When Vincent Pettway, the handsome man and superb fighter, knocked outItaly's Gianfranco Rosi in Las Vegas on Sept. 17, 1994, he became Baltimore'sfirst world boxing champion in more than half a century. He made headlines,logged a fair amount of mug time on local television, received officialcitations and a nice pewter plate from the mayor.
But Pettway did not get what Hasim "Rock" Rahman got yesterday - his ownmotorcade through downtown Baltimore, a joyous rally at City Hall. He settledfor a ride as grand marshal of the Thanksgiving Day parade two months later.
His hometown could have honored Pettway in a more elaborate way, but CityHall was a relatively sleepy place in 1994, and apparently no one thereunderstood his victory as an excuse for a party. Baltimore, then 11 yearsremoved from a World Series and a decade deserted by an NFL franchise, mightsimply have forgotten how to celebrate a sports champion.
But the difference in how the city - or the world, for that matter -reacted to these two world-class boxers probably has more to do with ourfascination with all things extra-large and supersized. We like our heroes asbig as we can get them. And Pettway's hard-fought, hard-won world championshipcame as a junior middleweight.
Rahman is a heavyweight - the heavyweight champion of the world - and notitle in professional sports packs as much punch in the popular imagination.
Purists might hold that the sweetest science exists among the nimble andthe quick: the light-heavys, the middles, welters and even bantams. But theheavyweight title is the one that surpasses all others in hype, glamour andbucks. Unfair to the Vincent Pettways of the world, but it's a fact.
"It's just something you learn to live with," says Pettway, at 35 still intraining and looking for a fight. "The heavyweights have always gotten all theattention, but us little guys do all the work. We have to fight harder in thering and outside the ring for more attention and better promotion. Even mymanager's eyes get big as softballs when he sees a heavyweight come throughthe door of the gym. But the heavyweights deserve credit for all the drama andsuspense they bring to the game."
Even if you're not a fan of boxing - even if you're one of its harshestcritics or, more likely, one of its many intermittent observers who went outto watch Rahman's rally yesterday - you know exactly what "heavyweightchampion of the world" means. Those five words conjure up the sinewy outlinesof 20th century icons: Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Muhammad Ali. It's as ifMichelangelo himself had carved them into our collective memory.
More than all other fighters, the heavyweight champions endure as legends,wrapped forever in robes of glory.
"The heavyweight champion of the world is the best fighter in the world,"says Mack Lewis, the 82-year-old trainer who handled Pettway and helped launchRahman's career. "It ain't no pound-for-pound comparison. The heavyweight issimply considered the best fighter in the world because no one can beat him. Amiddleweight couldn't beat him, a welterweight couldn't beat him."
"He's king of the world," says Rashid Muhammad, who promotes amateur boxingin Maryland.
"He reigns supreme, rules all that he surveys," says Clem Florio, thePimlico race handicapper who, as a young middleweight from New York in the1950s, had 85 professional fights. "He's at the top of the world, standingalone. This kid - the Rock - can say today, `I beat the champ who beateveryone else.' "
Ali used to say, "I am the greatest."
All other champions in all other weight classes have to be just ascourageous, just as skilled, just as committed to their training regimens."Everything hurts in boxing," says Florio. "The training, the sparring,everything hurts. Nothing about it is easy."
But among all those who toil in the hard-sweat world of boxing, theheavyweight is the strong man - sometimes ponderously so - the brute with thelongest reach and the most potent punch.
Mack Lewis loves all boxers, all weight classes, and he has too muchrespect for those he trained over the years to single anyone out as thegreatest. But he concedes a soft spot for a good-looking heavy. "There's aprejudice among managers and trainers," he says. "When they see a big guy comein the gym, and he's got big shoulders and long arms, you say, `If this guy'sgot some guts, I got something here.' When Hasim [Rahman] came in, he came inlike a fighter. He wanted to fight. He's got a beautiful body."
And a punch.
Knockout at any time
The punch - the potential for a knockout - is part of the allure.
Fighters of the lower weight classes might finesse and speed-punch theirway to victory; they might score knockouts, as Pettway did to take and defendhis title. But the heavyweight's punch is presumed to bear power beyond allothers because, throwing at the right spot - the chin, the ear lobe, the solarplexus - at the right moment, he can turn his large, muscular peers intoquivering piles of flesh, sweat and silk. In that sense, a prizefight isalways in sudden-death overtime, always just a home run away from beingdecided. Victory and defeat arrive in the same instant.
"There are no iron men," says Lewis. "They're heavyweights, but they're allhuman."
We love to watch.
Or, at least, when it's presented to us, we can't help but watch.
We're awed by the moment in which one big man ascends while the otherfalls. We experience a rush of emotional conflict - elation and admiration forthe winner, sadness and pity for the loser.
In 1974, when Ali fought George Foreman in Zaire to regain the heavyweighttitle, he came off the ropes to stun his younger opponent and, as Foremanstaggered and crumpled, Ali held back a finishing punch and watched him fall,the matador hovering over the dying bull. Foreman went on to become theaffable salesman of mufflers and hamburger grills, but his fall at Ali's handlingers as a pure moment of truth: one big man defeating another with nothingbut his hands and his heart.
"When you walk out of that corner and into that ring," Lewis says, "theother man is there to destroy you and you have to destroy him, and when I pullthat stool out and walk down the steps, you're on your own, son, and you haveto fight."
"It's so basic, man to man," says Florio.
And, to many, so violent and repulsive.
A nation of fighters
Baltimore finds itself in the midst of ambivalence - applauding a genuinehero for a feat in an athletic competition many people abhor and usuallyavoid.
"I was as happy as anyone to see Rahman win" began the e-mailed caveat froma Sun reader the other day. "But I can't help thinking about Lennox Lewis'brain, which no doubt sustained a concussion the other night. A few of thoseand you've got a very dangerous medical condition and questionableneurological future. I just wish there were a sport that could provide a liftfor those who participate without the primary goal being the infliction ofconcussions."
The late sportswriter Red Smith addressed the great ambivalence in 1962,after the death of Benny "Kid" Paret from injuries in a fight in MadisonSquare Garden: "To me boxing is a rough, dangerous and thrilling sport, themost basic and natural and uncomplicated of athletic competitions and - at itsbest - one of the purest of art forms. Yet there is no quarrel here with thosewho sincerely regard it as a vicious business that should have no place in acivilized society."
But fighters we will always have with us, Smith argued.
"There were always men ready to fight for prizes on a barge or in a pastureor the back room of a saloon. It is hard to believe that a nation bereft ofsuch men would be the better or stronger for it."
So America is a nation of fighters, and maybe the boxer - the heavyweight,in particular - personifies that force in the culture more than any othersports hero. Joe Louis, son of an Alabama sharecropper, played that role outto symbolic perfection in 1938 when he defeated Hitler's favorite Aryanheavyweight, Max Schmelling, with a first-round knockout at Yankee Stadium.
Rocky Marciano seemed to extend America's victory in World War II bybecoming, in the age of the baby boom, the bruiser, brawling KO king of theworld. He was a hero of the immigrant class in America; The Rock fought hisway out of blue-collar Brockton, Mass.
Florio, who fought his way out of Ozone Park in Queens, N.Y., will tell youthat, in those days, boxing was a way to make some money, a way out ofpoverty. Guys who fought for money dressed better; some even had cars. ToFlorio, a few rounds, a few punches landed and taken, followed by payday - allthat looked like a pretty good way to go. Not much has changed.
The other night boxing's newest Rock legend, Hasim Rahman, said somethingthat struck a nerve with Florio.
"After he beat [Lennox] Lewis, he says, `Ma, you won't have to work nomore.'
"Oh my God!" says Florio, raising his hands. "I mean, that's what I wantedto come of it for my mother - that she wouldn't have to work anymore. That'slike something out of a movie."
Like something out of an American legend: The broad-shouldered kid whobecomes a heavyweight, strong enough to win, coming home to a parade, smilingand flashing his world title belt in the noontime sun.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun