Elliot Worsell looks back 20 years to a nightmarish fortnight for British boxing superpowers Lennox Lewis and Naseem Hamed
AT the start of April 2001, it would be no exaggeration to say Great Britain boasted the best heavyweight in the world, the best featherweight in the world, and two of the biggest stars in boxing in the shape of Lennox Lewis and “Prince” Naseem Hamed. Lewis, at that stage, was WBC and IBF heavyweight champion, and Hamed, despite relinquishing his WBO featherweight title, was widely regarded the best nine-stone fighter in the game and arguably one of the hardest punchers his division had ever seen.
They were big names, the likes of which rarely emerge in isolation, let alone together, but were also two men with targets on their backs who were that April preparing for fights that would, unbeknown to them, play a major part in defining their legacies.
On April 7, 2001, Hamed fought Marco Antonio Barrera, a former WBO super-bantamweight champion, in Las Vegas, while two weeks later Lewis defended his heavyweight titles against unheralded American Hasim Rahman in South Africa.
Spoiler one: within a fortnight two British world champions would become zero, proving that, as far as British boxing is concerned, when it rains, it pours. Spoiler two: for one of the dethroned British boxing superstars this April shower would be the making of them. Yet, for the other, it would end up breaking them.
Hamed and Barrera: Talked about for some time, the meeting of “Prince” Naseem Hamed and Marco Antonio Barrera was signed and set to take place, initially, on March 3, 2001. By then Hamed had decided to vacate the WBO featherweight title he had defended some 15 times and had done so to avoid having to fight his mandatory challenger, István Kovács, for considerably less money than he stood to receive fighting Barrera for the so-called ‘lineal’ championship. This made perfect sense at the time, as did Hamed’s decision to box Barrera, the reigning WBO super-bantamweight champion, a year after the Mexican had left behind bits of his body and soul during a thrilling 12-round war with Erik Morales.
A 3-1 underdog, Barrera had it all to do but knew, in moving up in weight to fight Hamed, he would be guaranteed a career-high payday (reportedly $2 million to Hamed’s $6 million) and believed, also, he had the toughness to withstand Hamed’s power and the skills to exploit what he believed were flaws in his defence.
By January, the proposed March 3 date had fallen apart and a new date of April 7 at the MGM Grand, Las Vegas had been arranged. Yet, even with extra time to get ready, Hamed’s preparation – chronicled by the painfully revealing documentary Little Prince, Big Fight – was questionable, suggestive of a man either utterly confident in his ability to destroy Barrera with one punch or, worse, a man so drunk on his own hype he had disregarded the possibility of losing altogether.
Had this footage been released before the fight, the odds, if not Hamed’s attitude, may have changed.
Lewis and Rahman: The year 2000 was so good to Lennox Lewis he would have been forgiven for thinking everything he touched turned to gold and that complacency was not something to fear but to instead consider both natural and expected.
As heavyweight champion, Lewis made three successful title defences that year, beating Michael Grant, Frans Botha and David Tua, and subsequently set his sights on a money-spinning blockbuster against Mike Tyson. The aim was for them to meet in the summer of 2001 but this short-lived dream had to be scrapped once Tyson was issued a three-month suspension for failing a drug test (marijuana) after his 2000 fight against Andrew Golota.
All dressed up with nowhere to go, Lewis now sought alternative options and would in the end elect to make a title defence against Baltimore’s Hasim Rahman on April 22, 2001. There were other offers on the table, including a possible fight with WBA boss John Ruiz, but Lewis liked the sound of Rahman and, moreover, liked the idea of fighting in Brakpan, South Africa.
Rahman, back then, was a so-so heavyweight contender whose two most notable fights – against David Tua and Oleg Maskaev – had ended in knockout defeats. He had won the three bouts prior to his title shot – beating Frankie Swindell, Corrie Sanders, and Marion Wilson – but was a 20-1 underdog against Lewis for a reason.
“The Rock” was determined, though. He arrived in Brakpan, a place 5,200 feet above sea level, on March 27, almost a month before the fight and, crucially, almost two weeks before Lewis (who arrived on April 10).
An oversight deemed irrelevant until proven otherwise, Lewis had done the bulk of his training in Las Vegas, Nevada, a location 2,000 feet above sea level, and did so because it allowed him to film scenes for a cameo appearance in the 2001 film Ocean’s Eleven. This was, while in Vegas, merely one of the perks of being the heavyweight champion of the world. It was not an issue until he was in South Africa and it became one.
Hamed and Barrera: A study in contrasting styles, Barrera was as compact as Hamed was loose and would wait for Hamed’s looseness to slip from dangerous to sloppy before landing the fight’s first key punch: a left hook. So dishevelled was Hamed, the shot had the Brit performing a dance, even if not hurt by it, and unquestionably set the tone. Hamed, in response, struck a pose, wiggled his hips and his shoulders, and smiled back at Barrera. He then took a jab in the face. Barrera, meanwhile, never altered his expression, rarely allowed either of his gloves to drop below his chin, and continued to edge forward, treating his own moments of success with a so-what? shrug.
As he grew impatient and desperate, Hamed’s stance would become even wider and his shots even wilder, and this allowed Barrera to find Hamed with jabs and hooks whenever the ‘Prince’ was off balance. Short on ideas, Hamed had been on a mission to land a single fight-ending punch from as early as the first round and this single-mindedness only increased as Barrera punished every one of Hamed’s missteps and treated rounds like donations, collecting each with gratitude.
Barrera tamed him and taught him a lesson before in the final round, not content with outboxing him, he rammed Hamed’s head into the ring post to ensure the message was clear. It was, in effect, the ultimate sign of dominance. He had not just beaten him; he had beaten him up.
A point deduction for Barrera’s final-round transgression had no real impact on scorecards of 115-112, 116-111 and 115-112 (all in Barrera’s favour), the delivery of which left Hamed resigned to applauding a Mexican master he had been unable to hurt. Hamed had been humbled, his unbeaten record gone. Worse than that, so too had his air of invincibility.
Lewis and Rahman: Forever comfortable when in control, Lewis could be seen during the pre-fight introductions asking his coach, Emanuel Steward, to ensure Rahman’s beltline was lowered before any punches were thrown. This message was then duly relayed to the referee, Daniel Van de Wiele, and Lewis got his wish; the first battle won.
That need for control carried into the fight as Lewis, 253 pounds and the taller fighter, instantly claimed the centre of the ring as though only he possessed keys to the property. He left Rahman, 238, circling on the outside, uncomfortable but not overawed, and looked to either move the American with his left hand or jab him with it.
Rahman, though, was unwilling to be controlled and would now and again dip, pull back, change his posture, and attempt shots of his own, typically in the shape of jabs or ambitious right hands. Few were scoring shots but all were designed to keep Lewis honest and gain his respect. His jab was solid and long and his right cross dangerous. But more impressive than any punch was Rahman’s composure.
“His [Lewis’] mouth is already open and I don’t know if that’s significant or not,” said HBO’s Larry Merchant in round two. The second was a round Lewis won but Rahman could claim a small victory of his own in just getting to the next one. He then increased his aggression in the third, another round he lost, buoyed both by the sight of Lewis’ hands being low and the feeling of weathering the champion’s best punches.
If Rahman’s plan was to stay in the fight and bank on Lewis fading, it was a smart one. By the fourth round, Rahman was creeping forward uninvited and landed his first good right hand, which sparked chants of ‘Rahman! Rahman! Rahman!’ from the South African crowd. Then, in the fifth, still powered by unlikely support and Lewis’ open mouth, Rahman bowled over two more right hands, the first a warning, the second responsible for changing not only the course of heavyweight history but also his life.
Lewis, not heeding the warning, smiled moments before the second one landed.
Hamed and Barrera: In the minutes and hours following his first professional loss, the word on both the street and in the ring centred on Hamed activating his rematch clause and getting revenge as soon as possible. Afterwards, Hamed himself said, “I want Barrera again and I’m going to knock him out,” and seemed, at best, confident and, at worst, sincere.
However, the rematch clause, which needed to be triggered within two months of the fight ending, was forgotten altogether. This left Barrera free to move on and fight Enrique Sánchez and left everyone else scratching their heads.
Eventually Hamed announced his plan to return to the ring in a European featherweight title fight against little-known Spaniard Manuel Calvo on March 23, 2002, only for this to be moved to May 18. When finally he did box again, more than a year after the Barrera loss, Hamed was sluggish, uninspired, and booed by his own fans inside the London Arena. There were foot stomps, slow hand claps, and even chants of ‘Bruno! Bruno! Bruno!’ as Hamed, lacking motivation, cruised through 12 rounds to defeat Calvo by decision. Hurt almost as much in victory as he had been in defeat, Hamed, the richest featherweight in boxing history, would never box again.
Lewis and Rahman: Following his exploits in South Africa, HBO and Showtime both sweet-talked Rahman in an effort to secure exclusive rights to his next fight. There were rumours of Showtime offering him an estimated $19.25 million to face Mike Tyson in his first defence of the heavyweight titles and there were rumours of HBO offering him $17 million to face Lewis in a rematch.
Rahman, however, turned down both offers, signed a $5 million deal with promoter Don King, and instead agreed to fight popular but limited Danish fighter Brian Nielsen, for which he stood to earn an additional $5 million.
That, in the end, fell through, which meant Rahman was in need of an opponent and Lewis, keen to invoke his rematch clause, was suddenly hopeful of revenge. Having gone to court to force a second fight, Lewis signed to box Rahman again on November 17, 2001, this time in Las Vegas, and was determined to correct all that went wrong first time around.
As it happened, it took him not even four rounds to exorcise his demons and leave Rahman, this king for a day, flat on his back from a stunning right hand. Focused, sharp, and full of spite, Lewis was not only better than last time but perhaps better than he had ever been that November night.
After getting revenge, all that was left for Lewis to do was at last meet Mike Tyson, which he did in June 2002, and then sample the best of what the new breed had to offer in the form of Vitali Klitschko, against whom he defended his WBC heavyweight title the following year. Lewis was 37 years of age by then and certainly past his best, yet was still good enough to keep his belt away from a bloodied and enraged Klitschko (stopped due to cuts after six rounds) and retire from the sport on top.
Even better, Lewis departed while able to say he beat every opponent he ever faced in a professional ring, a boast made by only a few.