Maybe we are spoiled?
– Hasim Rahman on American heavyweight boxers

In the days before the WBC heavyweight championship fight between champion Hasim Rahman and contender Oleg Maskaev, most boxing scribes held their noses, typed perfunctory paragraphs about ‘former Soviet Bloc’ fighters taking over heavyweight boxing, before picking American last man standing Rahman to win, big. No, he wasn’t bigger, that was the whole point; he was more proportional and more dedicated, eager to prove his 1997 knockout loss to Oleg M. was just a good lead gone horribly wrong. The Baltimore native was after all caught up himself, if his words were truthful, in defending a US pop cult version of post-cold war defensiveness against “them” white guys coming over from wherever-stan to take ‘the title.’ The ironies therein were so loaded, the cynicism so dizzying, it wasn’t even worth redress, though almost no boxing writer in North America seemed up to so much as an attempt at clarification.

In fact, the mostly part-time American boxing scribes, as much as their part-part-time British and Canadian counterparts, hacked out columns of suggested lament on the possibility of the heavyweight boxing scene being “dominated” by “former Russians.” Explaining that nationalist declension also proved well beyond the pale of the sports page scribes. Hasim Rahman-Oleg Maskaev having been billed “Last Line of Defense” for all the reasons war – cold and hot – and geopolitical intrigue – west vs. east – could be made to imply in the Age of Terrorism, with the looming suggestion of Pax Americana. As far as the Top Rank promotion was concerned, let the event itself decide the restitution of the normal state of affairs! Bob Arum, doyen of Top Rank, was already concentrating on how the economics of a fall showdown between his guy Rahman and perennial Eastern Block threat Wladimir Klitschko could be primed.

As for Rahman-Maskaev, well, Hasim desperately needed the two million Benjamins and certainly revenge was as good a theme as any to justify keeping “The Rock” as close to fighting trim as semi-seclusion at Big Bear, in California, could realize. Wasn’t it wonderful to think that two heavyweights in this day and age could actually have a history together, the guy with the belt until Saturday night being the guy who had almost pulled a Dempsey, leaving the ring on his butt? Rahman, renewed to train like an actual athlete over the last 2 plus years, promised to get his Lewis-swatting right hand out of moth balls for Maskaev.

The ‘champ’ professed: “I need to hold it down for my country… Never before have I felt as if I put my country on my back.”

No, it wasn’t Joe Louis’ reflective minimalism on his rematch with Germany’s Max Schmeling in 1938, but, would the match up sell tickets and roust television viewers? Well, slightly more than 8,000 sauntered in to see the event live, hoping both guys had enough to create a lively event. Then a truly bizarre thing happened. Maskaev came out manfully and did the trick again; he won. For almost 12 rounds the two 30-somethings made a decent scrap out of it, at least in spots. And that’s saying something in 2006.

So, the ‘former Russian Army lieutenant’ reported to be 38-ish, born in Kazakhstan, a US citizen for about 2 years residing in Staten Island, notched his 26th professional stoppage and proved that the spirit of Jimmy Braddock has left Jersey and become a citizen of the world. It was one of those improbable knockout wins for a title that even the guys who picked Oleg with money down for good measure didn’t really expect, until they saw it with their own eyes, not really. America boxing fans believed, perhaps for one last time, that Rahman would win, the American should win, mainly because he was an American heavyweight, born and bred. Maskaev was a citizen of American and a Russian heavyweight who happened to have been born in Kazakhstan. In time of war, the optics come out looking for black and white simplicity.  

Not for a moment had the topic of Maskaev’s ‘prime’ been brought up before that headshaking, title changing twelfth round. Forgotten was Oleg the Ox, “The Big O” who had reconstituted himself after being fed as fodder to Oliver McCall – who was coming off his WBC title losing decision loss to Frank Bruno at London’s Wembley Stadium and then pitted against a prime David Tua – to crush danger men Alex Steward, Courage Tshabalala, Shane Sutcliffe, Hasim Rahman and free-swinging Derrick Jefferson before meeting Kirk Johnson. With our century dawning HBO was hungry to move away from the Lennox Lewis Era earmarking Maskaev’s chilling title run, viewing him as the everyman counterpoint to the star-search Ukrainian giants, the brothers Klitschko.

Johnson, the undefeated Canuck, visibly trembled in his dressing room at the Mohegan Sun Casino, at the thought of facing Maskaev for their showdown of men-most-likely in October 7, 2000. Johnson never did catch his nerves, but his left hook and right hand caught Maskaev, sending “Big O” into a two year tail spin, culminating in March of 2002 with Cory Sanders confirming the Johnson result in eight rounds. Or so it seemed, despite being undefeated since early 2003 the hype was dashed, right up until the bell rang for the end of the fourth round against Rahman at the Thomas and Mack Center Saturday night.

For all the hand wringing by American boxing fans, all the ridicule hurled at the current state of ‘American Heavyweight Boxing’ (as if that exact category existed) now we embark on the most American of clichés: The Big Comeback. In the mean time, boxing scribes and fans alike will have to content themselves with Maskaev vs. Klitschko and whatever becomes of Valuev and the other guy with his WBO quarter of the heavyweight championship. No use in putting those words in capitals or parenthesis any longer. Besides, you all do realize there is no such thing as the heavyweight championship, no such person as the heavyweight champion any longer? We are clear on that, right? The heavyweight champion is a purely historical designation. I hope you all are clear on that and ‘it’ (the state of non-being) has nothing to do with ‘it’ having gone overseas or having been downsized, alphabetized, super-sized, junk-bonded, jaded, sold at auction, liquidated or burnt at the cross. We can get back to that another time. I promise.

The remnants of the last heavyweight Jurassic Period linger, though Lennox Lewis’ dreadlocks are graying at ringside and the real Dr. Death in the Klitschko family has retired from the practice of filling prescriptions for paid punishment. Riddick Bowe, former 1997 three day Marine Corps volunteer, follows his old nemesis “Commander Evander” Holyfield back to ring center this fall and the entire boxing world winces at the very thought of either man remaining on active duty.

Bowe admitted that beyond the pressing need for funds, he’s about as bored as a 39-year-old going on 49 can be. “I ain’t got nothin’ else to do, baby!” At least Holyfield can pretend that with his legendary shoulders built by Lee Haney and surgically repaired and rested, he can realize his 4th dimensional obsession of once again becoming the undisputed champion of the world. Apparently, the great Holyfield hasn’t returned to the space-time of the 21st century in which there is no such thing as the heavyweight champion of boxing.

One almost hates to note that Bowe is scheduled to match up with George “The Fighting Principal” Linberger on or around October 6. Having scored 25 knockouts in his 29 wins, against 8 losses, Linberger was deemed a worthy opponent for the toothless Bowe having won on points against former tough man Butterbean. Ya, you get the picture. Of course, Joe Mesi, not yet 33 and defying conventional reason in continuing his heavyweight career having survived two subdural hematomas, gives us yet another reason to think that the current chaos known as the heavyweight boxing scene resembles never-never-again-land. The latest Mesi PR spun out the ‘triumph’ of his return to American boxing with his 2nd round stoppage of Dennis “Mad Dog” Matthews outside of Little Rock, Arkansas. A second round stoppage! In his third fight back since his protracted medical suspension making that 3 for 3! Way to go “Baby” Joe! Well, then there are the details of Mesi’s return to the ring. And this is where the pabulum hits the fan, fans.

The second Mesi comeback bout with Stephane Tessier in Montreal was six rounds of total mediocrity. Tessier, a 3 and 7 career plodder actually hit Mesi with almost every significant right hand he dared toss at the undefeated Buffalo star in the remaking. Of course, given that Tessier had lost 5 straight heading into the fight and he’d only stopped one fighter – Daniel Desrosiers who was fighting in his pro debut at the time – Team Mesi did their job protecting Mesi the still cashable investment. The problem remains that to sustain his viability and perpetuate the illusion of him as a top heavyweight on the road to restitution they have to embarrass their fighter and the sport while almost no one is watching. What the Uniprix Stadium crowd also witnessed was just how ineffectual Mesi’s signature left hook had become and that Tessier’s cap gun right was enough to stop Mesi cold in spots.

Rationalizing reality is normative for heavyweights on a comeback. For when joltin’ Joe recorded his ‘second round stoppage’ of “Mad Dog” Matthews in Russellville, Arkansas, on July 12th he did so without even being able to deck the dead beat “Mad Dog.” Matthew’s corner threw in the towel, allowing his professional record to deflate to an abhorrent 9 and 28 to the delight of Juan DeLeon, Mesi’s trainer. After watching Mesi huff and puff his way to a towel tossing TKO, who among the Pope Country Fair Grounds diehards even bothered to ask themselves over beer what was next for “Baby Joe”? But just wait for the buildup Mesi will undoubtedly get on cable television championship boxing telecasts to come, should Mesi obedience train, say, 10 more mad dogs?

Then again, Nicolay Valuev puts his WBA title on the line against Monte Barrett, who’s always good for an upset special. Watching a 7’2” heavyweight gives us the spectacle of novelty, if currently heavyweight boxing cannot supply us with the merits of something approaching greatness. We hear that James Toney might actually be training – although we have heard that ad infinitum before and still Toney steps into the squared circle a physical embarrassment judged against the skills his body might otherwise make manifest. Toney will meet once thrashed Samuel Peter August 2nd, the powerhouse Nigerian novice, himself a victim of might and blight. Hyped as the next Ike Ibeabuchi, Peter succumbed to the hit and hold, flick and flee tactics of the Ukrainian butterfly Wladimir Klitschko in a crossroads fight of contenders. Toney’s diffident draw against Hasim Rahman for the WBC heavyweight title the counterbalancing disappointment to Peter’s September 2005 implosion against the periodically fragile Klitschko.

With Chris Byrd finally belt-less and sent to his destiny at cruiserweight and John Ruiz weathered but unnerving us with talk of a comeback, only the crash and burn of Lamon Brewster makes for our collective perception a more sorry sensation. And yet who knows, if the best of the rest were to actually take to the ring and fight one another, all would not seem lost. Serguei Lyakhovich might prove a tough nut to crack for the ambitions of a Calvin Brock or a Lamon Brewster, one more time. For a while we will have to endure Klitschko taking on Shannon Briggs and Valuev tangoing with Barrett, our dreams of Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali crystallized into mythology, Larry Holmes and Mike Tyson and Lennox Lewis already fables from another century.

So, mostly we wait and hope that things really do play out in cycles over time and that history constitutes an indexing invention for understanding forever. Or we could just trust in the moment and that necessity makes possibility flourish. Maybe the unexpected awaits heavyweight boxing. Maybe it doesn’t matter where the big men come from if even one of them gets really, really brave and in his courage displayed the general air of gloom at the top of boxing’s theoretical pyramid is dispelled. Right now, we would take one epic night, one great encounter. Please!