World Heavyweight Champion: 2001
When it was announced that Lennox Lewis would open his 2001 campaign by fighting Hasim Rahman, most people’s response was: Hasim who? Rahman was no household name, not even among boxing aficianados. The most prepossessing thing about this Baltimore heavyweight was his nickname: ‘The Rock’. His ring record wasn’t quite so impressive. Rahman had begun boxing at the age of 20, turning professional after stringing together 10 wins at amateur level. Rahman was regarded as someone who would provide a good payday without posing a serious threat, a lucrative stop-off for Lewis en route to a showdown against Tyson. The Lewis-Rahman fight turned out to be anything but a routine defence. Johannesburg, April 21, 2001 produced boxing’s biggest shock since ‘Buster’ Douglas’s win over Tyson a decade earlier. The 20-1 underdog landed a bomb in the fifth round, and the shock waves reverberated round the world – including the desks of sports journalists who hadn’t thought the fight worth attending. Lewis was stunned. He glossed over the fact that he had undertrained, and that he had interrupted his preparation to take a cameo role in the film Ocean’s Eleven. According to the now ex-champion, it was just a lucky punch which caught him off balance. He even thought the referee had counted too quickly. While the recriminations started in earnest in the Lewis camp, Rahman celebrated his victory. There was no luck as far as he was concerned. The referee could have counted to 20 and it would have made no difference. The world now had to sit up and take notice of the new heavyweight champion. A month after his victory, Rahman signed up with Don King, and arrangements were made for a fight with David Izon in August. Lewis wasn’t having any of that. He filed a lawsuit and won his right to a rematch. That cranked up the friction between the two men, as did a celebrated spat on television, when Lewis took exception to a comment by Rahman questioning his sexuality. Yes, this was all about hyping up the return and putting backsides on seats. But for Lewis the needle gave him added focus for their second meeting, on Nov 17. Rahman was talking another good fight. ‘Lewis is underestimating me again. I’ll knock him out again.’ So confident was ‘The Rock’ that he turned down a big-money contract before the Lewis fight, preferring to cut an even more lucrative deal for himself afterwards as a free agent -assuming he was still champion, of course. He warned viewers not to go to the bathroom or put the kettle on, as the fight would be explosive and could finish at any moment. He was right.