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For Rahman, Streets Don’t Get Meaner Than This
LAS VEGAS — You sidle up to Hasim Rahman’s longtime manager, Steve Nelson, and hit him with your best shot. You want to sound intelligent, like a boxing writer with a fresh question, ideally something he hasn’t answered about his current heavyweight champion 50 times before.
“So,” you say, feigning wisdom and knowing nothing, “all that scar tissue around Hasim’s right eye, that must have caused you guys lots of trouble over the years. Lots of quick repairs in the corner, maybe some stopped fights?”
Nelson, looking neither offended nor amused, replies, “Nope.”
You glance around quickly for the proximity of the exits. Your best shot wasn’t even a decent jab. All around you, in a sweltering gym, a circus is taking place. While Rahman is being interviewed by waves of reporters, a grown man in a rust-orange shirt, semi-matching tie and a crown of jewels on his head that appears to be a Burger King-design rip-off is yelling at the top of his lungs.
“HA-SEEM ROCK-MAN, champ-een of the world.”
“He’s a HARD-HITTER, never a quitter.”
“He’ll be NOTHING BUT HORROR for the USSR.”
Nelson, a quiet man with a kind nature, rescues the moment by elaborating.
“He’ll lose his voice pretty soon, and the scar tissue isn’t from boxing,” he says, in one of the great summation non sequiturs of our time.
You pounce, like an investigative reporter. Woodward and Bernstein would be proud.
“Oh, really,” you say. “How then?”
And suddenly, one of the lesser-known stories of Rahman, 33, who will fight Oleg Maskaev, 37, Saturday night in Las Vegas for one of the four heavyweight championship belts, is told.
Nelson said that, when Rahman was 19, a year or so before he got into boxing at any level and two years before his first pro fight, he was in an auto accident in his hometown of Baltimore that was so serious he was blessed to be alive.
“More than 500 stitches in his face,” Nelson says.
Shortly, Rahman picks up the story.
“Was more than 500, maybe a thousand,” says Rahman, who was thrown through the windshield on impact. “The first time I got a look at myself in a mirror in the hospital, I almost passed out.
“I was riding in a pickup truck. My friend was driving. It was at night, we were going too fast, really speeding. We hit a car with four people in it at the intersection of Monroe and Clifton. I still go by the intersection a lot when I’m home. There’s still a mark on the wall where our truck hit.”
By then, Rahman already had experienced several life-threatening situations on the hard streets of Baltimore, where he had the reputation of someone who would be good to take along when you were collecting bad debts.
He had been shot once in the leg, once in the arm.
So when he was thrown from the truck and looked up to see it hurtling down on him, it wasn’t the first time he’d faced death.
“I tried to stop it with my arm and it broke my wrist,” Rahman says. “It pinned me. There was lots of blood, but I knew I was alive and when the police got there, I kept yelling to get my friend out.”
With his free hand, Rahman said, he had been able to reach out and locate his friend, Michael Evans. He says he kept nudging him. “After a while, I knew he was dead,” Rahman says.
Two of the four people in the other car were seriously injured, but Evans was the only fatality.
“It took about a week in the hospital,” Rahman says. “I was like Humpty Dumpty. They had to put the pieces back together again. I didn’t get out of the hospital in time to go to his funeral.”
Shortly after that, Rahman traded the streets of Baltimore for the gyms of Baltimore, and soon Nelson saw him fight.
“He only had 10 amateur fights,” Nelson recalls, “and I had been advised to go see him in his last one. I did, he lost it, he was raw, but I could see strength and courage. So I made the best investment I’ve ever made. I paid him $24,000 for the right to be his manager, and that was 48 fights ago.”
It also was 33 knockouts ago, including his spectacular one-punch finish of then-WBC champion Lennox Lewis on April 21, 2001, in Carnival City, South Africa.
That brought the new heavyweight champ back to the streets of Baltimore. Literally.
A few days after his title match, the city held a parade for its new hero, through the city’s Inner Harbor. Rahman sat with his wife, Crystal, and their three children on the back of a convertible.
Suddenly, another car, apparently not seeing or understanding what was going on, slammed into the side of Rahman’s car, knocking everybody to the pavement. Rahman and his children were slightly bruised. Crystal spent the night in the hospital.
“To this day, the kids don’t like convertibles,” Rahman says.
In 1999, in their only previous meeting, Maskaev caught Rahman with a punch that sent him through the ropes, out of the ring and onto the lap of announcer Jim Lampley. Rahman claims that he was unprepared for that fight, that nothing like that will happen again.
Lampley, undoubtedly, is pleased.
Because Maskaev is originally from Russia, although he’s now an American citizen, and because the three other heavyweight champs are from Russia or former Soviet Union states, promoters have labeled the fight “America’s Last Line of Defense.”
That’s silly. There can only be one slogan for this one: “Come See Hasim Rahman. Still Alive. Somehow.”