LAS VEGAS — Here was the sound we made when Lennox Lewis exorcised his demons, regained his heavyweight title and ushered Hasim Rahman into his fifteenth minute of fame:
Ohhhhhh … AAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHH!
I was sitting in Press Box K, located approximately 700,000 rows above ringside at the Mandalay Bay casino in Las Vegas, but that didn’t stop me from making that sound along with everyone else Saturday night. Lewis landed his perfect punch midway through the fourth round, seven months after Rahman had landed his perfect punch in South Africa (which was the reason why we were here in the first place). Of course, the circumstances were a little different this time around.
For one thing, Lewis dominated the first three rounds of the fight, effortlessly moving around the ring and punishing Rahman with his jab. Rahman looked overwhelmed even before the fight started (during his ring entrance, he had the Byung Hyun-Kim face going). You could sense it was only a matter of time; by the end of the third round, there was an “It’s gonna happen” buzz floating through the crowd.
When Lewis finally dropped his bomb, the force of the punch was so sudden that “The Rock” looked like he had been victimized by a chokeslam from his WWF namesake “The Rock.” Rahman fell backwards like a chopped-down tree, his head bouncing against the canvas so violently that his feet actually kicked in the air.
It was an unforgettable turn of events, at least for me. When you watch knockouts on television, they’re always accompanied by an announcer screaming something like “Rahman goes down!!!!!” and there’s a certain pace to the whole thing. When you witness fights in person, there’s a different rhythm — you don’t have somebody telling you what’s happening, you can’t see the clock, you don’t have someone scoring the rounds for you, the sounds of the crowd basically narrate the fight — and those occasional one-punch knockouts seem much more sudden and vicious.
And that’s why we make sounds like Ohhhhhh … AAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHH!
When the Rock was finally counted out, Lewis stood defiantly in the center of the ring, nodding his head, hands pressed against his hips, chest strutting out, mugging for the crowd, showing more emotion than he’s ever shown at any point of his career. He even seemed likable and — gasp! — charismatic. Who was this guy? Where did he come from? For years, boxing experts claimed that Lewis was the total package — speed, strength, size and power — but it wasn’t until Saturday night that Lewis finally showed all of his talents at once.
Unfortunately for him, it took an embarrassing defeat and months of goading from Rahman before he realized his true potential. And looking back, that was Rahman’s biggest mistake. Seven months ago, he caught an out-of-shape Lewis on an off-night, maybe even at a time when Lewis was losing interest in his boxing career. But Rahman’s constant trash-talking, coupled with the infamous wrestling match on “Up Close” in August, seemed to motivate Lewis and finally jolt him out of his slumber. This was a different Lewis Saturday — focused from the first minute, totally in control, ready to strike. Again, it was only a matter of time.
It was obvious that Lewis carried a grudge even after the fight ended. When Rahman finally snapped out of his haze and was helped to his feet, his handlers helped him out of the ring, but not before the Rock tried to make his way across the ring to congratulate the new champ and Lewis barely acknowledged him. All the barbs, the constant replays of Rahman’s home run punch, the embarrassment of Rahman questioning his sexual preference … clearly, it pushed Lewis over the edge. And he made Rahman pay in the end.
That wasn’t Rahman’s only mistake. He also spurned multi-million dollar, multi-fight deals with HBO and Showtime, preferring to maintain his free agent status because he would have even more leverage after he defeated Lewis again (in the “Bad Decisions Pantheon,” that was right up there with David Caruso leaving “NYPD Blue”). Instead, he was thoroughly outclassed by Lewis and knocked out cold for the third time in his career. We’re not sure if he’s The Next Buster Douglas, as everyone feared before the fight, but he’s definitely on his way.
(One thing’s for sure: He conned the betting public in Vegas. At the Mandalay Bay sports book, there had been so much action on Rahman — a 4-to-1 underdog when betting opened on the fight two months ago — that Lewis was just a 2-to-1 favorite by the time of the fight. An amazing turn of events considering that Rahman was a 16-to-1 underdog in South Africa.)
As for Lewis, there was a moment in Thursday’s news conference when a reporter asked Lewis if he had a favorite fight from his career thus far; Lewis couldn’t even come up with an answer. Worse yet, he took a long, awkward pause while searching for a response, finally rattling off four or five victories with the zeal of somebody reading off a grocery list. Sitting there watching him stammer, I almost felt bad for him. He clearly didn’t have an answer.
Now? He does.
More importantly, Lennox Lewis gave me one of my favorite memories as a sports fan. I had always dreamed of witnessing a heavyweight championship fight in person, but deep down, you always wonder that an experience like that will somehow be a letdown. Not so on this night.
I can still see and hear everything: Lewis exacting revenge, Rahman tumbling backwards, and best of all, the crowd making a sound I haven’t heard in all my years as a sports fan (Ohhhhhh … AAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHH!). Punches like that, moments like that, you don’t forget.
Bill Simmons writes three columns a week for Page 2. His final column from Vegas will appear Monday.