- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 11, 2004

GLEN BURNIE, Md. — Some might say former heavyweight champion Hasim Rahman is going back to basics with his bout tonight at a fight club venue. But that wouldn’t be a true measure of how far the Baltimore fighter has fallen when he meets former cruiserweight champion Al Cole at Michael’s Eighth Avenue.

Rahman began his professional career a little more than eight years ago at Caesars Palace. Forty fights later, Rahman should realize that Glen Burnie is a long way from Las Vegas.

After failing to win since he shocked the boxing world by knocking out title-holder Lennox Lewis in the fifth round in April 2001 in South Africa, Rahman must face the fact that tonight’s fight against Cole will mark a new beginning — or an end.

“He cannot afford to lose,” said Steve Nelson, Rahman’s co-manager. “He must win every fight from now on. Rock knows there is no more room for mistakes, that he has got to be right for every fight from now on. He is determined to do that.”

The last time Rahman stepped into the ring was Dec.13 against another former heavyweight champion, John Ruiz. It was a lackluster fight, as is often the case with any Ruiz fight. But the judges felt Ruiz did enough to win and awarded him the decision.

That left Rahman, 31, at a crossroads. He has failed to capitalize on the boxing version of winning the lottery, when he knocked out Lewis and won the heavyweight championship. A free agent — a heavyweight champion with no television contract — Rahman passed on $17million offers from HBO and Showtime and instead signed with promoter Don King for what turned out to be far less money in future earnings.

Rahman (35-5-1, 29 knockouts) was knocked out in the fourth round by Lewis in their November 2001 rematch. He lost to Evander Holyfield in June 2002 when he could not continue after suffering a severe head butt after eight rounds. He could only muster a draw in a rematch against David Tua (who had stopped Rahman in 10 rounds in December 1998 after hitting him after the bell in a controversial decision). Then came the loss to Ruiz.

“I was angry and frustrated by the Ruiz fight,” Rahman said. “I looked at myself and said, ‘What can I do to make things different from here on out?’ I felt like I had to come back again, and this time come back stronger.”

Rahman, who now lives and trains in Las Vegas, said he prepared for this comeback by pushing his strength training, and changing his tactics in the ring.

“I am probably stronger than I have been in years going into this fight,” Rahman said. “I have been devastating in the gym. I had gotten into a mode where I felt I could win a fight just on my jab alone. I consider my jab a power punch, but the judges don’t necessarily consider it that way. So I’ve got to do everything. I’ve got to throw more power punches. I’ve got to please the judges.”

Perhaps a measure of Rahman’s commitment is his willingness to take on this fight in a small venue like Michael’s Eighth Avenue. Ballroom Boxing may be the best club fight operation on the East Coast and, with its 55th show tonight, it has gained an international television audience by syndicating the fight to cable networks in 60 U.S. markets and 181 nations.

Tonight’s fight will be shown live for the first time in Ballroom Boxing’s 10-year history on Comcast SportsNet Mid-Atlantic and Comcast SportsNet High Definition television.

As promoter Scott Wagner noted, a former heavyweight champion fighting on a Ballroom Boxing show is an unusual development. Said Wagner jokingly: “The biggest thing in Glen Burnie has been the Glen Burnie carnival for the past 25 years.”

Usually, fighters of Rahman’s stature — even after his run of poor recent performances — don’t often fight except on HBO or Showtime cards, which means maybe two or three times a year. Nelson said Rahman did not want to wait that long to get back in the ring, and sought this fight on his own, without any involvement by King, his promoter.

“We could have waited through attrition to get a title shot, but the idea is not just to get a title shot but to win the title back,” Nelson said. “We felt the only way to do that was to keep him busy.”

If Rahman wins tonight, it may not take long for him to get that title shot, given the lack of competition in the heavyweight division and the jockeying for position in the wake of the retirement of Lewis.

Andrew Golota — the shamed former heavyweight who lost two fights to Riddick Bowe by disqualification and quit in the ring against Mike Tyson — will fight International Boxing Federation heavyweight champion Chris Byrd on April17 at Madison Square Garden. Golota has fought twice since quitting against Tyson in October 2000 against very lightly regarded competition. Certainly not as competitive as Cole (34-12-3), the 39-year-old who has won twice since June 2002.

“I have been able to compete with the best guys, even with the things I have done wrong,” Rahman said. “So if I change those things, it will put me over the top. I feel like all the guys ahead of me are about to fight for the title, so that will elevate me kind of quickly. I think I need a fight like this to get me back.

“Al Cole has always been a durable fighter,” Rahman said. “I feel if I can knock him out sensationally, it can open up some eyes for [me to get] a title shot again, without waiting for a big fight for six or eight months on HBO. This is a good situation for me to stay busy and active.”

Rahman has fought five times around the Baltimore region — in nearby Woodlawn, once in Pikesville and one more time in Greenbelt — but that was a long time ago, when he was climbing the ladder to the top. Now, coming back home, he is fighting to grab a rung to break his fall and start climbing again.

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