Lack of American stars leaves interest flagging

August 12, 2006|By RICK MAESE

LAS VEGAS -- The handlers of Oleg Maskaev clearly took offense at the silly promotional line that appears on fight posters, Web sites and television commercials - "America's Last Line of Defense." The idea behind the slogan is simple: Hasim Rahman is the only thing standing in the way of foreigners owning all four major heavyweight belts, an idea that would've seemed blasphemous not long ago.

Maskaev's people walked around the Wynn Hotel and Casino wearing T-shirts that show their Kazakhstan-born fighter standing in front of an American flag. They're also carrying his citizenship papers everywhere they go, eager to tell anyone who will listen that Maskaev lives in New York and has been a legal and proud American for the past two years.

Tonight Rahman defends his World Boxing Council belt against Maskaev, and though no one is going to confuse it with Rocky vs. Ivan Drago, there actually is some truth behind the fight slogan. But that truth has nothing to do with patriotism and everything to do with the desperation of American fight promoters.

They realize that without Rahman, they have absolutely nothing.

Rahman, trying for the umpteenth time to convince us he's no one-hit wonder, is a savior by default, which illustrates perfectly how shallow the waters really are in the heavyweight division (in case you really needed more evidence). Rahman is smart, personable and a physical beast, but he's not exactly the ideal candidate to revive the sport's most storied division.

"Well, I'd prefer it was an Ali," said Bob Arum, Rahman's promoter, "but that isn't going to happen."

The rewards tonight are not overwhelming. A Rahman win brings about redemption (Maskaev knocked out Rahman seven years ago), which means something to Rahman but no one else. A Rahman loss means the sport's premier division is void of a champion who's recognizable on this side of the Atlantic.

"We're in trouble if all four champions are Russian-speaking and the public can't even pronounce their names," Arum said. "It's almost like what happened in tennis when the American players faded, the McEnroes, the Connors. There was nobody left but a bunch of Eastern Europeans and Australians, and the popularity of tennis here fell."

While Rahman wears the WBC's belt, Wladimir Klitchsko (Ukraine) owns the International Boxing Federation title, Sergei Liakhovich (Belarus) holds the World Boxing Organization's and Nicolay Valuev (Russia) has the World Boxing Association's.

"How do you sell a fight that's Maskaev vs. Klitchsko? Who gives a [care]?" Arum said. "I'm not saying it's right or wrong. I'm just saying what do you do with it?"

The truth is, even with Rahman in the picture, fans are barely spending the energy to shrug their shoulders. There really isn't a heavyweight pairing that the public is clamoring to watch, whether it features Russians, Americans or contestants from Celebrity Fit Club.

In fact, there will be only two heavyweights in the arena tonight that the average sports fan can even recognize - and neither is fighting. Mike Tyson and Lennox Lewis are both slated to do broadcast commentary.

The fighters' names just don't resonate. Maskaev is an undeserving challenger, and Rahman still hasn't established himself as a legitimate draw, much less a legitimate champion. (He inherited the WBC belt in November and his only defense was a draw against James Toney in March.)

Tonight's fight isn't a matchup that will cement Rahman's place in the heavyweight ranks, and unfortunately for promoters, it might not go a long way to validating him as a boxing attraction either.

The pay-per-view sales will struggle to top 150,000, only about a quarter of Oscar De La Hoya's successful shows. The 19,000-seat Thomas & Mack Center will be only half-full. And the sports books aren't exactly bustling with action. Even worse, officials fear tightened airport security might scare away last-minute Vegas visitors.

Rahman is Arum's first real heavyweight since George Foreman. The promoter says he has "great, great confidence" in the fighter's future, but he qualifies that quickly. "Generally when a guy has Rock's talent and ability, you assume the victories," he says. "But with Rock, he's been so inconsistent and distracted in so many fights, he has to keep proving his worth."

Tonight's just another step. He likely won't prove anything definitive, but he can chip away at some of those doubts.

A savior? No, just the best we've got right now.

Arum knows that Rahman is an investment designed to pay off down the road. But at some point, you start to wonder when. Even if Rahman beats Maskaev, Klitchsko, Liakhovich, Valuev and any other parade of consonants you want to string together, promoters are still faced with an uphill battle reaching the average fan.

Win or lose tonight, Rahman is fighting in an era that won't likely generate a great American champion.

Sometimes, you're only as good as your competition, which makes losers out of the American heavyweight, the American promoter and the American fight fan.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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