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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Maskaev Russia's Very Own Cinderella Man

The white van was rattling past the new rich and the still poor of Moscow and the world heavyweight champion, Oleg Maskaev, was hunched forward, his strong chin resting on the back of the seat in front of him and with a wool cap bearing the word Russia in red letters pulled low.

Outside Maskaev's window, the crenelated Kremlin walls, Armani outlets, Bentley dealerships and block-long billboards for cell phones and flat-screen televisions gradually gave way to the more somber hues of encroaching winter and the dreary high-rise apartment clusters near the Moscow River. The apartments, unlike much of a city flush with fresh capital, have not been given a post-Soviet makeover.

Inside the van were members of Maskaev's coalition. There were his Russian driver and security guard, and his promoter, Dennis Rappaport, and his manager, Fred Kesch -- both Americans with miniature, gold boxing gloves dangling from chains around their necks.

There was Maskaev's American trainer, Victor Valle Jr., and his imposing sparring partner, Zuri Lawrence.

Closer to the front, even more impassive than his son, was Maskaev's father, Alex, a coal miner from Kazakhstan, whose face, surely sculptured from granite, was crowned by a large bearskin hat.

This was merely an uneventful, if bumpy, journey in the wilder ride that has been Maskaev's life. It took him from a childhood in Kazakhstan to the Red Army in Uzbekistan to Brooklyn to the Sacramento, California, suburbs with his wife and four daughters.

Until last month, when the American Shannon Briggs defeated Sergei Liakhovich of Belarus to win the World Boxing Organization title, all four major sanctioning bodies had former Soviet boxers for champions.

Now there are three.

"I think Russian amateurs were very strong, physically strong, first of all," Maskaev said. "We always had that. The problem was we never had the good professional trainers, and because of the good money and everybody who went to Germany and across the sea to the States, we were able to build good teams and in this way we were able to succeed."

Valle believes that the most important reason is psychological.

"One thing the Russian boxers have is a real desire to be somebody," he said. "I hear Russia don't have a middle class, so there's two ways to go, and these guys are striving to be somebody."

Maskaev left for the United States in 1995. The eldest of the group, he was slipping down the rankings and into irrelevance four years ago after a series of losses, and he said he was dropped by his promoter and advised by his former trainer to call it a career. But Maskaev kept plugging and punching and, after Valle spotted flashes of possible brilliance during a workout in Gleason's Gym in Brooklyn, he decided to help and suggested that Rappaport come aboard, too.

Maskaev, new team in place, has not lost since, and in August, he became the fourth-oldest heavyweight champion when he knocked out Hasim Rahman in Las Vegas. Rappaport, an enthusiastic 61-year-old who has not lived too long to tire of boxing rhetoric, calls him another "Cinderella Man," and Maskaev is not arguing.

He has seen the film on several occasions. It stars Russell Crowe as the Depression-era Irish-American heavyweight James Braddock, who did menial jobs to support his family before getting a second chance to fight and ended up stunning better-regarded boxers.

"I liked it a lot; I saw myself in that movie," Maskaev said.

Knocking out Rahman is not quite in the same league as giving a nation hope by beating up Braddock-style on Max Baer, but it has thrown open doors all the same. As a naturalized American whose daughters communicate in English more easily than they do in Russian, Maskaev could have put his hard-won belt on the line for the first time in Madison Square Garden or Las Vegas.

But as an ethnic Russian, still deeply attached to his homeland, he wanted the rewards, psychic and otherwise, of giving Moscow its first heavyweight-title bout.

"I didn't believe it could happen at the beginning, but step by step, a couple phone calls, and then I started to realize it was possible," he said. "It's always an honor to be the first."