Bookmark and Share

Fighter Bio: Oleg Maskaev

It has been said in athletics, "When you have someone's number, you always have their number," and that was certainly the case when it came to heavyweight Oleg Maskaev in his two fights with Hasim "The Rock" Rahman..

When they met in Atlantic City in 1999, Rahman was 31-1 and Maskaev was 17-2, and much was expected of the winner. Rahman was ahead on the judges' scorecards 70-63 and 68-65, twice, going into the eighth round before one of the most stunning knockouts in boxing history took place.

Maskaev tagged Rahman with a right hand that left Rahman in serious trouble. Moments later, he landed another thunderous right flush on the chin. Rahman bent down and slipped through the ropes, grazing a television table before landing on the floor of Boardwalk Hall. Maskaev scored one of the most noted knockouts in boxing lore.

Rahman appeared to have the last laugh after going on to become a two-time heavyweight champion before Maskaev earned another shot at him-and his WBC heavyweight title-in the Las Vegas rematch seven years later on Aug. 12, 2006. Maskaev's promoter Dennis Rappaport couldn't resist petitioning the Nevada State Athletic Commission for "extra padding" to be added to the floor surrounding the ring at the Thomas & Mack Center just in case his charge were to strike with lightening again. For his part, Rahman used every excuse in the world to explain away being knocked out of the ring, but those inclined to rely on history to help predict the future weren't so sure.

Rahman appeared to be the better physical specimen between the two, but in the fight itself it became clear in a close, hard-hitting affair that Maskaev had the bigger heart and will to win. The momentum shift became obvious in the later rounds when Maskaev displayed great stamina and courage while landing the most telling blows.Going into the twelfth and final round the judges were divided. Two had Maskaev on top, one 106-103 and the other by a razor-thin 105-104. The third had Rahman in the lead 106-103, which meant Maskaev need only win the round to capture the world championship.

Midway through the final stanza, Maskaev landed a short left hook that sent Rahman to the canvas after a delayed reaction. A dazed Rahman attempted in vain to erase the knockdown by gesturing that he had slipped, but when the fight resumed Maskaev smothered him with a barrage of punches that left referee Jay Nady no choice but to wave off the action with less than a minute to go in the round. A Cinderella story was born.

Not only was the fight remarkable and one of the best heavyweight fights in recent memory, the win also gave Maskaev "Comeback of the Year" nods in the sports pantheon.Maskaev's story is much more that just another boxing story. It is a saga of an indomitable human spirit overcoming the anguish and agony of adversity. It's an inspirational story of a human being turning a living nightmare into the fulfillment of a lifetime dream.

Until about five years ago, Oleg's career could be described as perhaps one of the most mismanaged in boxing history. In his first professional bout, he was pitted against Alex Miroshnichenko-undefeated in 21 professional fights-who had an illustrious amateur career defeating both Lennox Lewis and Riddick Bowe.

Oleg stopped him in three rounds.

In his fourth professional fight, he faced undefeated Robert Hawkins, who held the distinction in 30 fights of never having been stopped in spite of facing formidable opponents like Samuel Peter, David Tua, Eddie Chambers and Jean Francois Bergeron. Oleg knocked him out in round four.

In his fifth fight, Maskaev faced Joe Thomas, a fighter many heralded as a future champion with a record of 23-1. Oleg won a six-round decision.

In only his seventh bout, he was put in his first 10-round match against former heavyweight champion Oliver "The Atomic Bull" McCall, who had knocked out Lennox Lewis 17 months earlier to become WBC heavyweight champion, successfully defended the crown in a 12-round decision win over Larry "The Easton Assassin" Holmes 10 months earlier, and just after losing a decision to Frank Bruno 5 months earlier.

McCall stopped the green and inexperienced Maskaev, but the question at the time really was, "Who in their right mind would have matched Oleg with an experienced former champion like McCall in only his seventh pro fight." It was a travesty, unconscionable and a display of total incompetence at best-and seemingly criminal at its worst.

This was indicative of how Maskaev's career was being handled or mishandled. He went on to knock out Alex Stewart (41-6), Courage Tshabalala (23-2), Hasim Rahman, (31-1), and Derrick Jefferson (22-1). He had peaks and valleys. Ready or not, his horrendous management threw him into the ring like a lamb going to slaughter.

He experienced the thrill of victory and knew only too well the agony of defeat. He suffered devastating setbacks and frustrating disappointments. Fair weather friends deserted him like rats fleeing a sinking ship. His trainer told him that he had no future and should retire from boxing. His promoter released him from his promotional contract. He was told he had no future, just a past. He was traveling the boulevard of broken dreams and blighted hopes. He felt emptiness and a void, but deep down he knew quitters never win and winners never quit.

Maskaev wanted to continue his career as he believed there was a better Oleg that had yet to be seen. But how could he put all the broken pieces back together at this gut-wrenching low point when his life and career were experiencing extreme depths, untold havoc, and widespread misery?

A telephone rang. Victor Valle Jr., a trainer at Gleason's Gym in Brooklyn, N.Y., called a promoter by the name of Dennis Rappaport and said, "Dennis, I'd like you to meet Oleg. He has huge potential, he is extremely intelligent, he learns and picks up new boxing techniques easily, and with patience and a proper team behind him, he can become a champion."

A little more than 5 years ago a new team was assembled with Valle, Rappaport, manager Fred Kesch, strength coach Harrison Skeets, and sports psychologist Robert Palumbo. The improvement Oleg showed was nothing less than miraculous. He won his next 9 fights, 8 by knockout, including the undefeated Olympian David Defiagbon, who was 21-0.

On Nov. 12, 2005 Oleg faced the No.1-ranked WBC contender Sinan Samil Sam in a WBC heavyweight title eliminator. He was a 3-1 underdog, few gave him a chance, and he was fighting in Germany. (How many foreigners in the last 30 years received a decision in Germany?)

Sam, his promoter, and trainer were expecting a slow, plodding fighter. They were shocked when Maskaev danced, weaved, slipped, and put on a masterful boxing exhibition. He moved more like a lightweight than a heavyweight. The fight went to a decision, and even in Germany Maskaev won an overwhelming decision by scores of 116-111, 118-109, and 118-111.

In his next fight, Maskaev would become the WBC heavyweight champion. In his first title defense on Dec. 10 at Olympiysky Sports Arena in Moscow, Oleg decisively defeated the No. 10-ranked WBC heavyweight Peter Okhello in the first heavyweight championship ever staged in Russia. The enthusiastic sell-out crowd of over 15,000 fans produced a live-gate gross of over $4.5 million.

Is there any wonder why Oleg is being called boxing's Cinderella story? This proud Russian-American (he became a U.S citizen in 2004) is the father of four daughters who is married to his childhood sweetheart Svetlana. He is a strong, compassionate and devoutly religious man. This past July he was invited as a special guest to participate in a church gathering in Kiev, Ukraine. Over 250,000 people assembled and listened as Oleg spoke.

He is an astute and sophisticated real estate investor, owning properties from New York to California. The frustration and disappointments of the past have become a faded memory. His future is both precious and priceless. With his new team around him, he has remained undefeated for over 5 years. On October 6th at Madison Square Garden, he faces the WBC No. 1-ranked mandatory challenger,Samuel "The Nigerian Nightmare" Peter. As the old song goes:"

Fairy tales can come true, it can happen to you…". Is there any doubt that when a nightmare enters a Cinderella story, Cinderella will prevail. In fairy tales and in life, boxing's Cinderella Story will have a happy ending.