No one can say that Hasim Rahman has ever been a reluctant warrior. Having faced Lennox Lewis, David Tua (twice each), Evander Holyfield, Corrie Sanders and John Ruiz – Rahman has won some and lost more at the top.

As a champion and challenger, Rahman is a throwback in the sense that his initial climb to the heavyweight title, and his subsequent climb back into contention have come through fighting all the notable contenders, winning some and losing some along the way.

It is odd then that Hasim Rahman’s odyssey to regain the heavyweight title has him being fitted for a belt without a punch being thrown. On November 12th, he was to have faced Vitali Klitschko, the best of the lot of four alphabet titlists. With Klitschko’s retirement, Rahman ascends based on his win in an “interim” title fight with Monte Barrett.

Since the early days of his career that has included hard-knock lessons gained through big knockout losses to Oleg Maskaev and David Tua, Rahman cannot be painted with the brush of disdain reserved for many of the alphabet-conscious contenders and titlists on the scene today.

He rebounded from the big losses to stop a fit and hard punching Corrie Sanders. In that fight he pealed himself off the canvas following a blistering Sanders’ attack to score a solid victory.

One more minor win and he was propelled into a South African ring against the universally accepted champion Lennox Lewis April 22, 2001. Although behind on all scorecards going into the fifth round, he carried with him the confidence gained in the Sanders bout to score a monumental upset with a crunching right-hand that dropped the champion for the count.

His night of triumph was short-lived.

Rahman’s title reign following his tremendous knockout of the 90’s dominant heavyweight, Lewis, went exactly nowhere. In his first defense, a motivated and devastating Lewis blew him out just seven months removed from the upset that gave him the crown.

Worse yet, he followed that loss by going more than two years before winning again.

He dropped a freakishly fought technical decision to Holyfield. The two were fighting a close bout, with Holyfield slightly ahead, when a clack of heads resulted in a baseball-sized knot on Rahman’s forehead that was perhaps the most grotesque wound seen in a ring.

He then blew up to a career high 259 in a rematch against Tua. In their first meeting, Rahman was felled by a late punch after amassing a clear lead through the 10th round. In the rematch, Rahman and Tua both moved as if under water, but Rahman appeared to most ringside observers to have done enough to take home the decision. When the bout was ruled a draw, however, the boxing public wondered if a downward spiral had begun.

If that were not enough, his next fight, a decision loss to John Ruiz for the WBA “interim” belt – which later became the actual title – seemed to confirm the suspicions.

For many fighters this would have spelled a disaster from which there was no recovery. Former champions on losing streaks are often used as fodder for up-and-coming contenders, though for pretty nice paydays.

Instead of selling out his name, Rahman return to the club scene far from the big paydays and the glitter befitting a former undisputed heavyweight champion of the world.

Wins over the likes of 40-year-old, former cruiserweight titlist Al Cole, and club fighters Mario Cawley, Rob Calloway, and Terrence Lewis, though not glamorous, gave him another opportunity against a rated fighter, and not as a steppingstone.

More importantly, he left behind the portly version of himself that entered the ring in the rematch with Tua. The svelte “Rock” was again in evidence encased in a body in the 230-pound weight range.

He was pitted against the New Zealander Kali Meehan in a title eliminator. Meehan was coming off a very strong, though losing, showing against WBO titlist Lamon Brewster. In truth, many at ringside thought Meehan had done enough to take the belt from Brewster.

Rahman wasted no time in their so-called title eliminator, in demonstrating the physical gifts that had lifted him into contention the first go-round. Importantly, the bout was part of an all-heavyweight show that featured titlists Chris Byrd and Ruiz defending their belts. It also included 40-somethings Holyfield and Oliver McCall in losing efforts.

On that night, everyone agreed that Rahman stood out from the crowd. His jab – a crackling weapon that would make Sonny Liston proud – was back at full force, punishing the willing but out-gunned Meehan from the opening bell. His four round stoppage victory was a clear sign that he was back.

An immediate match with WBC belt holder Vitali Klitschko was ordered. Klitschko first injured his leg while training, resulting in a delay. Klitschko then injured his back necessitating surgery forcing yet another delay.

For reasons known only to the WBC, a fight for the so-called “interim” belt was ordered pitting Rahman against highly rated Monte Barrett. (It could have just as easily been a non-title fight – but there would not have been a sanctioning fee for the WBC).

What followed once again had boxing fans and scribes alike scratching their heads. The Rahman that has left many a boxing scribe perplexed came off the resounding win against Meehan only to trudge to a clear 12-round decision over Barrett. The lack of aggression that led to his questionable draw with Tua, and his lackluster losses to Holyfield and Ruiz, was again in evidence.

Rahman, perhaps the best American heavyweight today, will now undoubtedly face a WBC mandatory before trying for unification. Look for him to face either the winner of the Oleg Maskaev-Sinan Samil Sam eliminator or Juan Carlos Gomez, the recent winner in yet another eliminator against Oliver McCall.

While a potential Maskaev rematch carries some intrigue, it is clear that whatever he was he is no more. Maskaev is a much slower and easier to hit version at the age of 36 than he was when he met and blew out Rahman six years ago.

Rahman may not be finished with the name Klitschko, however. In recent days he’s expressed interest in fighting not only Vitali but also Wladimir.

Rahman, unlike the other titlists, has never been afraid to meet top competition and is the most unlikely of the belt-wearers to go into a shell. He will not be satisfied to face one “mandatory” after another.

In Las Vegas he would have entered the ring as one of the two best heavyweights in the world. Now, for reasons wholly unexpected, he stands at the top alone. He fought Lewis as if on a mission, and he came back from two years in the wilderness as if on a mission.

Let’s hope his mission now is to unify the belt and face the contenders worthy of facing the undisputed heavyweight champion.