Former heavyweight champion Hasim Rahman sat on a makeshift stage made to look like a red-and-gold boxing ring at a Baltimore County mall yesterday and took on all comers.
Rahman's first visit to the area since losing his title two weeks ago brought a stream of autograph-seekers and well-wishers hoping to get a piece of "The Rock" at Security Square Mall. Kids wanted to meet a celebrity. Adults wanted autographed memorabilia to pad sports collections.
As for Rahman, he wanted to deliver a message to students just as city and county schools are set to open this week.
"I always want the kids to know that school is most important, no matter what they want to do," said Rahman, a two-time world boxing champion who also said he plans to return to the ring in November and is hoping to fight a heavyweight contender.
Rahman, 33, says he expects to be heavyweight champion for the third time by the end of 2007. If that happens, nobody would be happier than Leo Dymowski.
Dymowski, an administrative officer for the Maryland Parole Commission, was a three-time autograph seeker yesterday, obtaining Rahman's signature on posters and boxing gloves. Dymowski was wearing a T-shirt commemorating the Rahman-James Toney bout that ended in a draw this year.
"Since he won the title, I've literally spent thousands of dollars on memorabilia and traveling to see him fight," said Dymowski, who estimates he has seen Rahman box live 10 times. "I love boxing, and he's a guy from Baltimore. And that blows me away. I never thought I'd see a heavyweight champion from Baltimore in my lifetime."
Rahman, from Harford County, stunned the boxing community when he knocked out then-champion Lennox Lewis in South Africa in 2001. Rahman lost the title to Lewis a few months later but was awarded the title again last year. Rahman most recently lost the title when he was knocked out by Oleg Maskaev in Las Vegas, Rahman's current home.
Rahman, dressed in a gray T-shirt, black three-quarter-length shorts and sneakers, was flanked by his brother, who also serves as his manager. Rahman's wife, Crystal, also attended the signing.
Inside a crowded mall filled with parents getting in last-minute back-to-school shopping for kids, Rahman appeared relaxed as a DJ blasted music a few feet away from him. Nobody seemed too concerned about Rahman's recent 12th-round knockout loss. Some did not even know about it.
"I'm in line because my friend is a boxing fanatic," said Rosie Traynham, who works as a nurse in Baltimore. "But I don't even know who he fought."
Roger Kahler, a janitorial worker in Baltimore, knew about Rahman's loss, and he wanted to know what happened. Kahler was the first person in line and asked Rahman, over a microphone, how he managed to lose.
The inquiry, however, never made it past the de facto master of ceremonies, and the question-and-answer period that was to precede the autograph signing came to an end.
Kahler said Rahman did not hold the question against him when he went for the autograph.
"It went great. I told him to keep up the good work," said Kahler, holding a signed Rahman picture. "I asked him again about the fight, and he told me, 'Things happen.'"
Antoinette Gregg said she was shopping when she heard the DJ announce Rahman was signing autographs.
She brought her young niece up to the stage to meet Rahman, then laughed as the youngster signed her name and gave it to the former champion.
"This is for me?" Rahman said. "Well, thank you."
Bill Brown, a salesman from Baltimore, handed Rahman a baseball to sign, and the boxer barely flinched, as though that was the sport he played.
"I like to have people sign baseballs because they're easy to display," Brown said. "I'm not really a boxing fan, but you don't get to meet a champion that often."