Mike Costello on Hasim Rahman's legendary upset of Lennox Lewis - will Jake Paul meet the same fate?

4 min read
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Jake Paul claims to have become a student of boxing history but he would have to bow to his upcoming opponent and his team when it comes to insight into one of the sport’s all-time biggest upsets.

Hasim Rahman Jr was nine years old when his dad, Hasim Sr, knocked out Lennox Lewis in a dawn showdown labelled “Thunder In Africa” just outside Johannesburg in April 2001.

Rahman Sr was quoted at odds of 20-1 in the build-up to what was expected to be a routine outing for Lewis, deep into his second reign as world heavyweight champion. Rahman would be brushed aside and Mike Tyson up next for Lewis, was the prevailing belief.

For those of us blessed to have been ringside that African morning, we would come to witness an event never to be forgotten. Such experiences don’t come in bunches.

It was a fight week to lodge forever in the mind for many reasons - not all related to the fight. Lewis arrived in South Africa only 11 days beforehand, ignoring the general wisdom around the need to acclimatise to the conditions high above sea level. Rahman had pitched up a month out.

The weekend before the contest, Lewis attended a memorial service at Ellis Park in Johannesburg for the 43 football fans who had died days earlier in a crush during a game between the local rivals Kaiser Chiefs and Orlando Pirates. He was statesman-like in his consoling of the victims’ relatives.

It was hard to understand how Lewis could keep his emotions in check but he was almost presidential in his general demeanour. No wonder Nelson Mandela was such an admirer.

Meeting Mandela after the fight was an important source of comfort to Lewis, even if the former President’s assessment that Rahman had won with “a lucky punch” was worth a challenge.

Working at the time for BBC Radio with Britain’s three-weight world champion Duke McKenzie, we were taken to the house in the township of Soweto where Mandela had lived before his long spell in prison. There among the few possessions was a specially-commissioned WBC belt given to Mandela by Sugar Ray Leonard. Equally vivid in the memory is the image of the sandals Mandela had made from strands of rope, in the days before he reshaped South African history.

Lewis had delayed his journey across continents because he was filming a cameo role in the film “Ocean’s Eleven” in Las Vegas. His long-time trainer, Emanuel Steward, had also been otherwise engaged in Vegas - in his case with Naseem Hamed in the build-up to Naz’s defeat by Marco Antonio Barrera only a fortnight before Lewis’s African mission.

At the weigh-in, Lewis was heavier than ever - 253lbs (18st1lb) - in a professional career then spanning 12 years and 40 fights. In his second term as world title-holder, he had beaten Evander Holyfield and was making his 10th defence against a man who had never challenged for the ultimate prize. Lewis had recently outpointed the New Zealander David Tua, who in turn boasted a stoppage win over Rahman.

The first bell rang at around 6am on Sunday morning- to suit peak-time American TV audiences - and was shown live in the UK on the BBC, the last truly global boxing showdown carried by a terrestrial broadcaster in Britain.

Going into the fifth round, Lewis was leading by three rounds to one on all three scorecards but a right hand from Rahman with half a minute remaining ended the need for totting up the figures. Lewis fell victim to a monumental shock for the second time in his career, having also been decked by Oliver McCall at Wembley Arena in 1994.

Two days before the fight, I had interviewed the South African trainer Nick Durandt, whose gym in Johannesburg had been hosting the Rahman team during the build-up. Durandt was convinced the stifling conditions at altitude would be a key factor and he also sensed complacency in the Lewis camp.

In the room with me at the time, McKenzie was struck by the conviction in Durandt’s voice, which seemed to be more than promotional bluster.

Post-fight, Rahman struck a deal with Don King, with tales of bundles of dollars, duffel bags and clandestine meetings in hotels never refuted by the bombastic promoter. Efforts by them to avoid a rematch were thwarted by a US judge and Lewis got his opportunity for revenge in Las Vegas seven months later.

I remember Rahman savouring fight week and lapping up the ceremonial nature of a Vegas extravaganza. It could be argued he left his best performance in the media room, engaging in seemingly countless interviews day after day, but he also met a different version of Lewis.

The title changed hands again in the fourth round, as Lewis put the seal on one his finest displays with a highlight-reel knockout comprised of a combination of left hook and right hand.

Such skill, precision and power only served to emphasise the magnitude of the sporting earthquake their first meeting had produced.

British and Irish fight fans will be able to watch for themselves live on DAZN whether Rahman Jr. will be able to cause his own huge shift in the mainstream boxing realm by becoming the first man to beat brash crossover performer Jake Paul on August 6. Click here for more info on how to watch this event in the UK and Ireland.

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