This fight isn’t about borders or hometowns or last names or what color your flag is when you stand up and salute it.
This fight is simply about the heavyweight title and who will own a piece of the championship late Saturday night after everyone goes home and they lock all the doors of the Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas.
Hasim Rahman is the local guy in this fight. You might say he’s from the neighborhood, one of the gang. He grew up in Baltimore, which is about as American as you can get without tattooing yourself red, white and blue.
Rahman holds the WBC belt. Of the four heavyweight champions claiming some kind of bragging rights to a world title, he’s the only one who grew up watching “Cheers” and “Miami Vice” and listening to Orioles’ games.
The other three champions are all from places you can’t spell or pronounce, towns and cities that used to have different borders than they do now. Eastern bloc places.
And since Rahman (41-5-2, 33 KOs) is the only guy among the champions who didn’t need a passport to get here, you might say he’s the favorite when he defends his title Saturday against Oleg Maskaev (32-5, 25 KOs).
“Patriotic, that’s what it is,” Rahman said on a recent conference call when asked if he felt like America’s last line of defense. “It is what it is. I mean, look around you. All the other belt holders are not American and they are trying to get a clean sweep. They’re going to send me out there to represent my country and I will do that.”
If the added pressure of hiking your country up onto your shoulders and carrying its reputation into the ring with you is going to make you a better fighter, then let Rahman run with it.
But the guy he’s fighting has a legitimate argument when he says if he wins, the title belt will still belong to America.
Describing himself as a proud Russian-American, Maskaev doesn’t live in Zhambul, Kazakhstan anymore. He’s an American citizen who now lives on Staten Island, which has a certain Archie Bunker feel to it.
Even Maskaev’s youngest child was born here, giving her immediate American citizen status.
So say what you want, he’s one of us now. Most of us were born in this country. Maskaev actually went out and chose to live here.
“This is part of the American dream,” said Maskaev, who maybe understands the dream better than a lot of people.
But the real intrigue in this fight isn’t about countries and cultures. It’s about history. These two have one.
Seven years ago, Maskaev was getting beat by Rahman when he landed one of those right hands that can help define a career. Rahman was knocked out of the ring, and almost into the lap of HBO’s Jim Lampley.
It was Rahman’s second career loss.
“I thought it was going to be an easy fight for me,” Rahman said of that November 1999 fight. “And I fought like it was going to be an easy fight. I wasn’t ready for a hard fight. I didn’t know Oleg Maskaev. I didn‘t know he was a legitimate contender.”
He knows now.
But Rahman claims he’s come a long way since that first fight. Farther than Maskaev has come.
“Maskaev is not a better fighter than me,” he said. “He simply went out and fought less competition than I have since we fought. And I feel I did better against better competition than he did. I don’t see where he even fought a world-class fighter since he fought me.”
Both fighters have done pretty well for themselves since that first fight.
Rahman has become a heavyweight champ.
Maskaev has become an American.
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