-- Former heavyweight champion Riddick Bowe was sentenced today to 18 months in prison as the result of abducting his wife and their five children from her home near here in February 1998. But U.S. District Court Judge Graham Mullen lifted a previously imposed court ban on Bowe that would have prevented him from resuming his boxing career immediately after he serves his time.

Bowe, 35, was released to return to his home in Fort Washington, Md., to await prison assignment. He expressed regret for the incident and relief at knowing his fate.

"I feel I just won a big battle," he said. "I'm blessed. We'll see what happens. I'm going to take my time with this thing," whether to box.

Asked how he felt about going to prison, he said:

"I made a mistake. I never meant to hurt anyone. I'm sorry for that mistake. . . . I'm going to pay the price for that and go on with my life."

"He will begin serving his sentence about three to five weeks from today," Bowe's lawyer, Robert Altchiler, said.

Altchiler said he would not be surprised if Bowe tries to resume his boxing career. Although Bowe reportedly remains a multimillionaire from a boxing career that ended in 1996, Altchiler said, "Boxing is the only way he's ever known to earn money."

Bowe appeared at the courthouse hand in hand with his second wife, Terri Bowe. The hearing, at which Bowe did not speak, lasted only about 21/2 minutes. Altchiler said previous restraints that the court had placed on Bowe, such as a ban from boxing, had been lifted and that he would be "free and clear" from the court's perspective to resume his career.

Bowe had been sentenced two previous times here in U.S. District Court after pleading guilty in June 1998 to a federal interstate domestic violence charge in a deal with prosecutors after initially being charged with kidnapping.

But at the first sentencing in 2000, Bowe's original team of lawyers sought leniency, saying that his actions could be attributed to temporary brain damage suffered during his boxing career. Mullen appeared to agree, rendering a sentence in which Bowe avoided an extended period behind bars. But the sentence was set aside by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, which ruled that Bowe had to serve 18 to 24 months.

The second time around, in 2001, Mullen sentenced Bowe to 18 months in prison but gave him credit for most of the time because he had spent it on probation.

Again, the appeals court ruled that Bowe had to serve the time. That brought Bowe here again.

"We're going to apply the three knockdown rule in this case," assistant U.S. Attorney Ken Bell had been quoted as saying after the most recent appeals court ruling 21/2 months ago. "We knocked him down at the guilty plea hearing and two times on appeal. This time he's going to have to stay down."

In 1998, Bowe drove from Fort Washington to the Charlotte suburb of Cornelius, where his estranged wife, Judy, and their children were living, and forced the family to accompany him back toward Maryland. At a fast food restaurant in Virginia, Judy Bowe managed to notify police, who responded quickly, arrested Bowe and released his wife and children.

According to court documents, Bowe carried with him a knife, pepper spray, handcuffs, duct tape and a flashlight. Before the plea agreement, he faced federal kidnapping charges and a longer sentence. Instead, he pleaded guilty to federal interstate domestic violence. The Bowes subsequently were divorced.