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Maskaev Is Clearly Up for the Challenge

Times Staff Writer

If promotional slogans are to be believed, “America’s Last Line of Defense” ended in a boxing ring at the Thomas & Mack Center here Saturday night. More specifically, Staten Island beat Baltimore.

Oleg Maskaev is now the World Boxing Council heavyweight champion. He got the belt by stopping champion Hasim Rahman with 43 seconds left in the final round, a round that put a bizarre ending on a nicely contested fight.

Maskaev caught Rahman with a series of punches out of a break about a minute into the round and sent him wobbling back against the ropes and down. When he got up and was allowed to go back at it by referee Jay Nady, Maskaev attacked and Rahman, halfway to the canvas again, grabbed Maskaev’s leg and held on like a defensive back as he was hauled all the way across the ring. Clearly hurt, Rahman held on while Nady tried to pry him off and keep this boxing rather than wrestling.

But once Nady succeeded -- no small task when you are dealing with two men weighing about 240 pounds -- Maskaev closed for the finish and hit Rahman with another half-dozen shots that forced Nady to do the obvious. At 2:17 of the 12th round, he stepped in front of Rahman and waved his hands.

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The match drew an announced crowd of 8,842 in a stadium that can seat nearly 18,000.

The jingoistic slogan had been created to bring attention to the fact that, in the four main heavyweight divisions in world boxing ratings, three had champions from Russia or former Soviet bloc countries. And when Rahman’s defense was set against a fourth fighter from the former Soviet bloc, Maskaev, the hype was born. In reality, Baltimore’s Rahman was fighting an East Coast neighbor. Maskaev, from Kazakhstan, has been a U.S. citizen for two years and lives in Staten Island, N.Y.

When Maskaev, 37, finally lowered the boom on Rahman, 33, he had overcome a slow start that had Rahman ahead by as much as five rounds to zero on some cards. Maskaev was getting hit repeatedly by Rahman’s sharp jab, but he kept coming and started to cause damage in short flurries in the fifth through eighth rounds.

Going into the last round, his situation was precarious. Judge Jerry Roth had him well ahead, judge Anek Hongtongkam had him well behind and judge Glenn Trowbridge had him leading, six rounds to five.

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“I knew with three rounds left,” Maskaev said, “that I was going to have to win all three to win the fight. But I never doubted I could do it.”

He knew why he had gotten himself into the fix.

“He was better inside,” he said, referring to Rahman’s jab. “I got used to the jab. My corner told me to just pick it up, push it up and away.”

By the late rounds, both fighters were gassed. The pace of the fight, while compelling, was also drifting toward slow motion.

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Maskaev (33-5) said that part of his problem was something he hadn’t revealed previously.

“I hurt my back in training,” he said. “I never really felt good out there.”

Rahman (41-6-2), still looking woozy in the aftermath in the ring, expressed his obvious disappointment. It was the second time Maskaev had taken him out, the first the oft-replayed 1999 match in Atlantic City, where Maskaev caught him with a similar flurry near the ropes and sent him through them, down onto press row and onto the floor. Rahman had sworn this would not happen again.

“I’m disappointed,” he said. “I never thought he would be taking my belt out of Las Vegas.”

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Also certainly disappointed was Rahman’s promoter, Bob Arum, who had planned for Maskaev and another setup fight in November to be steppingstones on Rahman’s road to a big-money matchup against Wladimir Klitschko, the International Boxing Federation champion and the best known of the three other heavyweight champions.

Silly promotional slogan or not, the center of the heavyweight boxing universe is well east of Las Vegas now.

Rahman, asked about his feelings on the American failure in the division and the dominance of Eastern Europe, answered either with deep insight or a still-scrambled thought-process.

“In America, we’re too spoiled,” he said.

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