Oleg Maskaev: Boxing’s new American heavyweight hero

Published 5:18 pm Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The newest heavyweight champion is a 37-year-old father of four who emigrated to the U.S. 11 years ago to chase the American dream.

Oleg Maskaev captured it in a compelling fight against Hasim Rahman on Saturday night, knocking out the WBC champ in the 12th round for his first title in a career many thought was over four years ago.

The former Russian Army officer who toiled for years with poor management and training — who was once knocked out three times in five fights — finally ascended to the top of his sport. Some see Maskaev’s belt as another indictment of a much-criticized division, but the less cynical can appreciate the thrill of a classic underdog story.

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“It’s an honor,” Maskaev said. “Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, it’s great to be among great fighters like that. It’s been a dream of mine for a long time.”

Maskaev is talkative, charming and upstanding, with a comfortable life with his family in Staten Island in New York. Throw in his late-career flourish, and Maskaev is everything a heavyweight champion should be. And he’s the closest thing to an American champ in a downtrodden division long dominated by U.S. fighters.

Rahman was the only remaining American-born heavyweight belt-holder. Maskaev’s ascension leaves all four significant titles in the hands of fighters from former Soviet republics.

Though this Soviet bloc could alienate American fight fans, the division seems to keep its mystique no matter how many mediocre champions it produces. If heavyweight boxing can survive John Ruiz, Chris Byrd and Corrie Sanders, Maskaev should be a downright star.

In fact, there’s genuine reason for a little buzz about heavyweights now: Maskaev and IBF champion Wladimir Klitschko hope to lead a revival of the weight class with more entertaining fights on the level of Maskaev’s dramatic rally against Rahman.

“The heavyweight division finally has some action again,” said Dennis Rappaport, Maskaev’s promoter. “It’s an exciting time.”

Rahman, a two-time champion, had hoped to be in line to fight Klitschko early next year. Instead, Maskaev could get that fight in the fall — and the 33-year-old Rahman faces yet another climb back to the top.

“I think we’re a little spoiled,” Rahman said, referring to American-born heavyweights. “They make too much money too quick. They lose sight of the grand prize.”

Maskaev has his prize, and could get another soon: Rappaport said Klitschko adviser Shelly Finkel already asked whether Maskaev could be ready to fight Klitschko at Madison Square Garden in October, though the deal hasn’t been completed.

“We’re going to be fielding a number of offers, and we’ll have a lot of opportunities,” Rappaport said.

Maskaev started slowly and worked from the ropes too much, according to his trainer, Victor Valle Jr. Rahman dominated the punch stats, landing 47 percent of his blows to Maskaev’s 28 percent.

But Maskaev rallied and eventually showed HIS fearsome power — and he did it all despite a back injury from training camp.