August 30, 2001: During a taped interview on ESPN's Up Close, Hasim Rahman and Lennox Lewis, who had been booked to discuss their upcoming Nov. 17 heavyweight rematch, fought each other in front of a live studio audence, bringing the interview to a screeching halt as those nearby tried to pull the fighters off each other. The scuffle happened in an interesting period in sports. It, along with the Danny Almonte scandal and Barry Bonds' chase to break the single-season home run record, was one of the last mainstream sports stories before 9/11. It was also a time when boxing still had life left in it, a time when mixed martial arts posed no challenge to fans of combat sports.
Times changed. Boxing is now basically irrelevant, and little of anything is remembered that took place leading up to September 11th. For the most part, Lewis and Rahman's pre-fight fight has gone forgotten, even as it turns ten years old this year.
The interview began innocently enough. The two combatants sat side-by-side at the same roundtable, Lewis with his dreadlocks and blazer, Rahman in a white sleeveless hoodie. Gary Miller, the host, asked why there hadn't been more verbal sparring from them. Rahman even playfully handed Lewis a belt at one point.
It wasn't until 16 minutes into the taping that things at last got contentious. Miller asked Rahman why he had been questioning Lewis' sexuality during radio interviews.
"Why you starting that gay stuff?" an irritated Lewis asked. "I'm not gay. Why you calling me gay?"
"I said you were acting gay," Rahman clarified.
"I'm 100% women's man. If you're worried about that, bring your sister," Lewis said.
"Don't say anything about my family!" Rahman responded.
The two of them rose out of their chairs, taunting themselves further until Lewis shoved Rahman in the chest, leading Rahman to charge at him. They then wrestled on top of the interview table, breaking it in the process as production assistants and members of the fighters' entourage tried to restore order. Eventually the two men were separated and had to be forcefully removed. The live audience of the ESPN Zone, where the show was taped, chanted, "Gary! Gary! Gary!," referencing the "Jerry!" crowd chants that had become famous during fights on the Jerry Springer Show.
In the end, no punches were thrown and no one was hurt. The table was the lone casualty.
Many questioned if the fracas had been staged, like many notorious boxing promotions. "Well, Lennox broke my Rolex watch. And I definitely don't play like that," Rahman told ESPN's Page2. "I don't think that Lennox, on top of being knocked out in South Africa, would choose to get thrown through a Formica table. He'd never agree to that. It's ridiculous."
"What I don't understand is that a true heavyweight champion would not disrespect an opponent with unjustified taunts and jibes," Lewis would say in a statement, using enough negative clauses to confuse just about anybody. "Today, Rock woke up the lion within me. Now I'm going to crush the Rock in the ring, regain my belt and bring some dignity back to the heavyweight crown."
Lewis eventually defeated Rahman that November, exacting a bit of payback for his loss to him in April. Lewis' next bout would be against Mike Tyson.
The Rahman-Lewis scuffle took place on one of the last ever tapings of Up Close, which went off the year that October after more than 20 years on ESPN. It's time slot would later be filled by Around the Horn.
- Rahman, Lewis wrestle during TV interview [USA Today]
- Lewis, Rahman get physical during taping [ESPN]
- Rahman, Lewis take to mat [Baltimore Sun]
- Hasim Rahman [Page2]
Editor's Note: There are several variations of the Rahman-Lewis verbal exchange. The first three quotes are from USA Today, while the fourth, which was not included in the USA Today's recap, came from the Associated Press.