A minute of inconsequential boxing passed. Then, somewhere between the 88th and 89th second of the fourth round, Lennox Lewis unleashed what his trainer would later call "one of the most beautifully executed combinations in the history of boxing" and the buzz became the sound of a Rock cracking.
The two fighters scuffled nasty, and to the floor, during the taping of a television show. Rahman had made comments about Lewis' sexuality. Lewis had branded Rahman a clown.
Rahman needed to prove that he wasn't a flash in the pan.
Lewis needed to regain his title or, at age 36, face retirement.
So, going into the weekend, Rahman-Lewis II had taken perfect shape: The strong, smartly tailored, soft-spoken British champion who called himself a "pugilist specialist" against the bragging, brawling Baltimorean in 'do rag and sweats who called himself The Rock.
And the setting was ideal. Can there be a more suitable place in America for this brutal sport's biggest show than the freaky Vegas Strip?
Mandalay Bay is a three-winged golden tower rising from an architect's idea of a sprawling palace of colonial Burma, with terraces of palm trees and waterfalls and a fake 11-acre "lagoon." Inside, the huge carpeted and tiled spaces are devoted to gambling of every conceivable form, hip restaurants serving "world food" - one with a huge, high-rise wine cellar and a "wine angel" who scales it by rope to fill an order - and bars filled with young to middle-aged men and women on the make, on the prowl, on the hustle.
Men wear black T-shirts and tight jeans, or home-boy sweats and heavy jewelry. Women wear halter tops, tube tops and sometimes almost no tops. They come to get matched, married, loaded or rich. They arm-wrestle an army of slots, shoot craps, play poker and blackjack and baccarat, and they bet on sports. They drink and throw chips all night and go to bed just before dawn.
"This place is fake from the architecture to the boobs," said Baltimore lawyer Billy Murphy, as he stood in a swirl of people near the lobby of the Mandalay. "The finest places here were created for the sole purpose of getting the maximum number of people to give up the maximum amount of their money through gambling. It's a place where people come to indulge every sin imaginable ... It's not my cup of tea. I'm here for the fight, and I'm out of here."
Murphy, who represents promoter Don King, was heading out to deliver to friends the 14 tickets he had to the fight.
By Saturday evening, genuine Sugar Daddies -- moneyed men escorting exotically dressed women half their age -- and other high-rollers had moved into the casino for some action before the fight. "People are playing blackjack with $500 chips," observed Stash, the 98 Rock deejay who came for the fight, among the few from Baltimore. "There's a $1,000-minimum table and people are just chuckin' it down. It's crazy. ... I saw Cuba Gooding Jr. in there."
The march to the Event Center, connected to the hotel but a long walk from its ornate lobby, started about two hours before Rahman-Lewis II, with hotel security setting up barricades on one of the large concourses of polished black stone leading to the arena.
This created the effect of an opening-night runway, with lines of gawkers on both sides getting an eye feast: Loads of bleach-blond women with L'il Kim and Britney Spears hairstyles and cleavage exposure, women in mink halters, ostrich boas, leather slacks, tight dresses with Hong Kong slits, and at least two in black see-through lace things barely the size of a chapel veil. Among the males: A cream-colored suit with matching derby; a retro-'70s outfit with Super Fly lid; an electric-blue, silk crepe zoot suit; and a frat-brat reunion in tuxedos and armed with large cigars.
There were enough celebrities to fill a squadron of Lear jets. Drew Carey came through, sans eyeglasses and surrounded by women, and he was followed by Mark McGrath, lead singer of Sugar Ray; baseball greats Reggie Jackson and Dave Winfield, former NFL quarterback Warren Moon, comedian Tom Arnold, Friends star David Schwimmer, wrestler-turned-actor Tom "Tiny" Lister Jr., the singer Tone "Wild Thing" Loc, heavyweight legends Larry Holmes and George Foreman, and the actress Tara Reid. More Hollywood slipped into the VIP seats: Meg Ryan, Adam Sandler, Carrie Fisher, David Spade, Arnold Schwarzenegger and wife Maria Shriver, Joe Pesci and Sidney Portier.
Former heavyweight champ Evander Holyfield made it to the big show, along with tennis star Serena Williams, talk-show man Montel Williams, actress and director Penny Marshall, and the pop singer Jewel, who sang the national anthem.
"I saw Ian Wright," said a woman with a British accent named Stacey Levy. She'd come from London with a friend, Ian Sassoon. He was a Lennox Lewis fan who'd won a trip to the championship fight through a British newspaper contest.
Who's Ian Wright? Only one of Britain's soccer superstars, a former player for Arsenal. When his name was announced over the public address system in the arena, a wild cheer went up from the crowd - the first measure of the significant number of British citizens in the place. At least 2,000 of them had come to Vegas through Lennox Lewis' own agency, LL Travel.