A heavyweight not to be taken lightly

Sun reporters

Hasim Sharif Rahman, who shocked the sports world last weekend by winningthe heavyweight boxing crown, once was a tough kid in a tough neighborhoodwhom police dismissed as a street thug.

But Rahman heeded a warning from a judge who offered probation over prison.The young man left the city for a training camp at a Catskills resort inupstate New York and devoted himself to his boxing career.

Now, after his fifth-round knockout of Lennox Lewis in South Africa onSaturday night (Eastern time), the 28-year-old known as "The Rock" (hissurname is pronounced Rock-mon) has become Baltimore's first heavyweightchampion. He returned to a rally at City Hall complete with a boxing ring inthe plaza being proclaimed as a role model for the city's youth.

He attributes his lifestyle change to the June 1991 birth of his first son,Hasim Jr., and his close call in court.

"When I had my son, I felt like I owed him a good chance at life, an honestchance at life," Rahman said in an interview with The Sun yesterday. "If Ididn't change, I would be in somebody's penitentiary or somebody's graveyard."

The boxer has escaped the odds in more ways than one. He nearly died adecade ago when a friend's speeding pickup truck flipped, killing the driverand pinning Rahman's face under the gas tank, leaving an ugly scar on hisright cheek. In the early 1990s, a street fight led to gunfire, and Rahmansurvived five bullets, several of which hit him in the stomach.

"This is an obvious success story," said police Maj. Russell N. Shea, whoarrested Rahman twice. "He went from the drug world to the boxing world."

Rahman said he was "an immature, confused father who had to grow up in ahurry." He met with his mother, Joyce, and his wife, Crystal, and told them hewas committed to change. "We're too smart to be following the crowd," he toldthem.

The man who earned a reputation as an iron-fisted street brawler is now afamily man who broke training two years ago to make his daughter's 1stbirthday, even though the interruption cost him a victory. Oleg Maskaevpromptly knocked Rahman out of an Atlantic City, N.J., ring two weeks afterthe party.

The man who once strayed now goes on radio shows to promote the "I Can, WeCan" drug rehabilitation center, directed by his uncle, Israel Cason.

Rahman is living up to his Muslim name, which means "one who crushes evil."

The real test

Now the next test for Rahman begins. He earned $1.5 million when he tookLewis' World Boxing Council and International Boxing Federation belts; hisnext fight could be worth millions. The late night talk shows are alreadycalling; the boxer chose Leno (tomorrow night) over Letterman. The governorproclaimed yesterday "World Heavyweight Championship Day in Maryland."

And at a rally Monday, fans fought for the privilege to pour water down histhroat, like ringside corner men.

"He's going to be under a microscope," said Lawrence B. Rosenberg, who hasbeen Rahman's attorney for the past 13 years. "I hope he's ready for it. Goingfrom nothing to something that quickly is hard to deal with."

The boxer says he will remain an earnest husband and father. He and hiswife, Crystal, live in Abingdon in a two-story, $200,000 house with their twosons, Hasim Jr., 9, and Sharif, 4, and daughter, Amirah, 2. The oldest boyjust brought home a report card with four A's and two B's, and wants to be adoctor like his uncle.

Rahman also took in his 15-year-old nephew, Terry Frierson, whose fatherhad died. "He's tough on me in school and everything, to guide me in the rightdirection," Terry said of Rahman.

Added Rahman: "Whatever I have to say to my children, whether it's callingthem from downtown Baltimore or somewhere else, they listen. It carriesweight."

Rahman's competitive streak goes back to when he was in the third grade."If you're playing him in cards, and you win, he will not let you leave untilhe wins," said his cousin, Aisha Ali, 27.

The boxer has invested in three properties, including a day care center onGwynn Oak Avenue in Baltimore run by his wife, and wants to open a mail-ordersports apparel catalog for prisoners. But he has had money problems, leavinghim with a hefty unpaid dental bill. He has listed his yearly earnings at$150,000.

Rahman is the second eldest of six children born to Joyce Rahman. After sheremarried, the boy took the name of his stepfather, Abdul Rahman. The boxer'sfather, John Cason, has seven children. Like relatives on both sides of theextended family, he is a Muslim. Cason said they pray several times a day.

"If he can keep his faith and not forget where he comes from - the creator- he can use his assets and his fame to keep his routine," said Cason, aprison chaplain.

One of Rahman's brothers, Ibn Cason, 25, was an accomplished swimmer;another, Yah Yah Cason, 26, is a doctor at Howard University Hospital inWashington.

"I'm an orthopedic surgeon. I went to medical school at the University of Maryland. I went to Morehouse College. I took the academic role; he took theathletic role," Yah Yah Cason said. "But he's smarter than I am. I couldn'thave been a boxer, but he could have been a doctor. You'll find he's one ofthe most articulate people you'll ever meet. Very quick-witted, veryintelligent. I don't think you can put anything over on him. He's a beautifulperson."

Rahman's cousin, Robin Smith, is a corrections officer; his mother recentlyretired as a corrections officer in Baltimore.

But growing up, Rahman got into trouble, finding himself in street fightsbefore he hit 12. By his 16th birthday, he weighed 230 pounds. "I was big formy age, and knocking a lot of guys out," he said. "I felt like I was supposedto portray an image. I felt I was supposed to be a tough guy, that was myresponsibility." He later became a paid bodyguard.

He moved often, living in various parts of Baltimore and Baltimore County.He dropped out of Randallstown High School in the 11th grade.

Rahman met his future wife, Crystal Simpson, on a Sunday night in May 1989at a Denny's restaurant in Catonsville.

"Everybody was just sitting around, talking," Crystal said. "For about twohours, he and I were kind of staring at each other. I thought he was cute,seemed to be well-mannered." They started dating three weeks later.

During the ensuing years, Rahman earned his G.E.D., and spent a year atBaltimore Community College.

In the spring of 1990, Rahman was hanging out on West Baltimore corners.

Over the next three years, police arrested him a dozen times on chargesranging from loitering to handgun possession. Most of the charges were droppedby prosecutors before trial.

Doris E. Moody, 64, who watched a teen-aged Rahman grow up on West LanvaleStreet, said his reputation as a street fighter was partly undeserved. He usedhis brawn to defend, rather than instigate trouble.

Of his life on the corners, Moody said, "He did no more than nobody else.Regardless of what he's done, he's turned his life around."

Rahman attributed most of his problems to peer pressure to follow adangerous crowd and the unwritten rules of the street that forbid snitching,even if it means you take the fall for someone else.

"I got caught up in the wrong crowd," he said. "You do things because youcan't snitch on people. It can be detrimental. ... I thought it was cool. Iwas trying to be with the in-crowd. At the time, that was my logic."

But he worries that details of his earlier exploits will be misunderstood.

"I'm concerned about the youth, looking at me and saying, well, `He didthis, or that, and he was with them, and now he's heavyweight champion of theworld.' I don't want to give youth the wrong perception that, `You can trythis and you'll be OK.' I really don't."

A key moment came in the courtroom of Circuit Judge Roger W. Brown.

Rahman's case stemmed from a July 1991 car stop by Officer Louis Hopson.There were five people in a silver Mazda. Hopson wrote that he saw a rearpassenger, not Rahman, trying to hide a bag of cocaine. All were arrested.

Rahman pleaded guilty to possession of drugs with intent to distribute.Brown gave him a seven-year suspended sentence. State prosecutors had askedfor five years in prison.

"Something in my mind told me that Mr. Rahman was taking the weight forsomebody in the car," Brown recalled.

The judge said Rahman came close to violating the terms of his two-yearprobation by driving on a suspended license, but Brown said he cut him a breakbecause he had followed all the other rules.

"He did well," said Brown, who has followed Rahman's career and watchedevery one of his televised bouts. "He turned it around. Sometimes it turns outgood."

The fight game

Rahman began dabbling in boxing, which he was introduced to at 18 by formerpro Louis Butler.

"He was hanging out with friends, and I grabbed him and we startedbody-punching each other," said Butler, 48. Rahman weighed about 300 poundsalthough still a teen-ager.

"But he could go," Butler said, "and being a former professional fighter, Isaid, `This kid's got it.' "

Butler made a call to Mack Lewis' gym: "I told him, `I got a heavyweight.'"

Rahman's uncle, Haleem Ali, took his nephew to Lewis, who has operated agym at Broadway and East Eager streets since 1943.

"Everybody told Hasim, `You're always fighting in the streets. You need toget paid for what you're doing.' I was trying to get him off the streetsbecause I loved him," Ali said.

In the gym, Rahman started boasting that he could take anybody. So MackLewis put him in the ring with Mike Whitfield, an experienced, and large,boxer.

Rahman was soon humbled.

He "got a whipping that first night in the gym," Ali said. " ... When weleft, we had to walk down a long stairway. He was leaning on my back andshoulders. I actually had to carry him down the steps, to the car."

Within a few days, however, Rahman was scoring knockdowns. Then hegraduated to tests against professionals, like former heavyweight contenderGeorge Chaplin.

In 1992, after Brown helped nudge him on to the right path, Rahman went toCatskill, N.Y., to be trained by Kevin Rooney, one of Mike Tyson's earlytrainers. He would later train under Janks Morton, sparring againstincreasingly polished partners.

Rahman turned pro at 22, on Dec. 3, 1994. In his first pro fight, in LasVegas, he scored a knockout of Gregory Herrington, his first of 18 in his next21 fights. Rahman has built a record of 35-2, with 29 knockouts.

He has had a scrape with the law since, a 1999 arrest with two cousins anda friend after a disturbance outside a Park Heights nightclub. They were notprosecuted.

Rahman's attorney, Rosenberg, said Rahman got caught up in an unfortunatesituation.

Meanwhile, Rahman's success in the ring continued. But he still remained avirtual unknown, and a 20-1 underdog, when he stepped into the ring withLennox Lewis, an undisputed champion who was 3 inches taller and 16 poundsheavier.

One punch, a right cross to Lewis' jaw, produced an upset that ranks amongthe greatest in the heavyweight division. Fame and fortune awaits.

"There's going to be endorsements, exposure," said boxing historian BertSugar, the former editor of Boxing Illustrated and Ring magazine. "Everyboxing writer, sportswriter, is going to have to find out who his guy is."

Even those who have been at odds with new champ appear to be in his corner.Dr. Dennis G. Foster Jr., who sued Rahman to recover $777 in owed dentalbills, and won, said he doesn't necessarily want the money.

"I was thinking about calling him up and saying, `Forget about it. Come onback. ... We're getting enough mileage just out of saying he was a patient."

Sun staff writers Kimberly A.C. Wilson, Tim Craig, Caitlin Francke and Cara Nusbaum contributed to this article.

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