He was a nice guy. Then he was a hard-guy drug dealer. Now he’s a nice guy again ... but in a hard-guy business

American boxer and former heavy-weight champion Hasim "The Rock" Rahman was holding up a hand for me to examine. If you squint you can just see a faint tracing of scars.

But that's the second thing you notice. The first is that his hand is at least four times the size of a hand belonging to a mere mortal. He stopped a bullet with it.

He said: "I got shot five times. I blocked the bullet. Can you believe it?" I can believe it. He said: "I got shot in my hand. I got shot through my back. I got shot through my leg. I got shot through my buttocks." Ouch.

"Well, I got shot right on the spine. I had a bullet in my spine. How fortuitous is that?" Incredibly fortuitous, I said, faintly.

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"How am I not paralysed?" he said. Good question. How is he not paralysed? "That's what I asked you. See, that's my fate. That's what made me believe I could be heavy-weight champion of the world. Because I said to myself: 'This is unreal. This is a sign. This was meant to be."

It also seems unreal that he is here at all, for the Super 8: Last Man Standing boxing tournament on Wednesday, at the Trusts Arena. He is 41 and this will be his last fight - or fights. Eight fighters, seven bouts, each of three three-minute rounds, for a share of $500,000. It sounds brutal. Why would he want to come all this way to do it?

"Initially, it was just a chance for me to finish my career on a high note. Three fights. I go out with a bang. But coming here, it's been eye-opening. This culture is so tranquil and peaceful and the weather is beautiful."

We met for breakfast. He was wearing socks and what looked like his summer slippers. It was freezing. He said: "This is beautiful weather. I grew up in Baltimore. We have blizzards, snow." It is best to agree with him, so, I said, cravenly: It is beautiful weather.

He holds strong opinions. He wouldn't have a cup of coffee. He hates coffee. He hates the taste and also the idea that some people are addicted to the stuff. His father "drinks coffee all day long. He's addicted to it ... and when I see people get addicted to anything, I pretty much shy away from it. I just don't like to see that. I don't like to see people who have to smoke, have to have a coffee.

"I've never had a cigarette. I've never had a marijuana. I've never had a drink. Never any of that kind of stuff. Never."

Ahem. He was a drug dealer. "I was a drug dealer." He began dealing cocaine and heroin when he was 16. His parents were clean-living, middle-class. He was a bright boy, top of his elementary school classes, a good kid.

"I was the champion of the safety patrol. My teachers adored me. They loved my mind. I was one of the tough guys, but I was also the nerdy guy. So it didn't really mix."

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It didn't really make any sense that he became a drug dealer. It did to him. "Money." He wanted cool things and his father, he said, was "a cheapskate. He'd pay for education but I wanted the latest sneakers. My dad wants to dress me in loafers and slacks and a tie. He wanted to get me ready for my future, so we didn't click. We didn't connect. There was a disconnect there."

You could say that. His father had an engineering degree; his mother was a receptionist. There were six kids at home (or at that home; the story gets more complicated later) and so no money for those sneakers. So he became a drug dealer which, weirdly, the way he tells it, seems to make perfect sense. Of course his parents found out. The give-away was that at 16 he had two cars, a Taurus and a Nissan 300ZX . "It was kind of obvious. They knew what was happening. The cat was out of the bag." He had US$90,000 in sneaker boxes. "What you going to do? I got more money than you. I don't need you for anything."

He must have been ghastly. "Well, you tell me. How 'bout this: 'If you need anything, you holler me.' What do you tell a 16-year-old with 90 grand? How you going to tell me what to do? I make more money than you."

Also, he was big. "I was a man at 16. I was a man-child. I had two cars. I had my own place." He had those hands, and guns. I asked whether he had ever shot anyone and he said: "I don't think so. No, I don't think so. I didn't have to depend on them. Just like insurance. For me, I had a reputation of being able to fight really well, so I didn't have to do anything. Like, 'You don't want to piss him off. I heard he did this, I heard he did that.' It was just an idea but I don't correct it because I want that reputation. It was bull, yeah."

Then he got shot and was in a terrible car accident and, at 18, his first child was born. He was buying crazy things for the baby - Air Jordan sneakers and custom-made designer clothes. "I mean, he was in a crib. He can't walk and I'm getting him Jordans ... I was saying 'I'll be able to give my son everything, for only a temporary period of time and then I won't be able to give it to him if I'm dead or in jail'. So I really had to look for something else."

But what really changed his life was a bizarre incident in which a former boxer came up behind him on the street and grabbed him. Was he crazy? "That's what I thought! I said: 'This had better be the police.'" He still doesn't know why, but the crazy guy challenged him to a "head-to-head body punching contest. I'm a street fighter. I can fight. But I'm not a boxer. And all these people look up to me so I couldn't back down. I had to do it. I wound up getting the best of him and he said, 'Oh young boy, I've got to take you to the gym. You'll make a million dollars'."

He did make a million dollars and then in 2001 he knocked out Lennox Lewis and was, almost overnight, really rich and really famous and people gave him clothes and jewellery and bought his meals and gave him tickets to the big basketball and baseball games.

He might have let all of this go to his head and he did, for a while. Then he thought, "Now that I can afford everything, people want to give me stuff?' It made no sense to me."

And there were his kids. "I didn't want them to look at me any differently. I said: 'Listen, I'm daddy and, you know, this guy is Rock the fighter. Don't worry about that. That's the image and that's somebody some people will love and some people will hate. But whatever it is, they're not hating your daddy because they don't know your daddy'."

I was a bit confused myself. He started out being the nice nerdy guy, became a bad guy drug dealer and then became a nice guy again - albeit one who hits people for a living. "You wouldn't know it from looking at me that I'm a nice guy. I really do get along with everybody." This includes, by the way, David Tua, despite having lost to him.

What's more, he was always a nice guy, he said, even when he was being "The Wolf", and dealing drugs and he still is when he's being the wolf in a boxing ring. But just in case he was sometimes not all that nice and to atone for dealing drugs, he now does a lot of charity and community work. He was raised a Muslim, but is now devout and has done his Hajj pilgrimage. "I feel like I've almost been reborn. That chapter, I've been forgiven for. So I'm okay in my own skin now."

He is past bling and hanging out with celebrities although: "I know every celebrity in America." Does he know the Kardashians? "Yes." Are they are idiotic as they appear to be? "I wouldn't comment on that. I'm just saying I could do a lot of things, but at this point it don't move me. What moves me is putting smiles on my kids' faces." He has eight kids. Is that a lot? "Not for me." They range in age from 1 to 23. He'd like five or six more. Why does he want all those kids? "My dad's still having kids." His dad is 60. He has, maybe, 17 or 18 - "I lose count."

He has also lost count of how many women his dad has had all these kids with. "At least five, I think." Does he marry them all? "He's a very religious man." Was he joking? I think so but it was hard to be certain.

He has five children with one wife and three with another. Does he really have two wives? "Who said that?" I think he did.

So, does he? "Yeah. Ha, ha, ha. Yes." Are they legal wives? "What is legal?" A bit of paper, maybe. "In America, I can marry a man, right? You mean to tell me that a piece of paper which would legitimise and make legal that this man is my husband would be more legitimate and legal than Islamically marrying two women?" I certainly was not (we'd have been there all day) and, besides, I was much more interested in the mechanics of having two wives.

I am not allowed to call his wives, Crystal and Stephanie, wife number one and wife number two because they are both wife number one. They live in gated communities in Vegas, five miles apart, and he runs between them, for fitness purposes. They are not friends but "they're cordial. They make it work".

You'd think, or I would, that they'd get jealous of each other but he said not. Was he sure? "Not sure, because I never know what's in a person's heart." I said, as a joke, maybe they're pleased they don't have to have him around full time and he said, poker-faced: "That would be speculation."

I thought it must be very expensive running two households, but he said it was a sight cheaper than running mistresses. Was he going to get another wife? "No."

If he got fed up with me asking about his two wives, he was too much of a gentleman to let on. (When I tried to pay for breakfast to find that it had been paid for, by the PR woman, he was horrified and said he wouldn't have let me pay.) But I thought I'd better ask about the Super 8. Was he going to win? "Absolutely! Is a horse a horse?" Is a wolf a wolf? "Of course, of course," he said, grinning as wolfishly as a nice guy can.