<
>

Maskaev, a U.S. citizen, bewildered by bout's theme

LAS VEGAS -- Forgive heavyweight contender Oleg Maskaev if he is a little perplexed and a bit annoyed.

At age 37, the mild-mannered immigrant from Kazakhstan will get his first heavyweight championship shot when he challenges Hasim Rahman at the Thomas & Mack Center on Saturday night (HBO PPV, 9 ET). Maskaev, who owns a spectacular eighth-round knockout of Rahman in a November 1999 non-title bout, is obviously excited about the prospect of winning a world title, but he is no fan of the fight's title and marketing campaign.

Looking for an angle to sell a fight that hasn't exactly excited the masses, Top Rank promoter Bob Arum pulled the nationalism card and draped the fight in the U.S. flag, calling it "America's Last Line of Defense."

Boxing and nationalism always have gone hand in hand and Arum wasn't about to let this opportunity go to waste, not when three of the four heavyweight title holders are products of the former Soviet Union sports machine.

There is Wladimir Klitschko, the Ukrainian star and HBO darling who bumped off American Chris Byrd in April to win his title.

There is Nicolay Valuev, the 7-foot, 320-plus pounder from Russia who makes the fictional Rocky Balboa nemesis Ivan Drago look small.

And there is Sergei Liakhovich of Belarus, who upset American Lamon Brewster in April to seize a belt.

That leaves Rahman (41-5-2, 33 KOs), a Baltimore native who lives in Las Vegas, to carry the mantle as the only remaining American-born heavyweight title holder, a shocking turn of events considering that for more than a century the world heavyweight championship was thought of as an American birthright.

One small problem, however.

Maskaev (32-5, 25 KOs) is also American.

He might have been born and raised under the old Soviet flag -- he served as a lieutenant in the Soviet army for seven years -- but he has lived in Staten Island, N.Y., since 1999 with his wife, Svetlana, and their four daughters.

Two years ago, like millions of immigrants before him, he became a U.S. citizen, and he resents the fact that he is being portrayed as anything but a loyal American.

"I can say, yes, it bothers me," Maskaev said. "Whoever is going to win is going to be American."

Why let such a small detail get in the way of Arum's Cold War backdrop?

"We're a bit confused by the theme," said Fred Kesch, Maskaev's manager. "Oleg, who happens to be a United States citizen, thought that maybe Hasim Rahman was going to invade Staten Island, where Oleg lives with his family."

To prove his love for the United States, Maskaev showed up at Wednesday's news conference at the Wynn Las Vegas resort with his citizenship certificate in hand. And to further make his point, his team wore T-shirts with Maskaev's picture emblazoned on an American flag.

"I would say I'm a proud Russian-American," Maskaev said. "So right now, I'm a citizen of America, of [the] United States. I have four kids, and the last of them, she's an American, too. She was born here. I had a great opportunity here to get a good education for my kids and a house and to make my wife happy. She's really happy to be here. This is the American Dream."

Arum said he didn't mean to disrespect Maskaev when he named the fight. He said he didn't realize Maskaev had become a citizen.

Nonetheless, Arum is sticking by the theme.

"Even if he is an American citizen, it's still America's last line of defense because Rock is the last American-born fighter who is a heavyweight champion," Arum said. "I understand what they [the Maskaev camp] are saying, and I certainly don't want to demean immigrants, but Maskaev will still be considered from the Soviet bloc. He is a product of the Soviet sports system and he served in the Soviet military. That's what people will see."

Rahman, 33, for his part, said the idea of losing to Maskaev again is bad enough. Letting the final heavyweight belt go to another former Soviet fighter, he said, is unthinkable.

"Look around you. All the other belt holders are not American and they are trying to get a clean sweep," Rahman said. "So, you know, they're going to send me out there to represent my country and I will do that."

Rahman said he feels an added responsibility to win this fight for his country.

"I need to hold it down for my country," he said. "I feel like if I lose this fight, I let me down, my family down, my team down, and my country down. Never before have I felt like I put my country on my back, and I'm fighting for my country, solely for my country. I can't allow them to get a clean sweep."

When told that Maskaev actually had become an American citizen two years ago, Rahman didn't change his tune.

"Well how about this -- let me get a little bit more specific," he said. "I don't really care where he's from, how long he's been here. This American will hold the title."

Dan Rafael is the boxing writer for ESPN.com.