After his crushing defeat of Hasim Rahman, and his effortless dismantling of Derrick Jefferson, many around boxing had elevated Oleg Maskaev to the top half of their heavyweight rankings. His iron jaw, superb conditioning, and short right hand made him the perfect foil for many of the division's more suspect contenders. Certainly Kirk Johnson was not considered a serious challenger.

Johnson had burst on the heavyweight scene several year ago, but his career had fizzled when an overprotective schedule and an injured elbow colluded to halt his progress. Coming into the Maskaev fight, Johnson had fought only three rounds in 18 months, and none of them against a serious fighter. Would he fold under the leverage generated by Maskaev's right, and could he use his jab for 12 full rounds? The deck looked stacked against him.

When the bell sounded to begin the fight, Johnson was uncharacteristically aggressive and he charged at Maskaev while winging wide left hooks. But after a couple of these wild hooks landed flush, Maskaev found himself retreating. In fact, after nearly three full minutes of backing the Russian up and nailing him with Hail Mary hooks, Johnson had dominated the entire round. The only punches Maskaev had landed were several flagrant rabbit punches in the clinch.

But with mere seconds to go in the first round, Kirk Johnson found his back against the ropes. Oleg lifted his right elbow to the level of his ear and then dropped a perfect short right hand onto the bridge of his opponent's nose. This is Maskaev's bread and butter punch; a right hand that travels less than two feet and is a sharp extension of a sudden shift in body weight. It was the punch that sent Hasim Rahman out of the ring, the punch that folded Derrick Jefferson's knees, and now it came crashing into Kirk Johnson's face at full speed.

Johnson's knees shook in place, and he fell forward into Maskaev. Johnson had the presence of mind to hug Oleg's waist for dear life, despite the fact that his legs wagged like he was doing a bizarre dance. Before the referee could pull Kirk off Maskaev, the opening round ended, and a dazed Johnson returned to his corner.

With the delivery of that one blow, Maskaev had changed the momentum of the fight, and for the next two rounds he put the pressure on Johnson. Instead of standing his ground, Johnson now backed up as Maskaev pressed forward. He offered few jabs to dissuade the Russian. In the second and third round, Maskaev patiently moved in close, waited for Johnson to telegraph a long overhand right, and then he would answer with his short right hand counter. At one point in the second round, Johnson found himself trapped in a corner, and Maskaev threw and landed his best punch over and over again.

Johnson survived the second, but Maskaev kept chopping him down. As Johnson put all his energy into one obvious windmill right after another, his energy drained. As the third came to a close, Johnson was breathing heavily while Maskaev was hurting him with a repetitive menu of rights. The end seemed close at hand.

But in the fourth round, Johnson saved his career from virtual extinction with one punch. Moments after the opening bell, Maskaev was across the ring while Johnson's back touched the ropes. Again Johnson fired a gigantic overhand right that Maskaev could see coming from a mile away. Maskaev leaned back and the punch missed him by a mile. Johnson was off balance, and wide open for a short right counter that could end things. But Maskaev paused. Instead of firing the counter, he adjusted his footing. Just as he did, and found himself momentarily squared up, Johnson followed his big miss with wide left hook. It hit Maskaev at the base of the jaw. The effect was immediate.

Maskaev stumbled back on his heels before falling backwards onto his ass. Although his back didn't touch the canvas, Maskaev was nearly prone. He rose to his feet with eyes wide and stumbled back into a corner on dead legs. Once referee Richard Flaherty reached the mandatory eight, the fight continued. But it would soon be over.

Maskaev walked into a left hook to the belt line. The blow was soon followed by a barrage of wildly thrown haymakers, most of which landed upside Maskaev's head. Johnson landed a right to the ear and a hook flush to the center of the face. Maskaev's back was now to the ropes, and Johnson repeated the two punch combo. Both landed flush. Maskaev was out on his feet, and slowly sank to a sitting position. But a Johnson right hand landed as he began to sink and sent him through the ropes backwards and head first. A virtual repeat of the fall Rahman took when Maskaev kayoed him.

Maskaev fell straight back and landed on ringside judge Frank Lombardi. Lombardi and his chair were knocked backwards, and both ended up on the floor. This broke the fall, and gave several ringside photographers time to grab Maskaev and prevent him from hitting the arena floor. Dropping their cameras, three photographers held Maskaev prone. His legs were on the ring apron, but his torso was hovering over the floor while being held up. He had a 20 count to get to his feet, but it wasn't going to happen. Maskaev simply laid there, eyes wide open and blankly staring at the ceiling. He was out. Eventually Maskaev's corner came to him and relieved the exhausted photographers. Johnson KO4.

This was a major upset. While many have praised Kirk Johnson's skills, his inactivity and lack of competition made him the bigger question mark in the bout. And while Kirk's jab and movement have always been critical to his style, neither were a factor this night. Johnson used raw aggression in the first, survival skills in the second and third, and then landed a lucky punch to set up the kayo. Johnson deserves all the credit in the world for taking this fight, for gutting it out when he was hurt, and for finding a way to earn a victory, but then again this wasn't exactly the kind of performance that was going to give Lennox Lewis, or even a Mike Tyson, much to be concerned with. Johnson still has conditioning issues. Although he looked more muscular than in past outings, he was sucking wind hard after three rounds. Worse, his vaunted jab was never put to good use, and his overhand right might be the easiest punch to avoid in all of boxing. Still, this win earns his a legitimate spot among the top ten heavyweights in the world, and hopefully Johnson's management team won't protect him for another three years.

As for Oleg Maskaev, a third loss stalls his championship aspirations, but does little to hurt his standing with fans. He is aggressive, powerful, and strong. If nothing else, he will make a wonderful opponent in any matchup. Maskaev's big weakness is his predictability, and he has to add at least one more solid punch to his repertoire if he's going to continue. A rematch with Derrick Jefferson, who was stopped on a knee injury, would be the logical next stop for Maskaev. In today's heavyweight division, one high-profile win can make a career. Maskaev has come back before, we now wait to see if he can do it again.

.....Chris Bushnell


























© 2001 Chris Bushnell. All rights reserved.

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