The cruelty of boxing is almost wonderful to behold. It's not
enough that heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis must lose a bout,
which any fighter of sufficient arrogance is doomed to do. Lewis,
set up by age and circumstance, must also lose his future and his
past in the same instant he collapses to a South African canvas,
shrunk to irrelevance by a flash right hand. In boxing you can be
destroyed. Or, far more entertaining, you can be utterly
Here is Lewis's situation, as his lawyers examine the small print
that reportedly compels a rematch with Hasim Rahman, an upset
winner of Buster Douglas magnitude, not to mention the new and
surprising IBF and WBC titlist: A huge-money fight with Mike
Tyson is gone, vaporized in the time it took 20-1 underdog Rahman
to clip Lewis right on the button in the fifth round on Sunday in
Johannesburg. Tyson-Lewis was problematic--what with rival
broadcasters standing in the way of it--but still inevitable. The
prospect of a $100 million pay-per-view attraction would
eventually make friends of even HBO and Showtime.
Gone, too, is Lewis's legacy as his era's dominant heavyweight.
As Evander Holyfield and Tyson sagged into history, Lewis had
emerged as the division's outstanding talent--hard-hitting,
athletic, tough-minded and professional. Now that he's suffered
the second loss of his career, all that led to it becomes
suspect. Having lost a fight he shouldn't have, in other words,
he is no better or worse than the rest of them. That's not much
of an epitaph these days.
The disappointment, for those who admired Lewis's approach, is
that he really is better than the rest. Better, certainly, than
Rahman (pronounced ROCK-mahn), who was installed in this bout as
a time-killer, somebody to keep the public interested while Lewis
chased Tyson. Lewis had the advantage in height (he is 6'5" to
Rahman's 6'2"), resume (this was his 15th title fight, Rahman's
first) and ability (his customary caution coupled with a
concussive right hand make him difficult to neutralize).
But Rahman, sneaking in under Lewis's radar (and everybody
else's; reporters waiting for Rahman to deplane in Johannesburg
initially mistook a missionary for their man), had the advantage
of desire, and as history teaches us, hardly anything is more
dangerous than that. The 28-year-old contender from East
Baltimore, who didn't take up boxing until he was 20, showed up
in Johannesburg a month early, trained in a hardscrabble gym,
prayed to Allah every day and promised all who would listen that
he wasn't the same fighter who had lost to David Tua in 1998 or
been knocked out in '99 by Oleg Maskaev. "You can't see my
heart," he told people. "It's big."
Lewis, meanwhile, enjoyed the prerogative of a wildly favored
champion--insulting indifference. He didn't show up for the fight
until 12 days before, professed inside knowledge about the
effects of the site's nearly 6,000-foot elevation ("I don't
believe everything scientists say about altitude"), kept the
locals waiting at most every opportunity and seemed more taken
with his cameo in the upcoming Julia Roberts-Brad Pitt remake of
Ocean's Eleven than with his upcoming bout. Also, he hadn't
bothered to get in top shape; he came in at 253 pounds, his
highest weight ever and two pounds heavier than he was in 1994
when Oliver McCall KO'd him in the second round.
Here's a guy who was last seen cavorting with Julia and Brad, and
he's supposed to be impressed with Rahman? "He is just a piece of
meat for me to play with," said Lewis, lapsing into the kind of
theatrical hubris from which the only possible relief, the
classics tell us, can be total humiliation. And it came to pass.
Not long after Lewis entered Carnival City Casino arena he was
huffing and puffing. He was in control of the smaller Rahman,
content to walk him down, but it was clear that his strategy
called for early dismissal. He looked to land that big right hand
and make a night of it. However, as the fifth round rolled
around, it began to appear that the thinner air in a mile-high
ring, especially at the TV-friendly time of five a.m., was no
Going into the bout, there had been enough talk about altitude
adjustment that you'd have thought the fighters were preparing
for a K2 summit. Rahman took it more seriously than Lewis, not
only acclimating himself at the site but also training at 3,000
feet in the Catskills beforehand. He could be a sherpa if all
else failed. Lewis, on the other hand, now was holding his gloves
at his sides and, while he appeared in no danger, it seemed clear
that being out of shape, 35 years old and out of breath might not
be the way to go, even in an easy fight.
Then the fight got hard. Rahman, who had told the few listening
reporters that week that he'd been "developing one-punch power,"
cracked Lewis with a right midway through the fifth round. Lewis
smiled it off. Rahman chased him into the ropes with four running
jabs, stood back and watched as Lewis dropped his hands again.
Rahman fired a straight right. Lewis had brought his gloves back
up by then, but Rahman's punch whistled under his left hand and
seemed to land on the tip of Lewis's chin. The champion's head
swiveled violently, and he fell backward to the canvas, pushed
himself up on his elbows after a bit and, while not hearing a
thing, took a 10-count.
Maybe Lewis should have realized that Rahman, who needed 500
stitches after a near-fatal truck accident, was not the kind of
guy who would give up easily. Married and the father of three,
Rahman had sufficient determination to survive his two losses and
to imagine himself a bona fide force in the heavyweight division.
Now he is that, and more of a force than he might have dreamed.
As WBC champ, he is likely to be forced into a mandatory defense
before any Lewis rematch. Top contender? That would be Tyson.
Even before that circumstance dawned on Lewis, he was in shock.
"I can't believe it," he said. "I just can't believe it. I felt
fine. I was going about my work nice and comfortable."
A little too comfortable, perhaps. Now Lewis, who was running out
of time anyway, begins to be characterized by his upset losses
instead of his tough wins. Never mind a nice little run of
excellence that carried him over Holyfield, Tua, Michael Grant
and Francois Botha, he has to answer for his McCall and Rahman
defeats, answer questions in fact about a squandered career.
What is so complete about boxing's cruelty is that after only a
little while longer, nobody will be asking.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY NICK POTTS/PA Downtime With the crowd behind him, Rahman ended Lewis's reign with a perfectly timed right hand.
COLOR PHOTO: MIKE HUTCHINGS/REUTERS
COLOR PHOTO: NICK POTTS/PA Rare heights Lewis appeared to tire in Johannesburg's thin air while the smaller but determined Rahman rose to the occasion.
Rahman, SNEAKING IN UNDER LEWIS'S RADAR, had the advantage of
desire; hardly anything is more dangerous.