Ali-Frazier, it is not. In one corner at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships: Johnny Weir, three-time U.S. men's champion. Hails from Delaware. Last...

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SPOKANE — Ali-Frazier, it is not.

In one corner at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships: Johnny Weir, three-time U.S. men’s champion. Hails from Delaware. Last year at this time, won a national title — and you could YouTube this — wearing a swan.

In the other corner: Evan Lysacek, 21, perennial runner-up. Chicago native turned total California surfer guy. Has issues with his short program.

At least until Thursday, when Lysacek, with a fist-pumping performance aimed to silence critics who say he chokes over the little stuff, for once did not choke over the little stuff.

Instead, he skated to a personal-best 78.99 under the International Figure Skating’s Byzantine scoring system, which not even Dick Button understands.

Little matter. Heading into the free skate Saturday, Lysacek’s career-best opening salvo put him ahead — by less than one point — of longtime rival Weir, who is at 78.14.

It created in one instant something U.S. men’s figure skating — which, of late, seems to exist mostly to produce filler between encore performances of Russian gold medalists at the Winter Olympics — something it sorely needs: a legitimate rivalry.

Alas, no blows are likely. And any calls for a bloodspot-removal device for the Spokane Arena’s Zamboni seem premature.

But Lysacek, who has finished 12th, seventh, fifth, third and second at this competition since 2002, seems to still be riding momentum generated when he leapfrogged over Weir with an inspired free skate last year at the Turin Winter Olympics, where the two finished fourth and fifth.

And although he didn’t exactly go that far, Lysacek seems to be growing weary of seeing Weir — who recently posed bare-chested and in high heels for an edgy pop-culture magazine — leading the U.S. charge into events such as the World Championships.

“I think that what he does is his own business,” Lysacek said. “And it’s very different than the way I conduct myself. I think that’s one of the cool things about our sport: It promotes individuality.”

Weir shied away from the rivalry question, noting that he had sent Lysacek a text-mail holiday greeting and insisting the two are “pretty cool together.”

But he admitted he heard the loud cheers for Lysacek, who skated before him, and felt the subtle shoving from the pack.

“For me, it’s helpful to have a rivalry,” Weir insisted. “It’s good for U.S. men’s figure skating.”

Something needs to be. Maybe some choice snarling between Weir and Lysacek — clearly the top U.S. alpha males as the three-year countdown to Vancouver 2010 begins — will light a fire in the kennel.

It certainly seemed to inspire Weir, who, with a victory here, would be nipping at the heels of true U.S. skating legends: Brian Boitano, who reigned from 1985 to ’88; Scott Hamilton, who won from 1981 to ’84; and Button, who dominated from 1946 to ’52. All of them, it should be noted, won Olympic gold during their U.S. reigns — Button twice.

Does Weir belong in that group?

Maybe, says Button, who volunteered Weir’s name when asked who, among current skaters, came closest to fitting the “pure skater” mold. That style, pioneered by Button, melds athleticism with grace, musicality and dance-quality movement.

Button lists Weir as an exception to a lamentable trend he sees in modern skaters: They’re often great athletes who can land a half-dozen triple-triple combinations but can’t skate cleanly between them.

“Johnny Weir moves like greased lightning,” Button said. “He’s exceedingly talented, and he’s exceedingly capable of doing all of the moves. But he was sort of letting go of the fact that this is a competitive, hard-edged sport. He wasn’t pushing his own technical training and ability to the point he should have.

“That’s now happening. I see it coming through this year. It’s a much harder-edged program.”

Like a lot of other skaters reaching their athletic peak, Weir struggles, Button believes, with getting from very good to great.

“It’s easy to get 95 percent of the way,” he said. “It’s very hard to get that last 5 percent of the way. If he succeeds with that, then he, too, can be an Olympic champion.”

But first, he must deal with the terrier at his heels. Lysacek has vowed to open the free skate Saturday with a quad jump — something both he and Weir kept in the quiver for the short program. Weir has vowed to counter with the same.

“I guess I just want to show my critics — watch out,” Lysacek said after his skate. “When I’m really well-trained, really well-prepared, nothing can stop me.”

Nothing except Weir, who’ll have to do it once more to get to the place he seems to crave most — alone, at the top.

Ron Judd: 206-464-8280 or rjudd@seattletimes.com