Prized fighters reap rewards

When Vincent Pettway, the handsome man and superb fighter, knocked out Italy's Gianfranco Rosi in Las Vegas on Sept. 17, 1994, he became Baltimore's first world boxing champion in more than half a century. He made headlines, logged a fair amount of mug time on local television, received official citations and a nice pewter plate from the mayor.

But Pettway did not get what Hasim "Rock" Rahman got yesterday - his own motorcade through downtown Baltimore, a joyous rally at City Hall. He settled for a ride as grand marshal of the Thanksgiving Day parade two months later.

His hometown could have honored Pettway in a more elaborate way, but City Hall was a relatively sleepy place in 1994, and apparently no one there understood his victory as an excuse for a party. Baltimore, then 11 years removed from a World Series and a decade deserted by an NFL franchise, might simply have forgotten how to celebrate a sports champion.

But the difference in how the city - or the world, for that matter - reacted to these two world-class boxers probably has more to do with our fascination with all things extra-large and supersized. We like our heroes as big as we can get them. And Pettway's hard-fought, hard-won world championship came as a junior middleweight.

Rahman is a heavyweight - the heavyweight champion of the world - and no title in professional sports packs as much punch in the popular imagination.

Purists might hold that the sweetest science exists among the nimble and the quick: the light-heavys, the middles, welters and even bantams. But the heavyweight title is the one that surpasses all others in hype, glamour and bucks. Unfair to the Vincent Pettways of the world, but it's a fact.

"It's just something you learn to live with," says Pettway, at 35 still in training and looking for a fight. "The heavyweights have always gotten all the attention, but us little guys do all the work. We have to fight harder in the ring and outside the ring for more attention and better promotion. Even my manager's eyes get big as softballs when he sees a heavyweight come through the door of the gym. But the heavyweights deserve credit for all the drama and suspense they bring to the game."

Even if you're not a fan of boxing - even if you're one of its harshest critics or, more likely, one of its many intermittent observers who went out to watch Rahman's rally yesterday - you know exactly what "heavyweight champion of the world" means. Those five words conjure up the sinewy outlines of 20th century icons: Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Muhammad Ali. It's as if Michelangelo himself had carved them into our collective memory.

More than all other fighters, the heavyweight champions endure as legends, wrapped forever in robes of glory.

"The heavyweight champion of the world is the best fighter in the world," says Mack Lewis, the 82-year-old trainer who handled Pettway and helped launch Rahman's career. "It ain't no pound-for-pound comparison. The heavyweight is simply considered the best fighter in the world because no one can beat him. A middleweight couldn't beat him, a welterweight couldn't beat him."

"He's king of the world," says Rashid Muhammad, who promotes amateur boxing in Maryland.

"He reigns supreme, rules all that he surveys," says Clem Florio, the Pimlico race handicapper who, as a young middleweight from New York in the 1950s, had 85 professional fights. "He's at the top of the world, standing alone. This kid - the Rock - can say today, `I beat the champ who beat everyone else.' "

Ali used to say, "I am the greatest."

All other champions in all other weight classes have to be just as courageous, just as skilled, just as committed to their training regimens. "Everything hurts in boxing," says Florio. "The training, the sparring, everything hurts. Nothing about it is easy."

But among all those who toil in the hard-sweat world of boxing, the heavyweight is the strong man - sometimes ponderously so - the brute with the longest reach and the most potent punch.

Mack Lewis loves all boxers, all weight classes, and he has too much respect for those he trained over the years to single anyone out as the greatest. But he concedes a soft spot for a good-looking heavy. "There's a prejudice among managers and trainers," he says. "When they see a big guy come in the gym, and he's got big shoulders and long arms, you say, `If this guy's got some guts, I got something here.' When Hasim [Rahman] came in, he came in like a fighter. He wanted to fight. He's got a beautiful body."

And a punch.

Knockout at any time

The punch - the potential for a knockout - is part of the allure.

Fighters of the lower weight classes might finesse and speed-punch their way to victory; they might score knockouts, as Pettway did to take and defend his title. But the heavyweight's punch is presumed to bear power beyond all others because, throwing at the right spot - the chin, the ear lobe, the solar plexus - at the right moment, he can turn his large, muscular peers into quivering piles of flesh, sweat and silk. In that sense, a prizefight is always in sudden-death overtime, always just a home run away from being decided. Victory and defeat arrive in the same instant.

"There are no iron men," says Lewis. "They're heavyweights, but they're all human."

We love to watch.

Or, at least, when it's presented to us, we can't help but watch.

We're awed by the moment in which one big man ascends while the other falls. We experience a rush of emotional conflict - elation and admiration for the winner, sadness and pity for the loser.

In 1974, when Ali fought George Foreman in Zaire to regain the heavyweight title, he came off the ropes to stun his younger opponent and, as Foreman staggered and crumpled, Ali held back a finishing punch and watched him fall, the matador hovering over the dying bull. Foreman went on to become the affable salesman of mufflers and hamburger grills, but his fall at Ali's hand lingers as a pure moment of truth: one big man defeating another with nothing but his hands and his heart.

"When you walk out of that corner and into that ring," Lewis says, "the other man is there to destroy you and you have to destroy him, and when I pull that stool out and walk down the steps, you're on your own, son, and you have to fight."

"It's so basic, man to man," says Florio.

And, to many, so violent and repulsive.

A nation of fighters

Baltimore finds itself in the midst of ambivalence - applauding a genuine hero for a feat in an athletic competition many people abhor and usually avoid.

"I was as happy as anyone to see Rahman win" began the e-mailed caveat from a Sun reader the other day. "But I can't help thinking about Lennox Lewis' brain, which no doubt sustained a concussion the other night. A few of those and you've got a very dangerous medical condition and questionable neurological future. I just wish there were a sport that could provide a lift for those who participate without the primary goal being the infliction of concussions."

The late sportswriter Red Smith addressed the great ambivalence in 1962, after the death of Benny "Kid" Paret from injuries in a fight in Madison Square Garden: "To me boxing is a rough, dangerous and thrilling sport, the most basic and natural and uncomplicated of athletic competitions and - at its best - one of the purest of art forms. Yet there is no quarrel here with those who sincerely regard it as a vicious business that should have no place in a civilized society."

But fighters we will always have with us, Smith argued.

"There were always men ready to fight for prizes on a barge or in a pasture or the back room of a saloon. It is hard to believe that a nation bereft of such men would be the better or stronger for it."

So America is a nation of fighters, and maybe the boxer - the heavyweight, in particular - personifies that force in the culture more than any other sports hero. Joe Louis, son of an Alabama sharecropper, played that role out to symbolic perfection in 1938 when he defeated Hitler's favorite Aryan heavyweight, Max Schmelling, with a first-round knockout at Yankee Stadium.

Rocky Marciano seemed to extend America's victory in World War II by becoming, in the age of the baby boom, the bruiser, brawling KO king of the world. He was a hero of the immigrant class in America; The Rock fought his way out of blue-collar Brockton, Mass.

Florio, who fought his way out of Ozone Park in Queens, N.Y., will tell you that, in those days, boxing was a way to make some money, a way out of poverty. Guys who fought for money dressed better; some even had cars. To Florio, a few rounds, a few punches landed and taken, followed by payday - all that looked like a pretty good way to go. Not much has changed.

The other night boxing's newest Rock legend, Hasim Rahman, said something that struck a nerve with Florio.

"After he beat [Lennox] Lewis, he says, `Ma, you won't have to work no more.'

"Oh my God!" says Florio, raising his hands. "I mean, that's what I wanted to come of it for my mother - that she wouldn't have to work anymore. That's like something out of a movie."

Like something out of an American legend: The broad-shouldered kid who becomes a heavyweight, strong enough to win, coming home to a parade, smiling and flashing his world title belt in the noontime sun.