LAS VEGAS - Baltimore was on top of the boxing world for seven months, but British boxer Lennox Lewis reclaimed the heavyweight championship of the world with a devastating fourth-round knockout of Hasim Rahman last night at the Mandalay Bay Events Center.
Rahman, the first-ever heavyweight champion from Charm City, took the title from Lewis on April 21 with a dramatic one-punch knockout, but the championship did not come with instant credibility. He was hoping for another strong showing last night to convince the boxing world that he was a legitimate champion.
Instead, Lewis returned the favor with a fury. He controlled the first three rounds, then knocked "The Rock" back on his heels with a grazing left hook and hit him flush on the jaw with a shattering right hand at 1:29 of the fourth round to regain the World Boxing Council and International Boxing Federation heavyweight titles.
Rahman tried to get up at the count of 10, but stumbled back to the canvas as referee Joe Cortez waved off the fight.
"His name has been changed," Lewis gloated afterward. "He's no longer Hasim. He's has-been. The belts were on loan. He had them for his 15 minutes of glory. Now they're back with me."
So much for the speculation that Lewis would be psyched out after getting floored in the fifth round by the unheralded Rahman in a supposedly routine title defense in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Lewis was intense and resolute, stalking Rahman throughout the fight before erasing any doubt about his status as the most talented and most overpowering heavyweight in the division.
"I told you he was a freshman in the game," Lewis said. "I just stayed focused. In Africa I didn't take him seriously enough."
The victory gives Lewis not only the linear title for the third time, it gives him all the leverage to set up a big-money fight against Mike Tyson. Rahman doesn't figure to rate a rematch, but he said after the fight that he would make an attempt to regain the title.
"I'm no quitter," he said, "and getting knocked out is something that happens in boxing. I'll just have to see how I can come back."
It took seven months to put Rahman and Lewis back in the ring after the stunning upset. Lewis had to go to court to force Rahman to honor a guaranteed rematch clause in the contract for the first bout, and Rahman surprised everyone by passing on big offers from boxing broadcast giants HBO and Showtime to sign a promotional contract with controversial promoter Don King.
The rest is history, or apparently just hype. The promotional campaign began with Rahman and Lewis behaving quite cordially toward each other at the initial media event at Baltimore's City Hall, but the pre-fight buildup quickly deteriorated into an ugly war of words and a nationally televised scuffle on ESPN.
"He showed me a lot of disrespect," Lewis said. "I just kept it all inside. I definitely was not gun-shy. I got him in the fourth round, so I'm one up on him."
Lewis maintained from the moment he got off the canvas on April 21 that Rahman caught him with a lucky punch, but the fact that the unheralded new champion had stayed in the ring long enough to deliver that blow called into question everything from Lewis' preparation for the fight to his true stature among boxing's all-time great heavyweights.
He insisted that Rahman/Lewis II would be different.
The oddsmakers agreed with him, establishing him early on as a 4-1 favorite. The betting public, however, was a bit more skeptical of the soft-spoken Brit. By yesterday afternoon, the odds in his favor had dropped to about 5-2 at the sports book of the Mandalay Bay Hotel & Casino that played host to the rematch.
It might as well have been 100-1. Rahman briefly staggered Lewis with a jab in the first round, but Lewis never seemed threatened after that. He struck with his jab at will in the next couple of rounds and waited for the opportunity to get his revenge.
"I thought he did a good job of attacking and keeping his distance," said Rahman, who did not take part in the post-fight media conference because he went to the hospital for a medical examination that is required by the Nevada Athletic Commission of all fighters who suffer a knockout. "There is not a dominant heavyweight in the division. Any one of us can get beat at any time. He set up with the left and hit me with a good right. He is a big strong guy with enormous weight and he hit me with a good shot and I couldn't recover."
The gamesmanship continued almost up to the introductions. Rahman got the last pre-fight laugh when he showed up at Lewis' dressing room with television cameras in tow to watch him get his hands taped. Since a representative of the opposing fighter must witness taping, and since Rahman's handlers were busy at ringside with William Joppy's middleweight title bout against Howard Eastman, Rahman decided to do it himself, but he was turned away at the door.
"Even Rahman wanted to see what I was doing before the fight," Lewis said. "I just laughed at him."
Everyone knew that if it came down to pedigree, Lewis, 36, would easily carry the day. He is a very experienced heavyweight who already had held the title twice - losing it briefly to Oliver McCall before regaining it in the infamous rematch that was stopped when a clearly troubled McCall broke into tears.
Rahman, 29, entered last night's fight with a 35-2 record and 29 knockouts, but he enjoyed little acclaim outside of Maryland until the big right hand that floored Lewis in the fifth round of their first fight in Johannesburg. In fact, he was considered such a light opponent for Lewis that few members of the American boxing press even bothered to cover the fight.
King has been hyping Rahman for weeks as "The American Dream - a man who walked into the ring a nobody and came out a somebody," and it is hard to take issue with that description. Rahman is an affable former street tough who used boxing and a commitment to Islam to engineer a dramatic change in his life, but it was that one punch that brought each fighter to his moment of truth last night.
Lewis certainly had more to lose. The knockout in the first fight may have tarnished his legacy, but the unlikely nature of the knockout punch left open the possibility of redemption. Everyone knew that a second loss to Rahman would likely marginalize him in the pantheon of former heavyweight champions.
"If Lennox loses, I think his legacy would be that he was fortunate to get to a certain point but just wasn't strong enough on the inside and didn't have the real fire to be a great fighter," his trainer, Emanuel Steward, said before the fight. "It would hurt everything that he accomplished.
"The factual accomplishments would still be there, two-time champion and everything. He would be just like Floyd Patterson. He had some amazing accomplishments, but you don't hear too many people talking about his greatness."
That apparently won't be a problem now.
Sun staff writer Lem Satterfield contributed to this article.