CANCUN, Mexico – Oleg Maskaev has been so invisible since winning the WBC version of the heavyweight championship on Aug. 12, 2006, that concerned friends and family members may have considered sending a sled dog team out in search of him.
The affable Maskaev, a former lieutenant in the Soviet army who in 2004 became a U.S. citizen, has largely been sidelined since the greatest night of his life, when he stopped Hasim Rahman in the 12th round of their title fight in Las Vegas.
Since then, he's had surgery on his right elbow, defended the belt on Dec. 10, 2006, in Russia against unknown Peter Okhello, negotiated for fights with both Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko and was forced to withdraw from an Oct. 6 fight with Samuel Peter when he stepped on a stone while running and injured his back.
So, he's been champion for 18 months but is still little known except among the game's hard-core followers. The WBC struggled for months to make a decision on who he was supposed to fight, which allowed Maskaev to slide even deeper into anonymity.
As he sat in the lobby of The Royal Hotel on Thursday speaking to a small group of reporters following the weigh-in for his fight with Peter in a local bull ring on Saturday, curious onlookers stared at him trying to figure out who he was.
One woman stared intently at him and then said to her husband, "Who is he?" Her husband just responded by shrugging his shoulders.
Maskaev, who has gone through three separate training camps in the last year hoping to be able to fight, is simply relieved his return to duty is near.
"You do all these camps, you want to fight," he said. "I haven't been doing this by my choice. I want to fight. I've sparred 300 rounds. I'm ready to fight."
Don King, Peter's co-promoter, is promoting Saturday's fight and has focused nearly all of the attention on Peter, so much so that the champion is almost an afterthought.
It would have been easy Thursday to mistake the weigh-in for a carnival.
There were women in various stages of dress and undress, since a couple of young women strategically stationed just outside the ballroom where the weigh-in was held were completely unclothed and covered only by body paint milling around the scale.
King screeched into the microphone incessantly and waved the flags of the U.S., Mexico and Nigeria, where Peter was born. WBC president Jose Sulaiman handed out plaques to about anyone official looking, while Dr. Clement Aduku, whom King introduced as the Nigerian ambassador to Mexico, proudly displayed a t-shirt that read, "Nigeria supports Samuel Peters."
Yes, the guy from Nigeria there supposedly in support of the fighter from Nigeria couldn't spell the hometown hero's name correctly.
It was that kind of night.
In the background, Maskaev stood with arms folded across his chest, a bemused look on his face, surveying the scene but largely avoiding the circus unfolding in front of him.
Later, Maskaev said he felt the event was a waste of time. He said he felt the same way about the three-hour long news conference that was held a day earlier, when King spent much of the time railing about the business practices of Willie Savannah, the manager of IBF-WBA-WBO lightweight champion Juan Diaz.
"He's a mind-worker and he knows what he's doing," Maskaev said of King. "He's a funny guy and he knows his job. But he never changes. I was OK, but I wasn't happy (to have to sit through the long news conference). I don't mind being there to do something important, but to go there and sit through that and do nothing. Ahhh! It was terrible."
And so while King and co-promoter Dino Duva raved about Peter's potential and hailed hm as the future of boxing, Maskaev just shrugged.
He's studied Peter closely and can't see what the fuss is about. Peter has a reputation as one of the game's most powerful punchers, but Maskaev isn't certain he actually lives up to his billing. Peter is a 5-1 favorite.
"Everybody wants to make him out to be this unbeatable fighter, but when I look at him, I see a beatable guy," Maskaev said. "He looks very beatable to me."
A one-time coal miner in Kazakhstan who was nearly killed in a mining accident when he was a teen-ager, Maskaev said he's comfortable that he'll be able to perform at peak efficiency despite not having been in competition for 15 months, since the win over Okhello in what was little more than a glorified sparring session.
Trainer Victor Valle said Maskaev isn't given enough credit for either how hard he's willing to work and for how sharp he has become.
"He's a totally different fighter now than he was before," Valle said of Maskaev, who has won 12 in a row and hasn't been beaten since he was stopped in the eighth round in 2002 by Corey Sanders. "Oleg understands what he needs to do to win. He's very quick to recognize what is going on in there and he adjusts his game plan. We've got a plan we've worked on, but if for some reason it's not working correctly, I have the utmost faith that Oleg is going to recognize that and be able to say, 'OK, this is what I need to do,' and then go and do it."
If he wins, he'll likely land a spot with former WBC champion Vitali Klitschko, who was named the champion emeritus when injuries forced him to retire in 2005. He wants to fight again and he has representatives in Cancun to make certain the WBC doesn't renege on its pledge to give him the next shot at the belt.
That would eliminate the possibility of one man becoming the undisputed heavyweight champion, since the Klitschko brothers won't fight each other.
Maskaev, though, prefers not to consider what the future may hold consider what's happened in his past.
"I've learned a lot in this boxing career," he said. "You can't be worried about that fight when you have this fight first. There is no Klitschko fight (for me) if I don't win this fight. I know that. So I don't even think about Klitschko unless someone asks me. I'm only thinking of beating Samuel Peter."