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Heavyweights seek renaissance Rahman-Toney fight could spark division

The phone keeps ringing, on and on for three years now. No one has answered the call.

Unless somebody lifts the receiver to his ear soon, that incessant jingle will have turned into a dial tone.

The casual sports fan probably lost interest long ago, and even the staunchest boxing devotee has grown tired of waiting for the next great heavyweight champion. When Lennox Lewis retired from the throne in 2003, an immediate search for his heir produced nothing but a series of wrong numbers.

Alas, boxing's marquee division -- the one that produced John L. Sullivan and Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano and Muhammad Ali, George Foreman and Mike Tyson -- has been about as relevant lately as smoke signals.

That's what has made Saturday night's world title clash between Hasim Rahman and James Toney at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City so keenly anticipated. The bout alone won't resurrect the division, but the winner eventually could restore the heavyweights to prominence in a sport where the smaller fighters have been manufacturing all the glory.

"It's very important that a good fight comes out of Saturday night," said Rahman, who held his training camp in Rochester. "We're not just competing for heavyweight supremacy. We're competing against the middleweights, the lightweights and the junior middleweights. People don't really care about the weights anymore. They just want to see a good fight."

Rahman versus Toney could be a major catalyst in bringing attention back to the big boys, especially because the audience could be huge. HBO chose not to show the fight on pay-per-view for the usual $49.95. Instead, a potential classic will be televised during a free preview weekend in which cable and satellite viewers don't need to be HBO subscribers to watch.

"There is an opportunity," HBO boxing analyst Larry Merchant said. "It probably is the most significant fight between American heavyweights in some time. The winner will have public support as the top fighter. It's an important fight as they try to sort out the recycled heavyweights."

Today it would be easier for a local sports fan to name every member of the Buffalo Bills practice squad than it would the four recognized world heavyweight champions.

Need a refresher course, or more likely a first-time lesson? Rahman holds the World Boxing Council title, although it was awarded to him upon the retirement of former champ Vitali Klitschko. Chris Byrd of the International Boxing Federation is the longest-reigning champ. Lamon Brewster owns the World Boxing Organization belt, and 7-footer Nicolay Valuev is atop the World Boxing Association.

Also troubling for boxing purists is the absence of a linear heavyweight champ. That's the man who beat the man who beat the man.

Lewis was the latest link to Sullivan, the last of the bare-knuckle kings who won the first legitimate title in 1882.

"I don't take as pessimistic a view as some people do because history shows that once one heavyweight emerges, everyone thinks the division is fine," Merchant said. "There have been occasions when there were multiple, competitive heavyweights near the top. But more often than not it's more about having a star heavyweight, and I think it's possible someone will emerge."

Rahman and Toney is a compelling matchup, to be sure. Both are charismatic individuals and master trash talkers who can reinvigorate the spectacle.

Rahman (41-5-1, 33 knockouts) is a former undisputed heavyweight champ, who conquered 20-to-1 odds in knocking out Lewis with a single, thunderous right hand in April 2001. Rahman's reign was brief. Lewis won the rematch seven months later just as dramatically as he had lost the first one, obliterating Rahman inside four rounds.

The next two years were tumultuous for Rahman. The 33-year-old Baltimore native fought four times, losing to former champ Evander Holyfield, drawing with formidable contender David Tua and losing to Ruiz for the WBA title.

Still, his shocking victory over Lewis gives him substantial credibility. Rahman spent the past two years rehabilitating his career with frequent activity against lesser foes. He has won six straight bouts, the last a unanimous decision over Monte Barrett for the WBC interim title, a designation that became permanent once Klitschko retired.

Toney (69-4-2, 43 KOs) doesn't hold a major title, but many boxing experts view the 37-year-old from Ann Arbor, Mich., as the best heavyweight around.

The former middleweight, super middleweight and cruiserweight champ made Ruiz look silly when they fought a year ago, but the WBA stripped Toney when he tested positive for steroids. He claimed he was prescribed the illegal substance during recovery from a torn biceps and triceps in his right arm. The excuse seemed reasonable in looking at Toney, who resembled a shorter version of Mo Vaughn.

"You've got the two best heavyweights fighting each other," said Dan Goossen, Toney's promoter. "The prominence of this match stirs the electricity in the heavyweight division. What we've needed is someone who will carry the heavyweight division on his shoulders, fighting every big fight you can have."

Saturday night's winner will need to defend his title against the WBC's No. 1 challenger, Oleg Maskaev. That's an intriguing matchup for Rahman, who would like to avenge a stunning knockout loss to the Kazakhstani in 1999.

Beyond the mandatory bout, both Rahman and Toney said they intend to unify the belts, the next step in returning the division to significance.

"The problem is, in the older days the best used to fight the best," Rahman said. "Now I agree there was a lot more good people at the top, but the best used to fight the best and that's where the big fights and the trilogies and the marquee moments came. Superstars were born when the best fought the best."

Toney couldn't agree more that Saturday's winner will have the responsibility of furthering the heavyweight cause and restoring the luster that has been missing for years.

"My thing is fighting the best damn boys out there who the public and the press want to see me fight," Toney said. "I'm fighting Hasim Rahman. He's the best within the division right now, so I'm fighting him."

e-mail: tgraham@buffnews.com

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