JOHANNESBURG, April 23 (JTA) – A Jewish boxing promoter who credits the local Lebanese community for his success was the force behind the heavyweight title fight that took place over the weekend near Johannesburg.
Promoter Rodney Berman described the Sunday morning match between Lennox Lewis and Hasim Rahman as “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for South Africa.”
The program also included the International Boxing Federation’s junior welterweight title bout between local champion Lehlohonolo “Hands of Stone” Ledwaba and the Mexican challenger, Carlos Contreras. Ledwaba retained his title.
In the big fight, underdog Rahman knocked Lewis out in the fifth round, one of the biggest boxing upsets since James “Buster” Douglas dethroned Mike Tyson several years ago.
Former President Nelson Mandela phoned after the fight to say, “Thank you for what you have done for South Africa,” Berman said.
South Africa is still earning its way back into the international sports arena after being a sports pariah during the apartheid era.
A member of Johannesburg’s Sandton Synagogue, Berman also said he had drawn much support for the event from the Jewish community – “probably because I am Jewish.”
Rahman has indicated that he wishes to defend his title in South Africa, so Berman could have another major promotion here soon.
Berman previously has promoted several major matches, including world title fights between Brian Mitchell and Tony Lopez in the United States and “Prince” Naseem Hamed and Vuyani Bungu in the United Kingdom.
But none was on the scale of last weekend’s match here in South Africa.
Berman started in the fight game 25 years ago.
“I owe my whole career to the Lebanese community,” he said.
At that time, he was a lawyer – “a very struggling attorney,” as he put it.
A business friend instructed him to sue Maurice Toweel, a member of the legendary South African boxing family of Lebanese origin: Brother Victor became South Africa’s first world champion in 1952, brother Willie fought to a draw with world bantamweight champion Robert Cohen of France, and other family members also fought in the ring.
“Maurice and I hit it off immediately,” Berman said.
Rather than becoming enemies because of the legal action, “Maurice became my adopted stepfather,” Berman said.
At that time, South African boxer Charlie Weir was in Toweel’s stable, and Berman promoted several of his fights. He has been a boxing promoter ever since.