The day Hasim Rahman stole Thabo Spampool’s thunder

The renowned South African boxing official looks back at the role he played as a judge in the Lennox Lewis versus Hasim Rahman heavyweight bout in Johannesburg.

That punch did not look good enough to knock him out. Granted, in the heavyweight division it often takes just one punch to end a fight – such is the power of the men campaigning in that category.

But not that punch. 

“It was a shock to all of us. It didn’t look powerful enough to end the fight,” Thabo Spampool, renowned South African boxing official who was one of the three judges that night, said. It did though. 

Exactly 19 years ago – on the morning of 22 April 2001 at Brakpan’s Carnival City – Hasim Rahman added his name next to those of Buster Douglas, Muhammad Ali and Oliver McCall on the list of shock world heavyweight championship winners.

In an interview with Steve Bunce of the UK Independent last month, Rahman looked back, “starry-eyed”, at that glorious night when he shockingly beat Lennox Lewis for the undisputed world heavyweight boxing championship.

He said: “Even if it was for only one night. For one night I could say I was the baddest man on the planet. I was the champion, the best fighter on the planet. That’s a special feeling.”

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Rahman is not, however, the only one who gets filled with special feelings in memory of that night. 

“It’s my greatest achievement in boxing. I made history that night. I actually don’t know what to say about it, because the feelings still overwhelm me. It was special,” Spampool said. 

The man who has officiated numerous fights as a referee or judge had the honour of helping decide the result of boxing’s premier championship fight. It is a major achievement, Spampool having been the first South African ever to get such a responsibility. Alf Buqwana and Stan Christodoulou officiated world heavyweight championships years later.

“I sometimes get sad whenever I see or hear people mentioning great South African achievements in boxing and my name is never there. I guess that’s just how it is,” he said. “But there can be no taking that away from me. The ABU [African Boxing Union] chose me to sit ringside that night and help decide who is the world’s best heavyweight boxer.”

It was a pity then, that Spampool did not get to help make that decision, thanks to Rahman pulling off a shock win of gargantuan proportions. That win was as shocking as Ali’s defeat of George Foreman in Zaire (now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo), Buster Douglas knocking out Mike Tyson and Lewis’ defeat by Oliver McCall.

“For me it was disappointing that the fight ended that way. I’d wanted it to go the full distance so I could prove myself capable of judging a big fight of that magnitude.”

28 May 2004: Thabo Spampool during the WBC Super Featherweight Final Eliminator fight between South Africa’s Mzonke Fana and Randy Suico of the Philippines at the Orlando Community Hall in Orlando, Gauteng. (Photograph by © Lee Warren/ Gallo Images)
28 May 2004: Thabo Spampool during the WBC Super Featherweight Final Eliminator fight between South Africa’s Mzonke Fana and Randy Suico of the Philippines at the Orlando Community Hall in Orlando, Gauteng. (Photograph by Lee Warren/ Gallo Images)

Lewis’ downfall 

It is generally agreed that Lewis had underestimated Rahman, the Brit spending weeks in the build up to the fight with Hollywood celebrities filming a scene for the movie Oceans’ Eleven in Las Vegas. He only arrived in Johannesburg a week before the fight while his adversary came through a month before fight night so he could acclimatise to the high altitude.

That apparent lack of respect fuelled Rahman. “I was not given any respect – that motivated me, that showed me Lewis had flaws. Why would any heavyweight overlook another heavyweight? Any heavyweight over 200 pounds can hurt you. I knew I would beat Lewis, I just knew,” Rahman told Independent

Still, Spampool recalls, Lewis looked the likely winner and more comfortable fighter, despite the fact a number of reports had him as struggling for breath early on in the fight.

“Lewis was ahead on my scorecard before he was knocked out. Rahman did not do much in the initial rounds. There were not a lot of punches landed, but then again heavyweights hardly throw many punches. Lewis had controlled the fight, leading with his jab and landed the cleaner punches. Rahman had done very little until he landed that punch. Whenever he threw punches they generally landed on Lewis’ guards.”

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The other judges (Dave Parris and Valerie Dorsett) had apparently also seen the fight the same way. All three had the champion 39-37 ahead before he got felled having dropped his guards momentarily.

Similarly, Spampool had been pleasantly “felled” by news that he would officiate in the main bout of the Cedrick Kushner and Rodney Berman organised Thunder in Africa bill.

“It was a good surprise. I found out from Dr [Peter] Ngatane on Tuesday that I would be judging the big fight. Apparently there were a few names put forward and mine won through. It really was a big honour for me.”

Not everyone was pleased for him, however.

“Some people were not happy that I was the one chosen. And they were against Dr Ngatane. I hear that even today there are some people who do not like him because they wanted to be involved in that fight.”

Mandela’s blessing 

Who wouldn’t have wanted to be a part of that historic occasion? It was only the second heavyweight championship fight in Africa after the famous Rumble in the Jungle that saw an apparently ageing Ali dethrone the hitherto unbeaten young Foreman in the heat of Kinshasa.

Berman, whose Golden Gloves Promotions hosted the Lewis v Rahman fight, describes the event as his proudest moment of his long and illustrious promotion career.

“Looking back at it, I find it incredible that we did. To have gotten the world heavyweight title fight here was just unbelievable. But we did it, and what a fight it turned out to be,” Berman said. 

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Like both Rahman and Spampool, Berman gets filled with special emotions when he thinks back to that fight. For him though, it was more what happened during the day in the build up to the fight.

“My son came to me and said Madiba (the late former South African president Nelson Mandela) is on the phone for you. I said to him, ‘tell him I’ll call him back’ for I believed it was John Berks calling from 702 to make me a victim of his latest prank. But it was actually Madiba on the phone and we ended up talking for about 30 minutes. 

“He had called from Mozambique and thanked me for helping bring the fight to South Africa because he said we had given the people of our country something to celebrate and to uplift their moods as there was some strife then. It was very special to have the old man appreciate what we were doing. To have our work recognised by the great man beat everything, it floored me man.”

Not as much as that Rahman punch which sent Lewis sprawling on the canvas.

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