When Oleg Maskaev enters the ring at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas Saturday to challenge Hasim Rahman for the WBC heavyweight title, it will be as an underdog -- albeit a live one -- to the reigning and defending belt holder.
Not that that's likely to bother Maskaev unduly. That's how it was the last time these two fighters met, at Atlantic City's Convention Hall on Nov. 6, 1999.
Then, Maskaev was a substitute opponent for a contender whose only defeat in 32 fights had been a highly controversial stoppage against David Tua 11 months previously. But halfway through the eighth round, Maskaev drilled Rahman with a right hand to the point on the chin that knocked his more heralded adversary out and through the ropes, via the lap of HBO commentator Jim Lampley, to the arena floor.
The knockout was immediately inducted into the highlight reel hall of fame. Maskaev, it seemed, was suddenly a star on the rise.
And yet, within 15 months, Rahman had rebounded to upset Lennox Lewis and claim the heavyweight championship for the first time, while Maskaev's career had all but come off the rails following back-to-back knockout defeats to Kirk Johnson and Lance Whitaker. When Maskaev was knocked out again, by Corey Sanders in March 2002, promoter Cedric Kushner cut him loose, and trainer Bob Jackson urged him to hang up his gloves.
By the time Maskaev encountered veteran trainer Victor Valle Jr., the amateur standout from the former Soviet Union was, in Valle's words, "mentally lost. The Kazakhstan native was lost in a forest, with nowhere to go." But Valle -- the man whose father, Victor Valle Sr., was famed as the trainer for, among others, Gerry Cooney -- immediately saw something deep inside Maskaev that he felt he could nurture.
"What happened was, I was at Gleason's Gym [in New York], and one of the trainers there said, 'Victor, why don't you hold the pads for this guy Oleg Maskaev?'" Valle said.
"And I thought, 'Wow, for a heavyweight, this guy catches on to my teachings real quick.' And then I saw his reflexes, and I thought, 'This guy's reflexes are pretty good. All he needs is to be taught effective defense, the countering, the angles.'"
Valle called promoter Dennis Rappaport.
"I said, 'Look, this guy's up for grabs, and I could do something with this kid. He's a good student,'" Valle said.
"Victor Valle had seen something -- what he calls a boxing IQ," Rappaport said. "He'd worked with him a couple of days, and he calls me and says, 'This guy learns so quickly. I don't know that he's ever been taught.'"
Rappaport was already familiar with Maskaev, having been ringside for his fifth professional fight, in Atlantic City in 1995.
"I was scouting someone I believed was a terrific prospect, his name was Joe Thomas, and [Maskaev's management team] put him in with Joe Thomas, and he beat Joe Thomas, and Thomas could fight," Rappaport said. "And then, in his seventh fight, this amateur star, who should have been fighting six-rounders, they put him in with Oliver McCall in a 10-rounder. It's unconscionable. If you went out to destroy a prospect, you couldn't have done any more than these guys had done."
In his previous fight, McCall had lost his WBC heavyweight title to Frank Bruno. His two bouts before that had been a points win over Larry Holmes, and a surprise knockout victory over Lewis, to annex the WBC title. It was clearly far too early in Maskaev's career for such a huge fight, and a little over halfway through the opening round, he had been knocked out.
Even up until that point, Maskaev hadn't been given any soft touches. His first bout as a professional was against Uzbekistan's Alex Miroshnichenko, who had a professional record of 21-0 and an amateur victory over Vitali Klitschko. Maskaev stopped him in three rounds.
Four fights after the McCall debacle, Maskaev was matched with the murderous-punching, then-unbeaten Tua -- and, remarkably, was holding his own on the scorecards until Tua finally wore him down and stopped him in the 11th.
Given such circumstances, it could scarcely be considered surprising if Maskaev's confidence was already a little shaky, long before he ran into his succession of post-Rahman roadblocks.
"It's been an odd career," reflected boxing scribe Graham Houston of the Web site FightWriter.com. "His early management threw him in the deep end; the McCall fight was just a horrendous fight to take. I think at times, he's fought like a fighter who half-expected to get knocked out. Against Corey Sanders, he was winning it so easily but as soon as he got hit, he just fell apart."
Rappaport and Valle sought to rebuild Maskaev's shattered self-belief by starting him on his comeback trail with soft touches, steadily building up the quality of opposition until he became the mandatory challenger for Rahman's WBC belt by virtue of a dominant points victory in Germany over Sinan Samil Sam last November.
The Sam victory marked the 10th in succession under the stewardship of Valle, Rappaport and manager Fred Kesch; but during that time, Maskaev had flown so far under the radar that he had all but disappeared from sight.
"The only thing I know about him is that he knocked Rahman out of the ring," admitted Rahman's promoter, Bob Arum. "He's a pretty decent fighter, but very frankly, the reason the fight was called to my attention was because Maskaev is the mandatory, having beaten Sam."
Rappaport presents that victory over Sam as Exhibit A for his argument that, after three years, Valle has molded Maskaev into a far more complete boxer than the man who sent Rahman flying seven years ago.
"If I showed you that fight, and you looked at the fight and I asked you who was the fighter fighting Sam, you wouldn't have had a clue it was Maskaev unless you recognized his face," the promoter said.
"Here was a guy that boxed so beautiful, with defensive skills and techniques -- dancing, moving, slipping, weaving, pivoting -- it was masterful boxing. When I see all the predictions, I tell you, this guy can box [Rahman's] ass off. And I'm not talking about a little difference, I'm talking about boxing like a middleweight, a middleweight star."
Not everybody is quite so convinced.
"I did see the tape of him fighting Sinan Samil Sam, and he did look a bit looser, didn't have quite that rigid, Eastern European look that he used to have, his punches were flowing more easily," Houston said.
"But Samil Sam, he's a durable guy, but he's a limited guy, he's slow, and I think he boxed terribly that night. Sam, who's not very impressive anyway, just didn't look good, and Maskaev did box well. But that was against Sinan Samil Sam. Before that, he did struggle a bit against David Defiagbon [on July 23, 2004]; he won it clearly, he did knock down Defiagbon, but he struggled early in the first five or six rounds against a very limited, awkward guy. I don't know that it's true we're seeing a new Maskaev, but he is a bit looser, a bit less rigid now."
However, Houston added, no matter how much better Maskaev's boxing skills might be, they won't be enough to help him in the most suspect area of his makeup.
"They've matched him very, very well on this comeback, matched him with just the right sort of opponents, but I think Rahman is a much bigger puncher than anyone he's fought on this comeback," Houston said. "And to get hit by Rahman, that could get some bells ringing in Maskaev's head. He is a guy who's been knocked out five times, and the chin doesn't improve."
Then again, Maskaev's supporters can -- and do -- point to the fact that, seven years ago, the only one hearing bells was Rahman. And even the champion's promoter has to concede that that adds intrigue to the bout.
"Obviously, no matter what anybody says, the fact that Maskaev knocked him out and knocked him through the ropes, has to be a major factor in this case, because it shows that Maskaev has the physical ability to do that," Arum said. "The question is: Has Rahman made the necessary adjustments to prevent that from happening? That we'll see on the 12th., and I think that Rock is a much better boxer, a better fighter, and hits harder."
Whatever the result, Rappaport remains relentlessly upbeat about the changes in both confidence and technique he insists will be evident in Maskaev on Saturday -- changes that have come at the end of a journey along a twisting, detour-filled road.
"Can you imagine, your previous trainer wanted you to retire, your previous promoter let you go for nothing, you're on your ass, going down the boulevard of broken dreams, where you have no future, you only have the past, and then to be in this position where you're fighting for the heavyweight championship of the world?" Rappaport said. "It really is a boxing Cinderella story. If he wins on the 12th, I really believe there'll be a movie about his life: a guy working the coal mines, working the farm, joining the Russian military, migrating by himself to the United States, being down and out when all the fair-weather friends deserted him, and becoming heavyweight champion of the world.
"I wish I could tell you that I had a great crystal ball and that I could predict he was going to fight for the heavyweight championship of the world. I wish I could tell you I was that smart and that clairvoyant. What I saw was an extremely intelligent guy with a great work ethic, who seemed to have character and integrity and dedication. It's hard to articulate, but I thought I saw something that would be worth the time and effort, that it would all come to fruition. And it did."
Kieran Mulvaney is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.