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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Maskaev's Hard Path to American Dream

NEW YORK -- The man pedaling the bicycle is hard to ignore: measuring 1.91 meters and weighing 107 kilograms, with a physique as hard as the asphalt beneath his wheels.

One mile, two miles, three miles, yet few along the way recognize this pale rider. Not that it bothers Oleg Maskaev.

"I'm not going to step outside and shout, 'Hey everybody, I'm the champion,' " said Maskaev, 37. "A couple of my neighbors know. That's good enough."

Who's to argue? Maskaev, who captured the WBC boxing title last month with a 12th-round knockout of Hasim Rahman, is living mostly anonymously in the United States, 15 years after his first taste of American life left him eager to make sure that this land was his land.

"When I came for the first time to the United States, what I saw was the people had everything in life," recalled Maskaev, who arrived in 1991 as part of an amateur boxing team from the old Soviet Union. "There were nice cars, good apartments, lots of food. And also, what I like, freedom. Nobody will bother you for nothing."

Not even if you're the recently crowned heavyweight champion, improbably riding a two-wheeler for mile after mile.

The West Sacramento, California neighborhood where he now lives is a long way from his birthplace of Kazakhstan. It's even a long way from where he lived with his family until recently -- Staten Island, New York.

Maskaev worked on the family farm as a boy, spent time laboring in the coal mines, and wound up making lieutenant in the Red Army. Upon entering the boxing ring for the Russia amateur team, he eventually became a national champion.

"In the U.S.S.R., maybe 10-15 years ago, there were a lot of good amateur fighters," Maskaev said, his accent betraying his conversational English. The fighter with the big left hook is clearly unsurprised that all four heavyweight belts currently belong to boxers from the former Soviet Union.

One of them is his, along with a record of 33-5 with 26 KOs.

In 1995, Maskaev fulfilled his dream of immigrating to the United States. He was already considered an up-and-coming heavyweight, although his career would soon follow the parabolic path that became his trademark across the next decade.

His high point came two years later, when Maskaev knocked Rahman through the ropes to earn an eighth-round knockout in the midst of a 10-bout win streak. And then came the worst stretch of his career: Three knockout losses from October 2000 to March 2002.

It was 2003, inside Brooklyn's renowned Gleason's Gym, when Maskaev's dying career was revived. Trainer Victor Valle Jr. saw something in the near-broken down fighter; he recruited promoter Dennis Rappaport, and the new Team Maskaev was founded.

After a few confidence-building fights against journeymen, Rappaport lined up the title fight against Rahman.

Rahman was installed as a 3-1 favorite. Born in Baltimore, he was billed as "America's Last Line of Defense" to keep the heavyweight belt in the United States. Maskaev, an American citizen, was a bit annoyed -- but capitalism overcame his concerns.

"This was to make attention and money," Maskaev said. "That's how the business goes.

"They were trying to play the [Rahman] fight like a Cold War-time Russia-America, like the communists were coming to conquer America, something like that," Maskaev said. "I was living in America almost 12 years. First chance to become an American citizen, that's what I did."

The win gave the belts to an Iron Curtain Quartet: Maskaev (WBC), Wladimir Klitschko (IBF/Ukraine), Nikolay Valuev (WBA/Russia) and Sergei Liakhovich (WBO/Belarus). Maskaev is typically quick to point out his U.S. citizenship, earned two years before he became champion.