By Thomas Hauser
Mickey Duff, the venerable British boxing promoter, once said of a fellow who was giving him a hard time, "You've heard of someone being too smart for his own good. Well, this guy is three smart."
Eighteen months ago, Hasim Rahman and Bernard Hopkins were on top of the boxing world. But they were three smart for their own good.
There's something inherently likeable about Rahman, whose roller-coaster ride through the bigtime began when he dethroned Lennox Lewis in South Africa on April 22, 2001. The new champion promptly began planning to put his three children in the best schools he could find and set up real eatate trusts to guarantee their college education.
"My kids understand that daddy is gonna win and daddy is gonna lose," said Rahman. "But daddy is still daddy, whether or not he's the champ. And my kids will know that their daddy looked after them when he could."
Riding the crest of his championship-victory wave, Rahman turned down a $20,000,000 offer to fight Mike Tyson on Showtime and a $14,150,000 offer for a Lewis rematch on HBO. Then he abandoned his longtime promoter Cedric Kushner and accepted a $5,000,000 bonus to sign with Don King.
From the beginning, it looked as though King was trying to outhustle Rahman and Rahman was trying to outhustle King. The smart money was on King.
A series of lawsuits followed. When the dust cleared, Rahman found himself in the ring again against Lewis, who knocked him out in the fourth round. Rahman's purse for the rematch was $5,000,000 against a percentage of net revenue. When the accounting was done, the percentage amounted to a pittance. In June 2002, Rahman lost again; this time to Evander Holyfield. His total purses since signing with King have been less than he would have received for one bout had he stayed with Kushner.
Rahman is a good fighter, who got a great break and failed to capitalize on it to the fullest. By contrast, Bernard Hopkins is a great fighter who made it to the top and then undermined his own economic potential.
Hopkins reached his professional peak on September 29, 2001, when he knocked out Felix Trinidad to claim the undisputed middleweight championship of the world. Then he learned that beating The Man doesn't necessarily make a fighter The Man.
After conquering Trinidad, Hopkins fought only once in the succeeding eighteen months; against Carl Daniels on February 2, 2002. He broke with Bouie Fisher (who had trained him from his second professional fight) and jettisoned Lou DiBella (who engineered his entry into the middleweight championship tournament). DiBella subsequently won a $610,000 court judgment against Hopkins for libel, and Fisher is suing the fighter for breach of contract.
"I believe that Bernard is the best middleweight to come along since Sugar Ray Robinson," Fisher said recently. "But he thinks he's the smartest guy in the world; he thinks he'll be on top forever; and it's all backfiring on him now. Bernard beat the odds; he got to the top; but he's destroying what he won."
On March 29th, Hopkins and Rahman returned to the spotlight in separate bouts at the First Union Spectrum in Bernard's hometown of Philadelphia. Placing the fights in Philly was not the result of an outpouring of support for a favored local son. Don King would much rather have promoted them in Atlantic City. It was Hopkins who demanded the homecoming, which he considered his due; much like a beautiful girl insisting that the school administration organize a dance after a big football game so she can be named homecoming queen.
The first co-feature of the evening was to be Rahman versus David Tua. Next up was Hopkins defending his crown against Morrade Hakkar of France, the mandatory WBC challenger. There were those who thought of Hopkins Hakkar as the walk-out bout for Rahman-Tua.
The heavyweights offered an interesting match-up. Officially, their fight was an IBF title elimination contest with the winner to become the mandatory challenger to Chris Byrd.
Over the past year, Tua has been on a bit of a roll. After losses to Lewis and Byrd, he pieced together knockout victories over Garing Lane, Fres Oquendo, Michael Moorer, and Russell Chasteen. He was ranked fifth by the WBC, second by the WBA, third by the IBF, and number one by the WBO. Meanwhile, Rahman was coming off the aforementioned losses to Lewis and Holyfield, and hadn't won a fight in almost two years. Still, in a testament to Don King's formidable powers of persuasion, Hasim was ranked second by the WBC, third by the WBA, and fourth by the IBF.
One interesting facet of Rahman-Tua was the manner in which the boxing intelligentsia regarded their first encounter. The two men had met previously on December 19, 1998. Rahman was leading by seven points on two of the judges' scorecards and by five on the third. Then Tua landed a hellacious left hook after the bell ending round nine. Hasim never fully recovered from the blow, and the fight was stopped early in round ten.
Thus, everyone knew that Rahman had the ability to outbox Tua. "I feel good about this one," Hasim said several days before the rematch. "I can win every round. I'm faster, stronger, and have better boxing ability. His only chance is to hit me with a big shot and knock me out." But most observers thought that Tua would do just that. The assumption was that, somewhere along the line, he would hit Rahman with a few good shots and Hasim would fold. A pre-fight media poll showed forty votes for Tua and only two for Rahman.
Moreover, there were times when Rahman sounded like a man who was in the game for one last payday. "I can't complain about the career I've had," he reflected at the final prefight press conference. "If I can't win this fight, there's no need to go on. I don't want to stop yet. But if I lose, I'm going to call it quits."
When the fighters weighed in the day before the fight, the final nail seemed ready to be hammered into Rahman's coffin. Hasim had weighed 234 pounds for his first bout against Tua and 238 when he dethroned Lennox Lewis. The only time he'd weighed more than that was when he came in at 245 for a May 20, 2000 contest against Corrie Sanders.
Normally, when Greg Sirb (Executive Director of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission) weighs in a fighter, he sets the scale at the contract weight and adjusts it downward from there. With heavyweights, he asks for guidance. When Rahman stepped on the scale, Sirb queried what he weighed, and Rahman answered, "I don't know; two-fifty, two-sixty."
The correct number was 259-1/2. Much had been made of the fact that Rahman had worked with three trainers while preparing for the fight. He'd begun with Bouie Fisher; fired him in favor of Buddy McGirt; and turned to Miguel Diaz when Main Events invoked an exclusivity clause in its contract with McGirt. Now, suddenly, it seemed as though Rahman had been trained by Ronald MacDonald.
Tua was far from svelt. He had weighed 224 for the first Rahman bout and has fought his own battle of the bulge since then. For the Rahman rematch, he came in at 245. That led Hasim to proclaim, "I'm six-two, 259 pounds. Tua is five-three [actually five-nine], 245. You tell me, who's fat."
Regardless, after the weigh-in, the odds in Tua's favor jumped from 8-to-5 to 3-to-1.
As for Hopkins-Hakkar, the prefight outlook was "uggh!" Hakkar had fought twice in the past twenty-one months, winning once and losing once against an opponent named Cristian Sanavia. His record revealed five fights against someone named Philippe Cazeaux, who had knocked him out in one of their encounters. For this, the WBC designated Hakkar as its mandatory middleweight challenger.
Hakkar's hobby, the media was told, is playing with his dog. "And I'm crazy about pasta," the Frenchman was quoted as saying; although presumably, he said it in French.
What kind of pasta?
"All kinds of pasta and all kinds of sauces. I like a plain pommodoro with fresh basil, marinara, Bolognese, clam, seafood, even a plain pasta with oil and garlic."
Not surprisingly, there were a lot of empty seats it the Spectrum on fight night. In the first co-feature, Rahman kept Tua at the end of his jab for the first four rounds. Then he started to tire. His jab lost its sting and he began to hold. Tua landed some good shots in the middle rounds and appeared to be breaking Hasim down. But Rahman didn't fold, and Tua also grew weary. The resulting draw was fair in the eyes of this observer.
Rahman benefited from the draw. The feeling coming into the fight had been that Tua was a fighter on the way up, whereas The Rock was on the way down. Now that perception has been reversed. Tua was exposed again as a one-dimensional fighter, and Hasim turned in a credible performance that restores his status as a heavyweight contender. It's hard to escape the conclusion that, had Rahman been in better shape, he would have been able to do what he did during the first four rounds for the entire fight.
Meanwhile, Bernard Hopkins versus Morrade Hakkar was an ugly ritual slaughter along the lines of an encounter between one of Roy Jones's roosters and a Mike Tyson pigeon.
Hakkar's strategy seemed to be that, whatever side of the ring Hopkins was on, Morrade wanted to be on the other. At times, he resembled a fighter hiding behind the referee in an old Charlie Chaplin movie. He landed zero punches in round one and only three in the second stanza. After eight rounds, perhaps fearing a lawsuit for wrongful death, Hakkar's European promoter Michel Acaries went to the corner and stopped the bout. If John McCain wants to delve further into corruption in boxing, Hakkar's status as the WBC's mandatory challenger would be a good place to start.
After the fight, Hopkins called out Oscar De La Hoya, Fernando Vargas, Vernon Forrest, and a lot of other guys who are smaller than he is. Conspicuously absent from the list was Roy Jones, Jr.
Jones-Hopkins II won't happen. Jones has gotten too big and is too good for Hopkins. Bernard's next fight of note could be for a 168-pound title against Joe Calzaghe or Sven Ottke (both of whom he would beat). It would be more interesting if he went up to 175 pounds and challenged Dariusz Michalczewski or the winner of Antonio Tarver versus Montell Griffin.
Meanwhile, it should be noted that fights like Hopkins-Hakkar might not kill boxing, but they'll certainly give it a bad case of food poisoning.