All aboard the Rahman bandwagon

John Eisenberg

COME ON. BE HONEST. Until a few day ago, if Hasim Rahman had come up to you on the street, introduced himself and forced you to guess if he was, a) a backup defensive back for the Ravens, b) a middle school science teacher, or, c) a heavyweight title contender from Abingdon in Harford County, you never would have guessed the last of the three.

Ordinarily, the phrases "heavyweight title" and "Harford County" belong in the same sentence like Art Modell and Peter Angelos belong at the same table at a party. And until a few weeks ago, or even a few days ago, Rahman was about as well-known in his hometown as the guy who cuts his lawn.

That's all changed in the wake of the powerful right that floored Lennox Lewis on Saturday night and turned Rahman, 28, into Baltimore's first world heavyweight champion. Everyone knows him now. He's the region's latest sports success, following the Ravens and Terps.

The only difference, of course, is that more than eight people had heard of the Ravens and Terps when they made their runs to glory, and if Rahman's bandwagon was larger than eight going into the Lewis fight, it wasn't much larger.

Put it this way: You could have taken his entire bandwagon, including the team of Clydesdales pulling it, and stuffed it into a Chevy Suburban.

Rahman's wife and kids were on board, as were a few sponsors, neighbors, friends and strays. The local fight crowd? It's dwindled to the size of a good turnout for a coffeehouse poetry slam.

Otherwise, the bandwagon was empty. Plenty of good seats were available, but Rahman and his handlers couldn't give them away with free pizzas and gum. Even though Rahman had a 34-2 record, his local name recognition registered somewhere between Todd Frohwirth and the guys on the Ravens' practice squad.

He may have shocked the world by beating Lewis on Saturday night, but he shocked his hometown even more.

Just seven weeks ago, shortly before he left for South Africa, Rahman walked around all but unnoticed at a charity fight card staged by the Ravens' Rob Burnett at the Hyatt Regency Inner Harbor. Few in the crowd had any inkling that a guy set to fight Lewis for the title was in their midst or that the guy was a local who had gone to Randallstown High School.

Seven weeks later, awakening as the home of the world heavyweight champion for the first time Sunday morning, Baltimore experienced a rush of pride and ownership ... then set out to learn how to spell and pronounce the champ's name.

You have never seen an empty bandwagon fill so fast.

He was "our guy" upon his triumphal return to Baltimore yesterday, even as many in the city were still working to commit the proper spelling and pronunciation to memory. (Here's a tip: The packets of noodles you buy for 20 cents at the Giant are Ramen noodles, and our heavyweight champion is Rahman. Only it's pronounced "Rock-mon." Don't worry, you'll get it eventually.)

Part of the problem is professional boxing itself; the heavyweight crown was once the grandest title in sports, but a succession of clowns and crooks and alphabet-soup in-fighting has severely diminished it. Rahman owns the WBC and IBF titles, and someone named John Ruiz owns the WBA title. A lot of people can't summon interest.

Also, Rahman has fought at home only once since early in his career, beating a duffel bag with an 11-31-3 record in front of 2,200 fans 13 months ago at Martin's West. Otherwise, his managers have booked him everywhere from Capitol Heights to Atlantic City to Las Vegas, and as anyone in the sports business knows, it's hard to win over a lot of people when you never play a home game.

We still should blush at the shameless exhibition of front-running as we admit Rahman to the local pantheon of champions -- kudos to him for having the decency not to bring it up. He's just happy about everything, of course, as well he should be. He may have won the title from an opponent who was overconfident and out of shape Saturday night, but his knockout punch was clean, swift and hard -- a classic that would have floored anyone.

The result is a terrific story about an obscure underdog who supposedly had no chance, kept believing in himself and came through. Even better, he's a good guy, a good neighbor, a family man, deeply religious. He deserves an ovation, belated or otherwise, just for that alone. And no matter how long he holds the title, he brought it home to the city where he was raised. He did it. If his city didn't know him before, it does now.

The fallout is delicious, to say the least. Suddenly, we're on the boxing map in a big way. Rahman's next bout will either be a rematch with Lewis or a title defense against Mike Tyson, depending on what the promoters and lawyers finagle. Imagine a Tyson-Rahman extravaganza at the Baltimore Arena. (After which we could just blow the place up and start over.) Or we could make Michael's Eighth Avenue in Glen Burnie the cradle of champions. Tyson lived in Maryland, remember, until he got too mad about a fender-bender in Gaithersburg and ended up going to jail. So we could bill it as a state title fight.

Oh, right. Almost forgot. We don't have to trump anything up anymore to scare up interest and a crowd. Overnight, out of nowhere, we've gone legitimate in the fight game. Legitimate in a huge way.

The heavyweight champion of the world lives among us.

Our guy.

It's time to get the name right.
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