Baltimore's newest hero

Sun Reporters

Two days ago, Hasim "The Rock" Rahman was an unknown with a shot at theheavyweight boxing title. Today, a hamburger is named after him.

Rahman's instant fame flows from a single punch that floored championLennox Lewis in a title fight that will go down in the annals of boxing as oneof the biggest upsets ever -- a fight the fans in his hometown will neverforget.

"No one thought a Baltimore kid would become world champion," said FrankMitsos, owner of Wahoos Sports Bar and Grill in Randallstown, which is naminga burger after Baltimore's first heavyweight champ. "We needed a good sportsstory. ... This is the kind of thing that keeps us going. "

Rahman grew up not far from the neighborhood around Wahoos. The bar, wherelocals were intently watching the HBO broadcast of the game Saturday night, iscaught up in the heavyweight hysteria around Rahman, who arrives home todayand will be greeted by a throng of family and friends at Baltimore-WashingtonInternational Airport.

His stunning upset has caught many off guard. Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger, who missedthe fight, said they were unsure when and how they would stage an officialcivic celebration.

But several celebrations were in the works. Dozens of friends, fans andrelatives will greet his plane, and neighbors in Abingdon were having a bannermade that will hang on his front porch: "Welcome Home, New World ChampionHasim Rahman! Congratulations!"

Fans watching the bout say they still can't believe it. "All of a sudden,the knockout flashed up on the screen," said Mitsos. "The whole bar was inawe. It was a great surprise."

Rahman's victory comes on the heels of this year's Super Bowl win by theBaltimore Ravens and the University of Maryland men's basketball team's firsttrip to the Final Four.

Rahman, 28, has all of the characteristics a hometown looks for in itssports heroes. He has a nickname, "The Rock," and ties to the region, from theBaltimore streets, where his first opponents were local bullies, to Abingdon,the Harford County neighborhood that he, his wife and three children callhome. Even better, he hasn't forgotten his roots.

O'Malley said he was pleased to hear that Rahman mentioned the city when hetook a turn at the microphone after he knocked out Lewis in the fifth round towin the World Boxing Council and International Boxing Federation titles inSouth Africa.

"He said, `Mayor O'Malley, get ready. I'm bringing it home,'" O'Malleysaid.

Rahman made a point to thank trainer Mack Lewis, 82, who has operated a gymat Broadway and Eager Street since 1943. "It's the first gym I ever went to,"Rahman said after screaming Lewis' name during the post-fight interview.

"For him to say that, it brought tears to my eyes," Mack Lewis said. "A lotof people, you do things to help, they don't say nothing about you. All of asudden, they take all of the credit. I've had fighters I've done a whole lotfor and they've said nothing.

"He's the right kind of man, an intelligent man, to be the firstheavyweight champion for Baltimore, because of what he's been through andwhere he came from, and he's a decent man."

Lewis, who handled Rahman for a few of his 11 amateur fights, said Rahman"came to the gym and did everything you asked him to do. He'd shadow box, hitthe heavy bag, skip rope. He was an easy guy to work with. ... And he had thebody of a fighter, along with the desire to be a fighter."

Rahman credited his managers, Stan Hoffman and Steve Nelson, for keepingtheir promise to make him a champion. He thanked his trainer, Adrian Davis.And he told his mother, Joyce Rahman, that she could "tell the state ofMaryland to take that job and shove it. She don't got to work there anymore."

Rahman's mother quit her job last week as a correctional officer after morethan 10 years, said Rahman's sister, Kamilah Rahman-Fly.

But Rahman said he doesn't expect life to change much. "I'm still going togo to the same places. ... I'm not going to be one of these guys who needs 12or 13 bodyguards. I'm going to walk to the same malls."

His neighbors in Abingdon weren't sure how long Rahman would stay, though."It's hard to imagine that a world champion would live in this middle-class,suburban neighborhood," said Gene L. Miller, 37, an insurance manager wholives nearby.

The Oates family put a big-screen television on the porch and invited theentire neighborhood over to watch the fight. "There were probably close to 20of us there, cheering and hollering. We were ecstatic," said Victor Tritto,37, a podiatrist who lives across the street from Rahman.

Even before his victory, Rahman was popular, especially among the childrenwho live nearby. To celebrate one of his children's birthdays, Rahman rentedponies for all the neighborhood children to ride, Tritto said.

Although Rahman quickly became a household name in South Africa during thepast few weeks, he is largely unknown in Maryland.

Harford County Executive James M. Harkins calls himself "an avid boxingfan," but acknowledged that he did not know before being told by a reporterthat the new world heavyweight champion lives in his county.

"I have to plead ignorance," Harkins said. "But, yes, we are going to dosomething. We're going to put something together and try to get in touch withhim and his family. Hopefully, he will participate."

O'Malley was impressed by Rahman during a meeting a few weeks ago, beforethe boxer's departure for South Africa. "He seems like a really decent guy,"the mayor said.

Rahman, a Muslim, shares his home with cousin Terry Frierson, 15, afreshman at Edgewood High. Frierson, whose father died, said he considersRahman his surrogate father. "He's tough on me, in school and everything,always trying to guide me in the right direction," Frierson said.

He watched the fight Saturday with relatives. "It was amazing, watching afamily member in a fight of that caliber," Frierson said. "My heart, likeeveryone else's in the room, it was pounding the whole time. I was scared,especially when his eye started to swell."

But for the most part, relatives and fans were confident. Rahman's wife,Crystal, went to South Africa for the bout. While it wasn't unusual for her tobe at the arena, she never watched her husband's fights. Days before leavingfor Johannesburg, she said she was going to watch this time, "because I feelgood about this one."

To most boxing observers, Rahman had seemed only a tune-up for a big-moneyfight between Lewis and Mike Tyson. Before the fight, Rahman was as much as a20-to-1 underdog.

Rahman's next fight could be in South Africa, where fans took to theBaltimore boxer. The opponent? Lewis had a rematch clause in his contract withRahman, but Tyson promoter Shelly Finkel said his fighter should be next.

John Murphy of The Sun foreign staff contributed to this article.

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