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LAS VEGAS - There was a buzz in the air, something faint and mysterious, as Lennox Lewis and Hasim Rahman came bounding out from their corners for the fourth round. The judges had given the first three to Lewis because he had landed punches to the face of his younger opponent from Baltimore. These attacks, and an uncharacteristic Ali-like dance in Lewis' movements, had excited the crowd and brought the movie stars and other big shots near the ring to their feet. But now the crowd in the Event Center at the Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino was quiet and attentive again, and there was this odd buzz, a sinister little vibration, in the big room.
A minute of inconsequential boxing passed. Then, somewhere between the 88th and 89th second of the fourth round, Lennox Lewis unleashed what his trainer would later call "one of the most beautifully executed combinations in the history of boxing" and the buzz became the sound of a Rock cracking.
The long buildup to Saturday night's world heavyweight boxing title rematch - the road to Mandalay - had been a promoter's classic: Lots of sarcastic mouth from Rahman as he tried to get under Lewis' skin ("He's scared of me, y'all!"); Rahman being dismissed as a one-punch wonder who'd scored a lucky knockout of Lewis for the heavyweight title last April in South Africa; Lewis stomping out of a news conference as the trash-talking Rahman loudly chided him.
The two fighters scuffled nasty, and to the floor, during the taping of a television show. Rahman had made comments about Lewis' sexuality. Lewis had branded Rahman a clown.
Rahman needed to prove that he wasn't a flash in the pan.
Lewis needed to regain his title or, at age 36, face retirement.
So, going into the weekend, Rahman-Lewis II had taken perfect shape: The strong, smartly tailored, soft-spoken British champion who called himself a "pugilist specialist" against the bragging, brawling Baltimorean in 'do rag and sweats who called himself The Rock.
And the setting was ideal. Can there be a more suitable place in America for this brutal sport's biggest show than the freaky Vegas Strip?
Mandalay Bay is a three-winged golden tower rising from an architect's idea of a sprawling palace of colonial Burma, with terraces of palm trees and waterfalls and a fake 11-acre "lagoon." Inside, the huge carpeted and tiled spaces are devoted to gambling of every conceivable form, hip restaurants serving "world food" - one with a huge, high-rise wine cellar and a "wine angel" who scales it by rope to fill an order - and bars filled with young to middle-aged men and women on the make, on the prowl, on the hustle.
Men wear black T-shirts and tight jeans, or home-boy sweats and heavy jewelry. Women wear halter tops, tube tops and sometimes almost no tops. They come to get matched, married, loaded or rich. They arm-wrestle an army of slots, shoot craps, play poker and blackjack and baccarat, and they bet on sports. They drink and throw chips all night and go to bed just before dawn.
"This place is fake from the architecture to the boobs," said Baltimore lawyer Billy Murphy, as he stood in a swirl of people near the lobby of the Mandalay. "The finest places here were created for the sole purpose of getting the maximum number of people to give up the maximum amount of their money through gambling. It's a place where people come to indulge every sin imaginable ... It's not my cup of tea. I'm here for the fight, and I'm out of here."
Murphy, who represents promoter Don King, was heading out to deliver to friends the 14 tickets he had to the fight.
By Saturday evening, genuine Sugar Daddies -- moneyed men escorting exotically dressed women half their age -- and other high-rollers had moved into the casino for some action before the fight. "People are playing blackjack with $500 chips," observed Stash, the 98 Rock deejay who came for the fight, among the few from Baltimore. "There's a $1,000-minimum table and people are just chuckin' it down. It's crazy. ... I saw Cuba Gooding Jr. in there."
The march to the Event Center, connected to the hotel but a long walk from its ornate lobby, started about two hours before Rahman-Lewis II, with hotel security setting up barricades on one of the large concourses of polished black stone leading to the arena.
This created the effect of an opening-night runway, with lines of gawkers on both sides getting an eye feast: Loads of bleach-blond women with L'il Kim and Britney Spears hairstyles and cleavage exposure, women in mink halters, ostrich boas, leather slacks, tight dresses with Hong Kong slits, and at least two in black see-through lace things barely the size of a chapel veil. Among the males: A cream-colored suit with matching derby; a retro-'70s outfit with Super Fly lid; an electric-blue, silk crepe zoot suit; and a frat-brat reunion in tuxedos and armed with large cigars.
There were enough celebrities to fill a squadron of Lear jets. Drew Carey came through, sans eyeglasses and surrounded by women, and he was followed by Mark McGrath, lead singer of Sugar Ray; baseball greats Reggie Jackson and Dave Winfield, former NFL quarterback Warren Moon, comedian Tom Arnold, Friends star David Schwimmer, wrestler-turned-actor Tom "Tiny" Lister Jr., the singer Tone "Wild Thing" Loc, heavyweight legends Larry Holmes and George Foreman, and the actress Tara Reid. More Hollywood slipped into the VIP seats: Meg Ryan, Adam Sandler, Carrie Fisher, David Spade, Arnold Schwarzenegger and wife Maria Shriver, Joe Pesci and Sidney Portier.
Former heavyweight champ Evander Holyfield made it to the big show, along with tennis star Serena Williams, talk-show man Montel Williams, actress and director Penny Marshall, and the pop singer Jewel, who sang the national anthem.
"I saw Ian Wright," said a woman with a British accent named Stacey Levy. She'd come from London with a friend, Ian Sassoon. He was a Lennox Lewis fan who'd won a trip to the championship fight through a British newspaper contest.
Who's Ian Wright? Only one of Britain's soccer superstars, a former player for Arsenal. When his name was announced over the public address system in the arena, a wild cheer went up from the crowd - the first measure of the significant number of British citizens in the place. At least 2,000 of them had come to Vegas through Lennox Lewis' own agency, LL Travel.
"Our plane was full of people coming to the fight," said Levy.
The Brits sang "God Save The Queen" with Beverly Knight before the fight, and they screamed when Lennox Lewis made his way to the ring.
He had been criticized for being passionless, for being either silent or dull, for not having a sense of identity as a boxer. Lennox Lewis had won, lost and regained a world championship, only to have it taken away again by an earnest near-nobody from Baltimore named Hasim Rahman. Lewis had been ridiculed by this young opponent and upstaged by him for months and in the last week, in particular. Because of his too-cool ways, he'd supposedly lost the popularity contest with boxing fans.
But when Lewis stepped through the ropes Saturday night, silk white trunks shimmering and thick arms exposed in a sleeveless FUBU robe, a great roar went up and Lewis did a little dance to the rap jam that pulsed through the arena.
When Rahman arrived, the hood of a red, white and blue robe pulled over his head, the arena filled with almost as many boos as were heard earlier for promoter Don King, when he was introduced to the crowd, and again for comedian and actress Rosie O'Donnell.
Lewis stood still in his corner and his face turned to stone, and he kept the chilling stare through his face-to-face with Rahman at center ring. In that moment, Lewis might have been recalling every insult he'd heard over the last seven months, since Rahman knocked him out and bragged he could do it again: "He's scared of me, y'all!"
A boxer who gets knocked out is supposed to be at severe psychological disadvantage in rematch.
But, aside from allowing Rahman a few jabs in the first round, Lewis showed almost no signs of weakness.
"Look at him out there dancing like Ali," his trainer, Emanuel Steward, would remark later, noting how Lewis seemed to have a lighter step and smarter moves in this second fight with Rahman.
After three rounds, the judges had given Lewis a slight edge. But, while he had prevented Rahman from getting in his ferocious right-hand punch, Lewis still had not seized control of the match.
Then came the fourth round.
After rising and screaming at some flourishes by Lewis in the second and third rounds, the crowd had grown quiet again as the two boxers moved and jabbed and locked and broke and moved and jabbed. There was a strange moment when you could almost hear that buzz, an odd vibration in the air, a whisper of something about to happen. The boxers seemed to stop moving for a second.
Lewis dropped his hands to his hips. Then the hands came up - left half-misses, right lands - and there was a ghastly smack-cracking sound, and in the next instant The Rock wobbled backward, sailed off his feet, fell flat on his back, his body bouncing like a doll on a tightly pulled bedspread, his arms extended crucifixion-style. He tried to get to his feet. The howl of the crowd was deafening now.
The Rock reached for the ropes and fell again - another howl, this one from some place deeper - and Lennox Lewis jumped and thumped his chest five times. Men in the crowd unfurled Union Jacks. The fight was over in three rounds plus one minute and 29 seconds of the fourth. The evening was young. The movie stars and high-rollers still had time to make the Britney Spears concert down the street at the MGM Grand or hit the casino.
"It was a revelation," Billy Murphy said after the fight was over. "We were in denial that Rahman was anywhere near as good a fighter as Lennox Lewis. He threw one good, lucky punch [in April], and that's all it was. We were all in denial about that."
The crowd drained out of the arena, and they moved back down the concourse of the Mandalay past a huge Christmas tree and, in groups of 200 or more at a time, the Britons sang a familiar song, "Winter Wonderland," but with new lyrics for the occasion: "There's only one Lennox Lewis... Only one Lennox Lewis. ... We're walkin' along, singin' a song, walkin' in a Lewis wonderland."
By then, their champ was headed to the winner's press conference, and The Rock was headed to a hospital.