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 destroyed.
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"), r�sum� (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 hard-scrabble 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 myth.
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.