All aboard the Rahman bandwagon

COME ON. BE HONEST. Until a few day ago, if Hasim Rahman had come up to youon the street, introduced himself and forced you to guess if he was, a) abackup defensive back for the Ravens, b) a middle school science teacher, or,c) a heavyweight title contender from Abingdon in Harford County, you neverwould have guessed the last of the three.

Ordinarily, the phrases "heavyweight title" and "Harford County" belong inthe same sentence like Art Modell and Peter Angelos belong at the same tableat a party. And until a few weeks ago, or even a few days ago, Rahman wasabout as well-known in his hometown as the guy who cuts his lawn.

That's all changed in the wake of the powerful right that floored Lennox Lewis on Saturday night and turned Rahman, 28, into Baltimore's first worldheavyweight champion. Everyone knows him now. He's the region's latest sportssuccess, following the Ravens and Terps.

The only difference, of course, is that more than eight people had heard ofthe Ravens and Terps when they made their runs to glory, and if Rahman'sbandwagon was larger than eight going into the Lewis fight, it wasn't muchlarger.

Put it this way: You could have taken his entire bandwagon, including theteam of Clydesdales pulling it, and stuffed it into a Chevy Suburban.

Rahman's wife and kids were on board, as were a few sponsors, neighbors,friends and strays. The local fight crowd? It's dwindled to the size of a goodturnout for a coffeehouse poetry slam.

Otherwise, the bandwagon was empty. Plenty of good seats were available,but Rahman and his handlers couldn't give them away with free pizzas and gum.Even though Rahman had a 34-2 record, his local name recognition registeredsomewhere between Todd Frohwirth and the guys on the Ravens' practice squad.

He may have shocked the world by beating Lewis on Saturday night, but heshocked his hometown even more.

Just seven weeks ago, shortly before he left for South Africa, Rahmanwalked around all but unnoticed at a charity fight card staged by the Ravens'Rob Burnett at the Hyatt Regency Inner Harbor. Few in the crowd had anyinkling that a guy set to fight Lewis for the title was in their midst or thatthe guy was a local who had gone to Randallstown High School.

Seven weeks later, awakening as the home of the world heavyweight championfor the first time Sunday morning, Baltimore experienced a rush of pride andownership ... then set out to learn how to spell and pronounce the champ'sname.

You have never seen an empty bandwagon fill so fast.

He was "our guy" upon his triumphal return to Baltimore yesterday, even asmany in the city were still working to commit the proper spelling andpronunciation to memory. (Here's a tip: The packets of noodles you buy for 20cents at the Giant are Ramen noodles, and our heavyweight champion is Rahman.Only it's pronounced "Rock-mon." Don't worry, you'll get it eventually.)

Part of the problem is professional boxing itself; the heavyweight crownwas once the grandest title in sports, but a succession of clowns and crooksand alphabet-soup in-fighting has severely diminished it. Rahman owns the WBCand IBF titles, and someone named John Ruiz owns the WBA title. A lot ofpeople can't summon interest.

Also, Rahman has fought at home only once since early in his career,beating a duffel bag with an 11-31-3 record in front of 2,200 fans 13 monthsago at Martin's West. Otherwise, his managers have booked him everywhere fromCapitol Heights to Atlantic City to Las Vegas, and as anyone in the sportsbusiness knows, it's hard to win over a lot of people when you never play ahome game.

We still should blush at the shameless exhibition of front-running as weadmit Rahman to the local pantheon of champions -- kudos to him for having thedecency not to bring it up. He's just happy about everything, of course, aswell he should be. He may have won the title from an opponent who wasoverconfident and out of shape Saturday night, but his knockout punch wasclean, swift and hard -- a classic that would have floored anyone.

The result is a terrific story about an obscure underdog who supposedly hadno chance, kept believing in himself and came through. Even better, he's agood guy, a good neighbor, a family man, deeply religious. He deserves anovation, belated or otherwise, just for that alone. And no matter how long heholds the title, he brought it home to the city where he was raised. He didit. If his city didn't know him before, it does now.

The fallout is delicious, to say the least. Suddenly, we're on the boxingmap in a big way. Rahman's next bout will either be a rematch with Lewis or atitle defense against Mike Tyson, depending on what the promoters and lawyersfinagle. Imagine a Tyson-Rahman extravaganza at the Baltimore Arena. (Afterwhich we could just blow the place up and start over.) Or we could makeMichael's Eighth Avenue in Glen Burnie the cradle of champions. Tyson lived inMaryland, remember, until he got too mad about a fender-bender in Gaithersburgand ended up going to jail. So we could bill it as a state title fight.

Oh, right. Almost forgot. We don't have to trump anything up anymore toscare up interest and a crowd. Overnight, out of nowhere, we've gonelegitimate in the fight game. Legitimate in a huge way.

The heavyweight champion of the world lives among us.

Our guy.

It's time to get the name right.

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