliver McCall in 1994 which Lennox would later avenge.
Lewis entered the fight as the true heavyweight champion of the world. Although he had been stripped of the WBA title a year earlier he was almost universally recognised as the number one heavyweight on the planet. He had destroyed the competition since his one career blemish. He had knocked out contenders Andrew Golota, Shannon Briggs, and Michael Grant and he had comfortably out-boxed Evander Holyfield (twice- although the first meeting was scored a draw).
Little was expected of Hasim Rahman entering the fight. But Rahman was no stranger to upsetting the odds. Born and raised on the mean streets of Baltimore, Maryland, Rahman had a troubled upbringing. He was involved with criminal gangs from a young age and worked as an enforcer for local drug dealers. This line of work led to a shooting incident in which Rahman was shot five times and lucky to survive. Having started down this path, the odds were that Rahman would be dead or in jail before his 30th birthday.
Luckily for Rahman, through a chance encounter with former pro boxer Lou Butler, he got involved in boxing. Butler challenged the young Rahman to a boxing match. Butler was so impressed with the raw talent and punching power of the young Rahman that encouraged Hasim to take up the sport. Boxing gave Rahman discipline and direction but, more importantly, gave him a way to turn his life around.
A string of early victories, including a win over former champion Trevor Berbick, quickly elevated Rahman to fringe contender status. By 2001, Rahman was on the verge of a title shot and when he beat Frankie Swindell, his dream of fighting for the title was finally about to come true.
Rahman entered the fight as a massive 20-1 outsider. Nobody outside of his camp gave him a chance. However, a large part of the appeal of heavyweight boxing is the power. At the championship level just about every heavyweight has fight-ending power and Rahman was no exception. Despite this, all logic pointed to a Lewis victory.
But from the opening bell Rahman showed confidence in his own ability. He didn’t back off Lewis and look to just survive a few rounds with the champ. Instead he tried to take the centre of the ring. Rahman won the opening round but, more importantly, with just over a minute left in the round he was able to land a left jab-overhand right combination. Although it didn’t hurt Lewis, it gave Rahman the encouragement that he could find a home for the right hand on Lewis’ chin.
From the bell to start the second round, the champion began to warm up and won the next three rounds. Although Rahman lost the fourth round on the scorecards, he once again began to land his punches with incredible force.
The fifth proved to be the final round. Lewis came out aggressively to start the round and was backing Rahman up. Rahman appeared to finally be in a little trouble but suddenly halfway through the round he once again landed a right hand that stopped Lewis in his tracks. This success rejuvenated Rahman who had appeared to be losing heart a little. Spurred on, he chased Lewis across the ring with a series of jabs and as Lewis moved off the ropes, Rahman spotted his opening. He launched another right hand and found the sweet spot, right on Lewis’ chin. Lewis went down like a falling tree and couldn’t beat the count. Rahman, the kid from the mean streets of Baltimore, had just become the heavyweight champion of the world.
Lewis had an immediate rematch clause in his contract with Rahman, which he chose to exercise. Don King however tried to throw a spanner in the works. King realised that the American public would like to see Rahman as champion and planned to have the new champ make a couple of money spinning defences before Lewis could get his rematch.
Luckily for Lewis the US Federal court upheld his rematch clause. The rematch took place in November 2001 in Las Vegas. Lightning did not strike twice. Lewis dominated the second fight and knocked Rahman out in the 4th round.
Lennox would fight just twice more after that, defeating the shell of Mike Tyson by knockout and then winning a controversial stoppage over Vitali Klitschko before retiring. Although never truly a popular heavyweight champion, the past decade have seen Lewis viewed in a more appreciative light. The reigns of Vitali and, in particular, Wladimir Klitschko have been defined by mismatches and uneventful fights that have seen a decline in the interest in boxing’s marquee division. The retirement of Lennox Lewis is now seen as the end of the last great era of heavyweight boxing.
In many ways, Rahman’s most significant victory came long before he stepped in the ring with Lewis in South Africa. There are usually only two routes to escape the life Rahman led – death or jail. Rahman beat the odds to turn his life around. The fact that he reached the pinnacle of the sport was an added bonus. Rahman’s record since his rematch with Lewis has been patchy at best. Victories over journeymen have been accompanied by defeats every time he stepped up in class. He did succeed in winning the WBC title in 2005 by defeating Monte Barrett but lost it to old foe Oleg Maskaev the following year. Although not officially retired, Rahman has not fought since losing a WBA title shot against Alexander Povetkin in 2012.
Michael McCarthy, Pundit Arena.