Klitschko's reach was a major factor (pic Hogan Photos)
By Thomas Hauser
Knockout power is an aphrodesiac in boxing.
Boxing is starving for a marketable heavyweight.
Because of those realities, a lot of dreams were riding on Samuel Peter's broad shoulders when he arrived at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City last Saturday night.
Peter is a likeable man with a ready smile and an almost childlike innocence about him. He was born into a middle-class family in Cross River, Nigeria. "I'm a happy person," he says. "I grew up with a good mother and a good father. They taught me to respect my elders and be humble. They loved me and taught me about God. To be a good person gets you to heaven."
Peter was a promising soccer player, fast and strong, until an adolescent knee injury ended his hopes for turf glory. Then he turned to boxing. "Boxing to me is a game," he says. "You hit me; I hit you. To knock somebody out feels better than scoring a goal. But boxing is a sport; not a war. In a war, I would run backwards. If you want to go to war, go to Iraq."
Peter came to the United States to pursue his ring career in 2001. He and his wife, Enobong, have two children; a 19-month-old girl and 9-month-old boy. "It's a great life here," he says. "Someday, I will be buried in Nigeria, but I am happy where I am now. To be a success in boxing, you must be in the United States. I want to make money. Money motivates me. To think about fighting for five or ten million dollars makes me run day and night. But to be the first African champion, to make history for my country and all of Africa, is also important to me."
So far, Peter has been spending his money on clothes and real estate; one hopes in inverse order. He gives the impression that his cell phone is surgically attached to his ear. One week ago, he had 24 wins in 24 fights with 21 knockouts. "In boxing, I have never been knocked down and I never will be," he says. "I am a special fighter. I don't think anybody can put me down. I don't compare myself with anybody because I'm special. One day, people will compare other fighters to me."
Peter's opposite number in Atlantic City was Wladimir Klitschko. The two men arrived at Boardwalk Hall on Saturday night within five minutes of one another. Samuel was wearing gray sweatpants and a white T-shirt with "www.samuel-peter.com" emblazoned in green letters across his chest. At 8:20, he entered his dressing room, lay down on the rubdown table, and closed his eyes.
Every fight is a journey into the unknown. The fact that the 25-year-old Peter was stepping up in class made this one particularly unpredictable. It was the first time in his professional career that he would be facing a fighter with tools comparable to his own. Samuel was aware of the risks and stakes involved. As he lay on the table, he looked smaller than his 243 pounds. At the weigh-in, his thighs had evoked images of giant oak trees. Now they looked more like human anatomy. Enobong came into the room and squeezed his hand. At 8:35, Samuel signalled for someone to turn on his music. Gentle sounds filtered through the air.
"Did I tell you that I love you. Did I tell you that I want you. Did I tell you that I need you. You make me feel like heaven is here on earth."
Samuel sat up on the rubdown table and began to sing. Assistant trainer Cornelius Boza-Edwards took a scissors and started cutting loose threads from the blue sequined trunks that his fighter would wear. Over the next two hours, myriad people came and went. The core group (manager Ivaylo Gotzev, trainer "Pops" Anderson, assistant trainer Kenny Croom, and Boza-Edwards) remained.
The standard rituals of boxing followed. A urine sample for the New Jersey State Board of Athletic Control. The referee's pre-fight instructions. From time to time, Samuel stood up and danced to the music, smiling at his own reflection in the mirror on the wall.
At 9:05 Vitali Klitschko and James Bashir came in with the intention of watching Boza-Edwards tape Peter's hands. Samuel continued to dance and sing.
"Anything that you can do, no one can do it better. Anything that you can say, no one can say it better."
Vitali was on edge. "It's easier for me to fight than to watch my brother fight," he had acknowledged earlier in the day. "If I fight, I'm cool. If my brother fights, I'm nervous."
At 9:10, Peter sat down on a folding metal chair and the taping began. After the first roll of gauze had been applied, Samuel reached for his watch and handed it to Boza-Edwards, who stretched the heavy metal band around his fighter's fist in the manner of brass knuckles. Bashir's eyes widened. Samuel laughed. Cornelius removed the watch.
There was no change in Vitali's _expression. He was measuring the man who, in less than two hours, would seek to destroy his brother; a man who he himself might someday face in the ring.
At 9:35, the taping was done. Time was moving slowly. Depending on the length of the co-featured bout between Miguel Cotto and Ricardo Torres, Samuel would be called to the ring sometime between 10:20 and 11:00. Once again, he began to dance and sing.
"It's the truth that I feel. My destiny is sealed. I know I can move any mountain . . . Lord, when I thought it was over for me, you gave me strength and lifted my burdens. Thank you, Lord, for giving me strength to carry on."
There was no television monitor in the room. Word came that Cotto-Torres was underway. Samuel began his stretching exercises. Then he gloved up and hit the pads with Croom.
Over the next half hour, there were reports on the progress of the co-feature . . . "Torres is down in round one . . . Cotto is down in the second round."
Samuel sat on a folding metal chair and stretched his legs out in front of him. Then he stood up and began dancing once more, watching his reflection in the mirror, keeping loose in a manner that seemed calculated to force his cares away.
"Cotto and Torres are in round five," he was told.
Samuel and Kenny Croom worked the pads again.
At 10:50, Cotto-Torres ended on a seventh-round knockout.
"You walk in five minutes," Team Peter was instructed.
Pops Anderson led the group in prayer.
At 10:55, Samuel Peter left his dressing room for the ring.
On paper, the fight was a fascinating match-up. Wladimir Klitschko was once considered the class of the heavyweight division. However, even when he looked good, there were danger signs. He totally dominated Jameel McCline and Ray Mercer, but appeared to bail out each time either man threw serious punches. Then he was knocked out in two rounds by Corrie Sanders, won comeback fights against Fabio Moli and Danell Nicholson, and was stopped in five rounds by Lamon Brewster.
The loss to Brewster was particularly troubling. Afterward, the Klitschko camp claimed that their fighter had been drugged. Brewster took a contrary view. "Wladimir Klitschko is a great athlete,"Lamon opined. "But Wladimir Klitschko is not a great fighter. There's a difference."
"We know the result of the fight," Klitschko said later. "Lamon Brewster won. But l have questions. My mind was crystal clear but my body and legs wouldn't respond. I couldn't breathe. I was fighting with myself just to move in the ring, not against my opponent. And the collapse came so fast. In the third round, it took effort to get up from my chair. It's important for me to know why. I want to find the answer to what was wrong with me. A man has to know the truth about himself. It's painful for me that people think, 'This guy, if he loses, he can't live with it; he will look to find any excuses.' But this is about myself and for myself, because I want to continue my career and I don't want the same thing to happen again."
Still, regardless of the reason for his failure against Brewster, in recent fights Wladimir had looked as though he were skating on thin ice each time he entered the ring. He'd shown an inability to take big punches, and there were those who thought that he no longer took little punches well either. "From nothing to everything is a very long road in boxing," he acknowledged. "But from everything to nothing is just one short step."
Klitschko voiced the opinion that his fight with Samuel Peter was "where I will regain my stature." But the odds suggested otherwise. Samuel was a 7-to-5 favorite based on his punching power and Wladimir's suspect chin. But many of Peter's partisans were counting on Klitschko's weaknesses rather than Samuel's strengths as the key to victory. And others wondered how Peter would deal with adversity if it came his way. Real adversity. Not just being outpointed, but being tired and getting hit by a big man who could punch. Dishing it out is great; but could Samuel take it if his resolve were tested?
As expected, Emanuel Steward (who trained Klitschko) predicted that his man would win. "Boxing is so desperate for excitement in the heavyweight division that people are building Samuel Peter up beyond all reason," he declared. "Peter is nothing more than a ten-month sensation; and in my mind, he hasn't even been that sensational in those ten months. Samuel thinks he'll overpower Wladimir, but that won't happen. When you get to a certain level, you can't win fights on power alone. You think that all it takes is one of yours to make everything go your way. But being able to punch hard is only part of what world-class boxing is about. At the highest level of the sport, you don't just knock people out. Wladimir will control Samuel for the entire fight. Getting hit by a 250-pound man who knows how to fight will be a new experience for Samuel. After two rounds of eating the kind of punches that Wladimir is hitting him with, he won't want to fight anymore."
In the end, neither fighter was as flawed as the other side expected. And neither lived up to the high expectations of his backers. Peter was the aggressor for most of the night, but it was often ineffective aggression. As a person, Samuel is straightforward and honest with little artifice about him. Unfortunately, that's also true of his ring style. He rarely feinted and was often off-balance after missing with wild looping punches. That left him wide-open for counters. But since Wladimir bailed out when punches were fired and did his impression of a Ukrainian John Ruiz when Samuel got inside, the counters rarely came.
Klitschko did his most effective work with his jab. On occasion, he landed solid rights; most often, when Peter stopped punching. But when Wladimir landed, Samuel took the punches well. In round five, a clubbing left hook followed by a right hand to the back of the head put Klitschko down and "Dr. Steelhammer" became Dr. Wobbly Legs. A second knockdown that was more of a push followed. At that point, it looked as though the Klitschko strategy of "jab and grab" might become "hold and fold." But for the next four rounds, Wladimir stayed on his bike, jabbing, and holding when necessary, while Peter was unable to cut the ring off.
After round nine, Peter was visibly tired and his right eye was closing, so Steward suggested that Klitschko pick the pace up a bit and give Samuel a reason to fall. That seemed to violate one of boxing's cardinal rules; to wit, "There are times when a fighter has to punch with a puncher, but he should choose those times very carefully."
To put his opponent away, a fighter has to stay in the danger zone. So when Klitschko by his deeds said, "I'll punch with you," Samuel answered "WHACK" and Wladimir found himself on the canvas for the third time. At that point, discretion being the better part of valor, Dr. Steelhammer became elusive again.
All three judges scored the bout 114-111 for Klitschko, who connected on 129 jabs to 26 for Peter. The numbers were even on "power punches." Samuel showed heart and that he can take a good punch. When Wladimir landed, Peter took the blows well. But Samuel revealed himself to be a work in progress; not a finished fighter. Klitschko won because he was a technically more proficient boxer. And Wladimir did something that he had been unable to do before. He came back from adversity to win a fight. He proved his courage if not his chin.
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.