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Lennox's big payback
Remembering Lewis-Rahman II, twenty years on
Welcome to Double Dutch Boxing, a boxing newsletter from Jake Lawton. If you’re here for the first time, you can subscribe below to receive every edition direct to your inbox, and can get in touch by replying to this email.
I’d also like to take this chance to thank all readers and supporters of Double Dutch across its first year and wish you all a very Merry Christmas. It’s time to drink wine, feel fine and watch Gremlins. Here’s to a happy and healthy New Year for us all.
Though the world does appear to have all gone Pete Tong once again, the boxing globe keeps on turning and there’s a lot to look forward to in 2022. The news agenda and fight previews will return in January, but this year’s final edition goes back two decades to explore the Vegas rematch nobody had predicted - pitting the British heavyweight kingpin against the man who had blown boxing’s glamour division wide open a few months prior with one of the greatest shocks in the sport’s history…
Setting the record straight
THE LONG READ
“I believe it was a lucky punch…he has to prove it wasn’t a lucky punch to me.”
Lennox Lewis looked across the ESPN studio at the man who, only months earlier, had knocked him out cold. He could rightly point to mistakes and circumstances in the lead up to their fight in South Africa six months prior, but the record books were unequivocal - Hasim Rahman had stopped him in the fifth round to rip the heavyweight title out of his grasp. It was a result that sent waves through the sporting world.
Almost inevitably, given the level of animosity and ego involved combined with the events which had followed the shocking result of their first fight, things escalated quickly when the men were together again in the same building. Some retrospectively-questionable slurs were chucked around and, before you knew it, there was an all-out brawl and broken furniture littered across the studio. This was clearly now incredibly personal.
My recent potted history of the boxing upset included reflections on Lennox Lewis-Hasim Rahman I in April 2001 - one of the most notorious examples of an underdog triumphing in the history of the sport.
Lewis was distracted and unprepared for their first meeting. This was supposed to be a cakewalk, little more than biding time while he waited for the real big fish to land; the showdown with Mike Tyson which promised to crown his glittering career and be one of the biggest shows in the sport’s history. Sadly for Lennox, however, he did a bit too much biding, staying later than he should have in Vegas to film his cameo appearance in Ocean’s Eleven. Not only was his mind diverted, but his body wasn’t given the requisite time to acclimatise to the altitude of Carnival City, 20 miles outside Johannesburg and 6,000 feet above sea level.
Hasim Rahman was a 20-1 underdog going into their first fight, but his team had him prepared. He was out in South Africa weeks before Lewis, getting used to the high altitude and stabilising his body clock; due to US TV demands, the fight would be taking place at 5 in the morning. He also looked a tad undervalued by the experts, coming in with a record of 34 wins and 2 defeats.
Yes, Lennox was the superior fighter, by some stretch if everything was measured equally, but in life that is rarely the case and clearly, the cards were landing in Rahman’s favour.
Even with all the evidence to the contrary, pretty much nobody saw this result coming, least of all the man who walked in as the unified heavyweight champ.
The first few rounds were fairly uneventful, with Lewis clearly labouring compared to his own high standards but Rahman not really able to exploit the situation. In the fifth round, however, the world Lennox’s previous years of hard work and dedication had created fell apart with one punch - up against the ropes, Lewis dropped his hands and ‘The Rock’ sent out a huge right hand which connected perhaps more sweetly than any other punch he had thrown in his career.
All of Lennox’s 18 stone - the heaviest he had been in his career - crumpled in a heap on the canvas. The referee made the count but Hasim was already dancing. The fight was over the moment the punch landed.
Just like that, and completely out of the blue, Hasim Rahman was now the unified heavyweight champion of the world.
As Lennox’s trainer Emmanuel Steward reflected a few months on, miscalculations on their side played a big part in the result…
“Lennox was in shape - he was never lax in his training. He didn't have the mental focus and intensity that he had in his previous fights. He was involved in a big lawsuit with his previous promoter, and he also did a movie which he had committed to a long time in the past. As soon as he arrived in South Africa he got involved in a war with the local promoter... There was all that, coupled with the fact that no one respected Rahman that much, even myself. We all spoke of Rahman as a good fighter, but it's only normal that when you're going up against the guy after you've whipped the likes of Evander Holyfield that it was a step down psychologically.”
Fast forward seven months, to late 2001, and the world of both fighters had been changed exponentially by that one punch.
Lennox went from the dominant heavyweight king to a man seemingly scrabbling around, desperate for redemption.
Lewis had already made his way back in the face of doubters years earlier. Many in the States saw him as a paper champion after the WBC belt had literally been picked out of a bin to be handed to Lewis in late 1992, having been dumped there by Riddick Bowe, but the reality was that this appeared to all intents and purposes like a duck on the part of Bowe with Lewis positioned as his next challenger.
He had experienced losing his crown to a huge underdog before, back in 1994 when he was stopped by Oliver McCall whilst reigning as WBC champion. The Stateside boxing cognoscenti used this result as fuel for their assertion of significant doubt that Lennox could really be the man at heavyweight.
Former Olympic gold medallist Lewis gradually recovered and managed to convince most of the naysayers of his greatness with a four-year streak which included reclaiming his status as world champion, along with crushing victories against great American heavyweight hopes Shannon Briggs and Michael Grant. His hugely dubious draw (a fight Lewis clearly won) against Evander Holyfield in March 1999 was followed later that year by a signature points victory over ‘The Real Deal’, a result which made him the WBC, IBF, WBA and lineal champion - the last man to be undisputed in the heavyweight division - by the start of the new millennium, even if the WBA later stripped him for choosing not to fight their mandatory.
All that positive momentum, however, had been completely derailed that night in South Africa by Hasim, the man known as ‘The Rock’.
Rahman, on the other hand, was now living the good life. Despite being a heavyweight contender for years, few had given him the slightest hope of beating Lennox. Prior to this result, he was perhaps most notorious for being punched through the ropes and out of the ring in spectacular fashion by Oleg Maskaev…
But beat Lewis he did, and the riches of prizefighting soon opened up in front of Hasim.
Signing a deal with Don King, Rahman was now operating at a new level. Though he had been a heavyweight contender for a number of years, he was suddenly the subject of a bidding war between US TV big boys Showtime and HBO - each eager to sign him up to exclusive deals. Showtime wanted him to fight Tyson, the man Lennox had been chasing for so long, whereas HBO offered up a rematch with Lewis. More than $15 million was on the table from each.
In the end, Hasim and his promoter King decided to target a celebratory defence against a fringe contender. In their minds, he was the new heavyweight kingpin after all. Bouts with Brian Nielsen and David Izon were considered, the Izon fight was even announced.
Lennox, however, still had his trump card - Rahman had already agreed to a rematch due to a clause in the first fight’s contract, and he wasn’t about to let the man he felt was unworthy of his new lofty position enjoy a victory lap. Team Lewis wanted to return to their perch at the top of boxing’s glamour division quickly and soon brought on legal proceedings to ensure that the deal they had both signed would be honoured. A deal was reached and Lennox-Hasim II was on.
Rahman’s world title victory, a new promoter, multiple mind-blowing broadcasting offers, proposed defence negotiations, the culmination of the legal proceedings AND agreement on the terms for the Lewis rematch had all happened within a matter of little more than three months. No wonder Hasim’s head was spinning.
It must have been a lot to take in for Lennox also, but perhaps his experience at the top table made the necessary difference to their preparation. They say it takes a lifetime of work to become an overnight sensation, and it’s easy to see how ‘The Rock’ rapidly became a fighter with stars in his eyes.
Rahman was acting like he had been the champ for years, displaying a cocksure certainty that could end up being his downfall. Rahman taunted Lewis continuously, walking around with a crown on his head and saying that he might allow Lennox to fight on his undercards once he had beaten him again. No humility here; Rahman saw himself as the new king and he wanted everyone to know it. His opponent, for his part, was only more desperate to emerge victorious in light of the behaviour of Hasim.
What felt like an opportunity for a lucrative Lewis showcase in the build-up to the first fight had become an unmissable dust-up by the time the sequel drew near. Genuine bad blood and unanswered questions about both Rahman’s ability and Lewis’s mindset made this one of the boxing events of the early 2000s. From their first meeting when Lennox Lewis seemingly only had to walk around the ring to claim victory, the boxing journalists were split roughly 50-50 on who would win the rematch. Many saw the result in South Africa as a sign that, at the age of 36, Lennox’s time in boxing was coming to an end.
Hasim Rahman was certainly of that opinion. “I feel like I'm playing with my child”, stated ‘The Rock’ as the rematch loomed. “I’m too strong for him…he may stay out of the way, and if the knockout eludes me, I’ll just be satisfied with another win”. It seemed as if he was falling headfirst into the trappings of success, a mixture of losing focus and gaining a supreme level of overconfidence.
For Lennox Lewis himself, a win here was necessary to move forward with his career. Certainly, his prominent place in boxing history was at stake. The man who was so recently the pre-eminent heavyweight on the planet knew it too, dedicating himself thoroughly to training, cutting no corners and filming no cameos in the weeks before the event.
In mid-November 2001, Lennox Lewis and Hasim Rahman finally ran it back before a rabid crowd at the Mandalay Bay in Vegas.
In an all-time classic moment of ring walk psychology, Britain’s heavyweight hero entered the arena to the brooding strains of James Brown’s classic ‘The Payback’. It was clear that, this time, he really did mean business.
On the night, Lewis left no doubt. His improved preparation and laser-like focus shone through as he dominated the majority of the contest with his majestic jab, more venomously delivered than it had been before. Lennox had slimmed down his body and streamlined his thought process in the ring, whereas ‘The Rock’ had regressed since their previous meeting.
Lewis found an opening for an incredibly savage right-hand knockout punch in the fourth round of the fight. Rahman, so cocksure in the run-up to the fight, had been well and truly humbled as he fell to the canvas. A desperate attempt to get up proved futile, and the referee quickly waved the contest off.
Lennox Lewis, after a rollercoaster year that saw him go from the heights of the sport to the depths of despair, was back on top as the unified heavyweight champion. In the post-fight, he was vindicated as he assessed the bout…
“Here, I did what I had to do. I told everybody that his punch in South Africa was lucky, so now you might believe me. You can forget about Hasim Rahman. He's now Has-Been Rahman, the Buster Douglas of the 21st century.”
Any heavyweight active in this time period, most in boxing history really, would have struggled to live with a truly motivated Lewis. A Hasim Rahman who had well and truly bought into his own hype was on a hiding to nothing. ‘The Lion’, guided by the legendary Steward, accepted his mistakes and, crucially, showed the ability and mental fortitude to correct them.
Despite demonstrating his pre-eminence in the division, Lewis wasn’t quite right that we wouldn’t be seeing anything more of Hasim Rahman. ‘The Rock’ was elevated from interim to full WBC heavyweight champion in 2005, after a proposed fight with the previous title holder Vitali Klitschko was cancelled due to the Ukranian’s litany of injuries at the time. He defended the belt in a 12-round draw with James Toney in March 2006, with ‘Lights Out’ having crashed the heavyweight party by beating John Ruiz for the WBA title the previous year, before a failed drug test had tarnished his big moment.
Rahman lost the WBC belt to old foe Olek Maskaev via KO later that year, and his later resume included another knockout loss, to Vladimir Klitschko. So not quite stellar, but also certainly not terrible. He remained a heavyweight presence for years after the Lewis defeat.
Reflecting on the rematch two decades on, Rahman accepted his own mistakes along the way…
“I felt like I had Lennox’s number and that if I hit him again, he was going to sleep. What happened in South Africa was a big factor in me thinking that…I just like felt ‘oh man, this is going to be easy. He’s not strong enough for me!’…That gave me a false sense of security. I felt like I didn’t really need a game plan, I didn’t need anything. All I gotta do was get in and hit him…I forgot how great of a champion Lennox was. You can’t never just go in and think you can rely on one punch to beat somebody like Lennox Lewis.”
Lennox finally did get his fight against Mike Tyson in 2002, which took place in Memphis, Tennessee due to Tyson’s inability to gain a license in the big boxing states. This was not the fearsome Tyson of old, and Lewis summarily stopped his long-discussed nemesis in the eighth round. Whatever the merits or not of the fight, this was a crowning moment for his career. Lennox Lewis never did fight Riddick Bowe in the pros, but that win over Tyson would be on his record forever.
Lewis would fight once more after the Tyson win, defending his heavyweight crown in a pretty wild bout with Vitali Klitschko (who himself was a last-minute replacement for Kirk Johnson) in early 2003. One of my favourite bouts to end up stuck in front of on YouTube, despite only going six rounds and featuring what many consider to be an entirely unsatisfactory conclusion, this featured an elder statesman Lewis navigating a close-to-prime Vitali’s intense offence and both fighters taking some big-time damage.
A truly brutal open wound above Klitschko’s eye eventually saw the ringside doctor call the fight off before the seventh round could begin, awarding Lewis the victory via TKO. Klitschko and his team went ballistic, Lennox calmly stated it was the correct decision. Vitali being ahead on the scorecards at the time of the stoppage meant that a rematch was the obvious next step, given the number of unanswered questions.
Though a rematch would have been nice, I don’t think anyone can doubt that by this stage Lewis had achieved enough in his career to call his own shots.
He eventually decided to retire on top, walking away with his faculties in place and a career that holds up to anyone in the modern era.
Looking back, in my formative years of boxing fandom Lewis was undoubtedly an early catalyst for my obsession to build, and it was his ability to bounce back from the adversity he faced that helped to endear him to me. The measure of a true champion is not how they make it to the summit, but how they react once they suffer misfortune, and to demonstrate that you have learnt from the mistakes which got you in that mess in the first place.
Lennox Lewis will undoubtedly go down as one of the great heavyweight fighters of all time, and possibly in some eyes Britain’s best ever, of any weight. Circumstance dictated, however, that one of his most memorable rivalries ended up being with an opponent who was supposed to be an afterthought.
It goes to show that you can never be sure about anything in this craziest of sports. Never say never in boxing.
The entire Rahman escapade was planned as just a pit stop for Lennox, but it consumed his 2001 and became a defining moment in his boxing journey.
It was a high-profile example of how taking your eyes off the ball, even just briefly, can prove disastrous, and also became a demonstration that true class, when applied correctly, should always shine through in the end.
Lennox demonstrated that the great fighters almost always find a way.
DOUBLE DUTCH BOXING - BEST OF 2021