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Rebounding from rock bottom Hasim Rahman preps for the most important heavyweight match since Lennox Lewis retired

ROCHESTER -- The heavyweight champion stood in front of a wall-length mirror and lifted his shirt.

Still weeks away from his title fight, such a gesture is significant in the boxing world, especially with several gawkers in the room. The telltale area of conditioning exposed, everyone could see -- and report -- just how seriously he had taken training camp.

Hasim Rahman clearly had nothing to hide. While most dream of attaining an abdominal six-pack, Rahman looked like he was fixing to bring more like a case and a half to his March 18 party with James Toney in Atlantic City.

The fight, viewed as the most important heavyweight match since Lennox Lewis retired in 2003, is about more than a baubled belt for Rahman. The result will define his legacy, determining whether history will view him as a worthy successor to John L. Sullivan or a lucky pug who hit the lottery with his stunning one-punch knockout of Lewis five years ago.

"Look at the world champ!" ordered Tommy Summers, the self-proclaimed hype man for Rahman's team.

Ruthless hip-hop lyrics and Summers' bombast boomed in the background. Rahman grabbed a rope and began to skip it, the whips quickening over the next several minutes. As the sweat built up, so did the intensity. The relentless thwap of his fists on the speed bag were followed by the deep grunts of sparring.

Rahman's minions exhorted every move, examined every muscle twitch as if his future depended on it.

"Seek and destroy!" Summers called out.

The scene took place not in a Las Vegas sweatbox or among balsam firs high in the Catskills. Rahman chose an atypical prizefight sanctuary to prepare for the biggest fight of his career: a gym attached to an auto shop in an industrial Rochester neighborhood.

"The people always show me love here," Rahman said, a towel to his brow after a spirited workout at the ROC Boxing and Fitness Center. "It's home away from home, my adopted hometown."

The 33-year-old Baltimore native established ties to the Flower City in his brief amateur days and has fought there three times as a pro. He signed a managerial contract with Rochesterian Steve Nelson, the only holdover from his original team.

Nelson has witnessed every moment of Rahman's dizzying rise, precipitous fall and slow climb back.

"In a boxing management career, so few people ever get into a heavyweight championship fight, much less win one," Nelson mused. "We had one of the great upsets in boxing history. We've had some sensational moments, and we've had some lows."

Rahman (pronounced ROCK-mahn) reached the sporting summit in April 2001. A perfect right cross to Lewis' jaw in the fifth round anointed him the undisputed world heavyweight champion, despite 20-to-1 odds against it.

>Reign of error?

Boxing historians rank Rahman's astonishing triumph as one of the great upsets just behind Buster Douglas over Mike Tyson, Jim Braddock over Max Baer and Max Schmeling over Joe Louis.

Credibility, however, eluded Rahman.

He summarily was labeled a fluke.

Reasons for his improbable moment of glory were plentiful. Lewis' disregard for training while filming scenes for the film "Ocean's Eleven" showed. He was 20 pounds heavier than his previous time out, and he arrived in South Africa 11 days before the fight, giving himself little time to adjust to the 6,000-foot altitude and the 5 a.m. fight time.

"I understand the perception," Rahman said. "That's a lot of people's reality. At the same time, you can't be undisputed champion by luck.

"Luck is being prepared when the opportunity presents itself. Anybody gets hit with that punch and I don't care from what era, he's going to sleep."

Maybe Rahman immediately should have realized his reign would be difficult. At his victory parade in Baltimore, the convertible he was riding in with his family was broadsided, dumping them into the street and sending some to the hospital.

Seven months later, Lewis waylaid Rahman inside four rounds. They never fought a rubber match, but Rahman eventually extended his winless streak to four.

He lost a technical decision to Evander Holyfield when grotesque swelling the size of a grapefruit emerged on his forehead, stopping the fight after eight rounds. Rahman then drew with David Tua and lost a tedious affair with WBA champ John Ruiz.

Rahman admitted his work ethic had crumbled under the weight of his arrogance. He had beaten Lewis with a single punch, and once a fighter believes that's all he needs, then there's really no incentive to train for 12 grueling rounds.

He had just turned 31, and already he was being compared to Leon Spinks, that toothless laughingstock who -- for a fleeting spell -- was king of the sports world for slaying Muhammad Ali.

"After the loss to Lennox it was a rough road back," Nelson said. "It was even worse after the loss to John Ruiz. Nobody even wanted to talk to us on the phone. The lowest point in Rock's history . . . there was no reason for Rock to lose that fight. It was a lackluster fight, and people were writing him off."

That's when Nelson began a reclamation project. He plotted out a radical strategy for an established veteran. The usual game plan for anyone who has won a heavyweight title is to face a relatively easy opponent once or twice a year, maintain a cachet and simply wait for the next multimillion-dollar championship offer.

Nelson and Rahman instead hit the club circuit, opting to fight lesser names, but more frequently. The objective was to build up confidence lost over nearly three years without a victory.

"Every single one of those comeback fights in those clubs was $25,000," Nelson said. "Every fight we took, the competition was carefully calculated, chosen for a reason. We just kept building and building, getting his name out there and learning how to win again."

>Strategy pays dividends

Rahman won four times in four months against dudes who weren't household names in their own neighborhoods. Nevertheless, he started to believe in himself again. Then in November 2004, he stopped Kali Meehan, who was coming off a controversial split decision loss to underrated WBO champ Lamon Brewster.

Rahman became the consensus No. 1 contender and accepted a fight with WBC champ Vitali Klitschko in April 2005. The bout was postponed because Klitschko claimed he injured his thigh while jogging. It was rescheduled for June. Then July. Then November. Each time, Klitschko insisted he was hurt.

Again bucking conventional boxing theory, Rahman didn't wait around. While Klitschko supposedly was rehabilitating, Rahman accepted a risky fight and defeated WBC No. 2 contender Monte Barrett in August for the interim title, a designation that would become permanent if Klitschko kept stalling.

Klitschko eventually retired, citing knee problems, and the WBC elevated Rahman. Now Rahman needs to announce his return to the throne with more authority than a news release out of Mexico City.

"I want some title defenses, and it starts with James Toney," Rahman said. "A devastating victory over him is going to go a long way to legitimizing not only me as I stand as champion now, but it will add a lot of credibility to my first reign as champion.

"I always hear people say after it was too late, 'If I only had another chance.' I was the heavyweight champion before, and I found myself saying the same thing. 'If I only had another chance I would do this differently, that differently.' God has blessed me with another chance. I don't feel like I'm too old. I feel I have a lot left to give to the sport of boxing."

>Determined to earn respect

He credited his resurgence to some much-needed humility and Nelson's constant guidance. Rahman has gone through several promoters and has exchanged a lawsuit or two with Cedric Kushner and Don King. Trainers? He's had more than a few.

Rahman declared his team is stable and focused today. He recently signed a promotional deal with Bob Arum, who hasn't worked with a heavyweight in over a decade. This will be Rahman's third bout with venerable trainer Thell Torrance.

"Everything in my life is so cleared up right now that I have the chance to prove I'm the champ, and nobody's taking this title from me," Rahman said.

"I take the blame on everything I do. It all ends up on me. But I know my history, so I won't be repeating it. I know how to get there. I know what it takes to be at the top. Now that I'm here I plan on staying here for a while."

e-mail: tgraham@buffnews.com

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