Home-grown heavyweight contender Hasim Rahman is taking on a new image.
The evidence can be seen all over town, with the boxer's visage gracing 17 billboards touting him as one of the leading challengers for Evander Holyfield's championship belt.
Rahman (pronounced ROCK-mon) hopes to improve his standing tomorrow in Miami, where he tests his 29-0 record against rugged David Tua of New Zealand to determine who will be ranked No. 1 by the International Boxing Federation.
Rahman's $300,000 purse for appearing in the 12-round bout will place him near the $1 million mark in career earnings.
The billboards were conceived and paid for by Rick Levin, who operates urban fashion apparel stores in Baltimore.
"I know he's a good athlete," said Levin, "but there is also a gentleness and shyness about him. I try to do a lot for the community with my business, and I just see him as a role model for the kids from Baltimore.
"He's unspoiled right now, and I hope he never gets spoiled. Reading all this stuff about Mike Tyson, to have a genuinely nice person as heavyweight champion would be so refreshing in this day and age. Baltimore should be proud of Hasim and support him."
Levin has produced a brief documentary of Rahman's life and philosophy titled "The Next Heavyweight Champion of the World." It includes highlights of past fights and scenes of him with his three children at home in Harford County.
Levin is planning a major marketing campaign geared to city youth and envisions the articulate boxer as an attractive spokesman for area businesses and charitable organizations.
It is all intoxicating stuff for Rahman, who turned 26 last month. Only three months ago, he appeared down and out in Baltimore with his boxing career in limbo. He had stopped training, and he had pulled out of a September televised bout with Tua at the urging of promoter Don King.
HBO programming executive Lou DiBella threatened to ban Rahman from future telecasts. Rahman also faced possible legal action from Tua's manager, Lou Duva. It took a lawsuit by Cedrick Kushner -- Rahman's longtime promoter -- against King for attempting to "steal and bribe" his fighter to restore the status quo.
The $12 million suit, filed in federal court in New York, is pending.
Rahman blames this chaotic period on a financial dispute that his co-managers, Steve Nelson and Robert Mittleman, had with former trainer Janks Morton. "I didn't think my managers were doing their job, although it was ultimately resolved," he said.
Sensing a problem, King wooed Rahman and gave him a $125,000 signing bonus.
"Basically, King told me that he runs boxing," recalled Rahman, "and that there would be no No. 1 heavyweight unless it was going through him. And, you see, today, there is still no No. 1 [in the IBF].
"Had Francois Botha stayed with King, he'd be No. 1 now, no doubt in my mind," Rahman said of the South African boxer. Botha signed with British promoter Frank Warren and spurned the proposed IBF elimination tournament for an opportunity to fight Mike Tyson, another King defector, for a $2 million purse in Las Vegas Jan. 16.
Reunited with Kushner, Rahman harbors no bitterness over his brief hiatus.
"I feel I learned from it and can appreciate the experience of dealing with guys like King, listening to how they talk. It's a plus for me down the road. Now, I can concentrate on fighting."
Recalling the uncertain times, Nelson said: "I think Rock was surprised how events were controlling his life. He didn't have a full grasp of what was transpiring.
"He told me a long time ago that I'd be with him throughout his career, and I took him for his word. Now, he wants to prove to everyone who supported him that he's worth the effort. He's going to take care of business against Tua Saturday in a way that will surprise a lot of people."
Climb to the top
The big surprise is how far Rahman has come in such a short time, climbing to the brink of a heavyweight championship fight in four short years as a professional after a relatively brief amateur career.
In fact, a near-fatal accident almost ended his boxing career before it began. At 18, he was a passenger in a friend's truck heading for Baltimore Community College.
"We were speeding, and the truck flipped," he said. "The driver got killed. I fell out the door and, somehow, my face got pinned under the gas tank. The medics had to tear just about all the skin off the right side of my face to cut me loose."
Left with a deep scar on his cheekbone, Rahman retreated into a shell in his family home in Randallstown.
"I was up and around in a couple of weeks, but there was one point I was feeling really vulnerable," he said. "I told my best friend, Melvin 'Winkie' Walker, that I didn't feel comfortable mingling with people in my house because my face was all messed up.
"He grabbed my arm and said, 'You better get upstairs, man. You are you. That's who you are, and they're going to have to accept you.'
"After that, I never felt vulnerable again. I said, 'That's right, that's me. People are going to have to take me or leave me.' "
With eight brothers and three sisters, Rahman always had more than his share of support. His parents, Joyce and John Cason, made every effort to keep their children shielded from the temptations of the street and focused on school and sports activities.
At times, Rahman said, he felt they were overprotective, denying him permission to play high school football.
"I got in a lot of street fights before I was 12." he said. "I was big for my age and knocking a lot of guys out, so I stopped fighting and became a bodyguard. But I always thought I would have made a great linebacker or fullback."
Instead, his father enrolled him in a West Baltimore swimming program, and he qualified for the 1987 junior nationals in the freestyle and breaststroke.
"I just tried to be a good role model," said his father, an engineer who is now a prison chaplain for the Maryland Division of Correction in Jessup.
"I pushed swimming and track for my sons, figuring there was less chance of getting hurt, but mainly for discipline and to keep them out of trouble.
"Hasim was always smart with a mind of his own, and, sometimes, desire overrules parental guidance. It's important he keeps boxing in focus. That's his life, his career. If he keeps his perspective on life, he'll be OK."
Rahman was no innocent as a teen-ager, accompanying his friends to bars and pool halls.
"Older guys I hung around with used to drink and smoke pot. I wanted to be down with them, but not that down. When they ordered their drinks and smokes, I got my orange Sunkist and a Snickers. They laughed, but they also respected me."
His biggest temptation was the lure of the boxing ring. A street fight with former pro Louis Butler began his boxing odyssey that would lead him through a maze of gyms and trainers across the country.
"Butler just grabbed me and said, 'Let's fight.' I didn't know anything about real fighting, but all these guys were watching and my pride wouldn't let me walk away.
"We started body-slamming, and when he got tired of hitting me, he said, 'You're real strong. You sure you never fought before?' ++ He told me to go down to Mack Lewis' gym in East Baltimore where he got started."
That would be the first of many stops for the young heavyweight.
One of his first days of training, he knocked down fellow amateur Courtney Bridget several times. Lewis then started testing him against his pros, like wily George Chaplin, who had fought
several world champions.
Rahman would go home with numerous bumps and bruises, but in three months, he was holding his own with all the heavyweights in the gym.
"I was having my measure of success sparring with some pros, but I think Mr. Mack read too much into it," he said.
"After only a few amateur fights, Mr. Mack thought I should start fighting professional. But I felt I first had to test the water elsewhere."
Learning the ropes
Under the urging of his uncle, Haleem Ali, Rahman left Baltimore for Catskill, N.Y., to be trained by Kevin Rooney, one of Mike Tyson's early tutors.
"Rooney wanted me to adopt Tyson's peek-a-boo style, but that wasn't for me," he said. "The trouble with most trainers is that they don't want to work with what a fighter does best. They want to train everyone the same way. They don't know how to take a guy from ground zero to a champion."
Rahman's next stop was Crofton, where he hooked up with Morton and trained regularly against pros like Larry Donald, Gerry Jones and Mo Wilson and attracted the attention of Nelson and Mittleman, who also had managerial ties to Donald.
Said Nelson: "We saw he was real raw, but that he had great natural strength and was a fierce competitor with a tremendous desire to win. His boxing style was also more suited for the pros. He just had to learn how to fight."
While Rahman was getting started, his managers gave him a living allowance to help pay his rent and support his family, allowing him to devote full time to boxing.
Shortly after turning pro on Dec. 3, 1994, with a first-round knockout of Gregory Herrington, Rahman joined forces with Kushner, who made him a regular performer on his television circuit featuring young heavyweights.
He would squeeze 20 fights into the next two years, an unusually high number nowadays, particularly for a heavyweight. Almost all resulted in quick knockouts over obscure opponents.
In the past 18 months, while changing trainers twice more, Rahman has survived more serious tests against Jeff Wooden, Obed Sullivan and one-time title contender Jesse Ferguson.
In the process, he claimed the U.S. Boxing Association title by stopping Wooden last year.
"I don't know of any fighter with my limited amateur background who has advanced as quickly as I have. It's all happened so fast," said Rahman, who made a full circle by returning to Lewis' gym last month to begin preparing for Tua. He is concluding his training in Miami with Chuck McGregor as his latest mentor.
Rahman, 6 feet 2 and 235 pounds, said he is ready to take the biggest step of his career and live up to the mounting hype.
"People in Baltimore see me on billboards and doing interviews," he said. "Most of them are asking, 'Who's this guy? Can he really fight?' All eyes will be on me Saturday night, and when I finish with Tua, that should answer all their questions."
Who: Hasim Rahman (29-0, 24 KOs) vs. David Tua (32-1, 27 KOs) What: 12-round heavyweight elimination bout for Rahman's USBA title and the No. 1 IBF ranking
Where: Miccosukee Gaming Casino, Miami
TV: HBO, 10 p.m.
Rahman facts: Rated No. 3 by IBF. Highest-ranked Baltimore heavyweight since Larry Middleton in 1972. Only five of his 29 fights have lasted more than four rounds.
Main event: Floyd Mayweather (18-0, 14 KOs) vs. Angel Manfredy (25-2-1, 19 KOs), for Mayweather's WBC junior-lightweight title
# Total: 29-0, 24 KOs
Date .. .. .. Opponent .. .. .. .. .. .. .. Result
12/3/94 .. .. Gregory Herrington . .. .. .. KO 1
1/6/95 .. ... Robert Jackson .. .. .. .. .. TKO 1
1/11/95 .. .. Dennis Cain .. .. .. .. .. .. TKO 2
3/28/95 .. .. Jeff Williams .. .. .. .. ... W 4
6/6/95 .. ... Eric Valentine .. .. .. .. .. KO 1
7/13/95 .. .. Larry Davis .. .. .. .. .. .. KO 2
8/26/95 .. .. Carl McGrew .. .. .. .. .. .. TKO 1
9/12/95 .. .. Matt Green .. .. .. .. .. ... TKO 1
10/10/95 .. . James Johnson .. .. .. .. ... TKO 3
12/13/95 .. . Mike Robinson .. .. .. .. ... KO 1
2/9/96 .. ... Bradley Rone .. .. .. .. .. . TKO 1
3/9/96 .. ... Mike Mitchell .. .. .. .. ... KO 1
3/26/96 .. .. Ross Puritty .. .. .. .. .. . W 10
5/3/96 .. ... Steve Edwards .. .. .. .. ... TKO 2
6/4/96 .. ... Tim Knight .. .. .. .. .. ... TKO 4
6/9/96 .. ... Martin Foster .. .. .. .. ... KO 2
8/8/96 .. ... Mark Young .. .. .. .. .. ... TKO 3
10/15/96 .. . Trevor Berbick .. .. .. .. .. W 10
11/8/96 .. .. Brian Sargent .. .. .. .. ... TKO 1
12/3/96 .. .. Marcos Gonzalez .. .. .. .. . KO 1
12/17/96 .. . Herman Delgado .. .. .. .. .. KO 2
1/9/97 .. ... Marshall Tillman .. .. .. ... KO 1
7/15/97 .. .. Jeff Wooden .. .. .. .. . ... TKO 9*
11/1/97 .. .. Obed Sullivan .. .. .. .. ... W 12*
12/4/97 .. .. Tui Toia .. .. .. .. .. .. .. KO 1
1/31/98 .. .. Jesse Ferguson .. .. .. .. .. W 12*
3/14/98 .. .. Melvin Foster .. .. .. .. ... KO 2*
4/21/98 .. .. Steve Pannell .. .. .. .. ... KO 2*
7/9/98 .. ... Garing Lane .. .. .. .. .. .. KO 3*
* -- for USBA title
Pub Date: 12/18/98