Heavyweights in search for great U.S. hope

Byrd, Rahman stand as lone American titlists



In December, Russian-born Nicolay Valuev remained unbeaten in 43 bouts when he took John Ruiz's World Boxing Association title. In April, Serguei Lyakhovich, a 29-year-old Belarus native living in Scottsdale, Ariz., won the World Boxing Organization title by defeating Lamon Brewster.

The two world champions from the former Soviet Union leave Chris Byrd (International Boxing Federation) and Hasim Rahman (World Boxing Council) as the lone American titlists.

"For a long time, Americans dominated the heavyweight division, but everybody's getting better," said Byrd, 35. "We [Americans] have to step up our game, but at the end of the day, if you can fight, have the better skills, you are going to win, regardless of where you come from."

The reputation of the American heavyweight could take another beating today when Byrd (39-2-1, 20 knockouts) tries to defend his title against Ukrainian Wladimir Klitschko (45-3, 40 KOs) in a bout that will be televised on HBO from Mannheim, Germany, at 5 p.m. The last time the fighters met, in October 2000, Klitschko knocked down Byrd in the ninth and 11th rounds on the way to a decisive victory.

Rahman (41-5-2, 33 KOs) faces a similar challenge. The Baltimore native's next fight, likely in August, is expected to be against Kazakhstan-born New York resident Oleg Maskaev (32-5, 25 KOs), who knocked out Rahman in the eighth round of their fight in November 1999.

Losses by Byrd and Rahman would leave the division without an American champion for only the third time since 1959, when Sweden's Ingemar Johansson took the title from Floyd Patterson. The last time it happened was in 1999, when England's Lennox Lewis unified the belts with his victory over Evander Holyfield.

The void being left by American heavyweights is being filled by fighters from the former Eastern bloc.

"Now that the Russian empire has fallen, the Soviets are using boxing as a social staircase," said boxing historian Bert Sugar, "just as the Irish, the Italians, the African-Americans and the Latinos have. The Eastern bloc is taking over as a group, and I don't believe that's going to resonate well with the American boxing public, let alone the general sports public."

Another boxing historian, Thomas Hauser, also doesn't like what he sees. "The division is so bad that nearly 100 years after Jack Johnson became the first African-American champion, the nation is looking for a great black hope," he said.

Hauser partly attributes the shift in power to the fighters' amateur backgrounds. Klitschko is a former Olympic gold medalist, but Rahman turned pro at 20 after only 11 amateur bouts.

And while promising Alexander Povetkin, of Tschechow, Russia, was a super heavyweight gold medalist in the 2004 Summer Olympics, American heavyweight Jason Estrada, who lost in those Olympics, said he was more focused on turning pro.

Hauser considers 1988 Olympic gold medalists Riddick Bowe and Ray Mercer as the last elite class of American heavyweights.

Maskaev hopes U.S. boxing fans will judge him on his ability and character. Maskaev, 37, is a married father of four girls who was raised on a farm, worked in coal mines and served in the Soviet military.

"I don't drink or smoke. I sacrifice for my family, meaning my motivation is for the financial security I can provide," Maskaev said. "If I'm a positive role model and conduct myself like a champion, it's a good reflection on boxing."

Rahman, who now makes his home in Las Vegas, has a different perspective. He wants the titles to remain American, starting today with Byrd's bout.

"From the reports I hear, he [Byrd] is in terrific shape, but if Chris doesn't win, I'll be the longest reigning heavyweight champion - and the only American," said Rahman, 33, who was named WBC champion after Vitali Klitschko retired in November. "This is about more than being the great black hope - it's about being the great American hope."

Byrd, who will weigh 213 to Klitschko's 241, is 8-0-1 with one knockout since losing to Klitschko, including a lopsided decision over Holyfield for the vacant IBF crown in December 2002. Klitschko has had to bounce back from a knockout by Brewster in April 2004.

"After I lost my title [to Brewster], the respect was lost. There were many questions about me - no chin, no stamina ... I was a dead man walking. A broken man," said Klitschko, who overcame a knockdown to defeat previously unbeaten Samuel Peter in September.

"In that fight [against Peter], I proved that dead men can keep walking and walking and walking. The audience loves competition. It does not matter what the nationality. If you perform well, everybody will accept you. If you're not good, you're out - it's a simple as that."

NOTE -- The WBC yesterday ruled that Rahman will receive a 70-to-30 percent split of the purse against Maskaev, denying a 60-40 proposal by Maskaev's promoter, Dennis Rappaport. It also denied Rappaport's request to push back the May 1 deadline for a purse bid should Rappaport fail to reach a contractual agreement with Rahman's promoter, Bob Arum.


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