On September 24, 2005, current IBF and WBO heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko, 54-3 (48), entered the ring at Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall a thrice-stopped fighter with many doubters and a lot to prove. His opponent: Sam “The Nigerian Nightmare” Peter, an undefeated Nigeria-born, power-punching slugger with highlight reel KOs and a “Who Next?!” (Yes, it’s spelled that way) attitude when it came to opponents. While he was considered the cruder fighter in terms of skills, many picked him to beat the superior technician Klitschko with the shaky whiskers and the confidence issues.
Klitschko had his fight with Ross Puritty stopped when his then-trainer Fritz Sdunek jumped in the ring to end matters back in December 1998. The excuse was that Wlad had punched himself out. And indeed, Klitschko was a punching machine when he was younger, a combination factory, throwing a hard left jab in rapid succession to with a fight hand, a hook off that jab and uppercuts not usually seen by men 6’6½” tall and carrying 225+ pounds. But he seemed to tire himself out doing what he did best. When that happened, the offensive juggernaut didn’t have the defense to hide the chin deficiency.
The chin issue came back to haunt him again 16 wins later in Germany in March of 2003 when nearly retired South African southpaw Corrie Sanders inducted Wlad to the hall of guys knocked the hell out by a punch they didn’t see coming. Klitschko got blitzed by the fast, heavy hands of Sanders and was dropped early and often. Wlad’s saving grace was that he kept getting up despite being cut and dazed beyond continuing.
Once again, Klitschko rebuilt and would soon hire veteran Hall of Fame trainer Emanuel Steward, who had once guided the careers of Tommy Hearns and the last great and unified heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis. But again, Wladimir would falter.
Klitschko would take on unheralded puncher Lamon Brewster in April 2004. Brewster, a huge underdog dedicated the future win to his late trainer, Bill Slayton, but this was dismissed as a mere hope on his part. This time, Wlad’s tendency to punch himself out and leave himself open to danger came back to haunt him big time as he unloaded his full arsenal on Brewster from the opening bell. It was only after enduring four rounds of pure unadulterated punishment that Brewster came alive and landed a series of hooks on Klitschko that crashed Klitschko to his knees at the bell in a heap. He crawled towards his corner on his hands and knees, totally exhausted but still trying to get up when the fight was waved off. This time the excuses were that Wlad had either been drugged or had too much Vaseline on his legs and it tired him out. Neither claim went anywhere. The whispers about Wladimir were that he had a ton of talent and a brittle chin.
It was here that Manny Steward began to do his best work. Everyone abandoned the duo. All faith had been lost. Only Wladimir, Steward and Wlad’s older brother, WBC heavyweight champ Vitali Klitschko remained. Slowly, Steward took the kernels of possibility found in the moments where Wlad would not stop trying, his prodigious technical abilities, and of course, the ridiculous one-punch power Wlad possesses in either hand (“Especially the left,” Steward would say on a recent conference call) and taught him better defense, a calmer, more relaxed way of going about things and rebuilt a fighter that, today, is the best heavyweight champ- not named Vitali Klitschko- in the world.
Still, there were shaky moments en route to that first meeting with Peter. Wlad was dropped against DaVarryl Williamson in his first post-Brewster outing and took out game but way overmatched Eliseo Castillo the next year.
According to Steward, who spoke to a group of reporters on a recent conference call, Wladimir asked for a fight where he could get the respect of both the fans and the boxing writers. He needed a puncher to test himself against.
The fight was a perfect example of the close relationship that Steward and Wladimir have developed as the veteran trainer helped his fighter across the finish line of a brutal and tense race. Klitschko controlled the action against his slower but dangerous foe, jabbing and grabbing while offering right hands that landed flush but did nothing to neither dent Peter’s chin nor deter his will to attack.
But the fight was not without its shaky moments as Wladimir hit the deck twice in the fifth and again in the tenth off two rabbit punches (punches behind the head) and one clean shot. Each time, Steward had a mini-heart attack as he looked at his fighter battling within himself to get up, prove the doubters wrong and beat the man in front of him.
“Until the 12th and final round, it was the most tense and emotional fight that I have experienced in my life because I knew that Wladimir, at least I felt, he was ahead on points,” explained Steward, “but I knew the question on everybody’s mind, and I looked around and all the people, all the German people, all the Ukrainian people, everybody was praying; I said, ‘It’s going to be OK.’ I had never had so much stress coming into a 12th round and not only did he make it, he had Sam Peter out on his feet.”
Klitschko, despite the knockdowns, was indeed winning handily on all cards but still he had a point to prove and he never stopped trying to hurt Peter. Finally, deep in the last round, he hit Peter with a left hook that made Peter’s body tense and wobble in place like a puppet that had a couple strings cut. Wlad was not able to finish but it was this moment that Steward called the most crucial of his career.
Fast forward to the eve of this Saturday night, September 11, 2010 at the Commerzbank-Arena, Frankfurt, Hessen, Germany where Wladimir and Peter, 34-3 (27), will get it on for the heavyweight titles once again after mandatory challenger Alexander Povetkin’s team pulled the plug on a match-up. Wlad is now the class of the division, devastating all in his path and cleaning out the division. On the his hit list is former titleholder Chris Byrd and Brewster in rematches, number one contender Calvin Brock, Sultan Ibragimov, Ruslan Chagaev, Hasim Rahman, Tony Thompson, and Eddie Chambers. It’s truly a Who’s Who of the division and while some of those names (Byrd, Brewster, Rahman) had seen much better days or were never world beaters to begin with (Thompson and Austin) Wladimir has done what champions do and that is take on every challenge in front of him. And, oh yeah, Klitschko knocked out or stopped eight of those nine men in the process.
Despite his previous win over Peter, Steward feels this fight is the most dangerous Wlad has fought in five years. The reason being, out of all the men Klitschko has beaten, none of them possessed what Sam Peter does: brutal punching power.
“This is one of the truly exciting heavyweight fights to me because it’s one of the few times you have punchers,” said Steward. “I said during an HBO broadcast that one of the biggest problems in boxing today is nobody knocks anybody out. Everybody is fast and they do their little pitty-pat that works well on TV. Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop! But nobody knocks anyone out. This is the most dangerous opponent that Wladimir has fought in five years because the rest of the guys we fought, and I am not degrading anyone, Chambers and all the other fighters, but we never had to worry about punching power. But Sam Peter is a puncher. And I can’t help but think of a guy Lennox Lewis had trouble with in Hasim Rahman that landed one single punch when Lennox was winning the fight. And that Iran Barkley-Tommy Hearns, Lennox, all of those fights remind me of what a puncher can do. This is the first fight where we are going against a fighter who can punch.”
Peter has gone through a rough road since that first fight. While he went on a winning streak that saw him beat James Toney twice among a lot of also-rans, his weight ballooned from the 243 he was at against Wlad to as high as 265 in a loss to Eddie Chambers. Peter would eventually get a shot at a title when he took on Oleg Maskaev in March 2008, stopping him in six but even then, the bloom seemed off the proverbial rose. Peter had lost his fire and was brutally beaten down in his next fight when Vitali Klitschko returned to the sport that October and beat him down over the course of eight rounds before Peter’s corner stopped the proceedings. From there, Peter came in at his heaviest weight, the aforementioned 265 in the losing effort to Eddie Chambers and the end seemed near for the now-30-year-old heavyweight (just turned yesterday, matter-of-factly).
But since then, Peter has signed with Top Rank, gotten a new trainer in Abel Sanchez and, according to Steward, has regained the form (he weighed 237½ in his last fight, a two-round TKO over Nagy Aguilera) that made him a dangerous and viable opponent to be feared in the first place.
“Even though since the first fight with Wladimir, Peter has not looked great in a lot of his wins [but] I saw a big difference in his last fight that I saw with his new trainer, Abel Sanchez, which is a trainer I respect tremendously,” said Steward. “Abel is a guy I have worked with before. He worked with me when I trained for an Oscar De La Hoya fight where we worked with Miguel Angel Gonzalez up at Big Bear where [Sanchez] has his gym. Abel is very competent trainer that I respect. And Sam Peter is a different fighter. He is not the same fighter that fought Vitali Klitschko and Eddie Chambers. I saw his last fight when he fought Aguilera and I was very impressed. He is a totally different fighter; the weight, he is sharper with his punches. And mentally, he is especially in a good spot. I know going into the Vitali fight, he was mentally not really there; he was upset about a lot of things regarding his promotions and whatever. I have a good relationship with Sam. He trained with me up at the Poconos where I was training with Jermain Taylor and he was training with Jameel McCline. He seems very different now in terms of his spiritual attitude and his mental attitude, physically. So we expect a very difficult fight. We know what can happen with a puncher.”
Steward has predicted an early knockout despite the praise and respect he is showing. The reason being is that, in his opinion, and being Lennox Lewis’, Gerald McClellan’s and Tommy Hearns’ former trainer makes him an authority on this: Wladimir Klitschko is the hardest one-punch knockout artist he has ever seen.
“Wladimir Klitschko, all of us must know by now, may be one of the greatest one-punch fighters in history,” said Steward. “He is of the few fighters- and I have trained many punchers- who can turn off the light switch in the middle of a big party without doing the dimmer switch first. We saw in the Chambers and Ray Austin fights. He doesn’t have to get a guy in trouble but can knock him out with one single punch. So I expect this to be a very explosive fight between two punchers.”
The heavyweights have been dead in the U.S. for some time now. Or rather they simply have faded away until a new star emerges. Exciting heavyweight fights have been few and far between. Chris Arreola has provided a few exciting moments with his Chad Witherspoon and Travis Walker fights. But the great days of old when big men brought big punches and were willing to face each other are long gone, with the exception of the Klitschko Brothers, who seem to knock everyone out. Adding a guy like Peter to the mix, especially when he is in shape and focused, can only make for an explosive night that will remind of why the heavyweights are known as the glamour division.
“It probably might be the best fight in a long time in terms of punching power, the way heavyweights are supposed to be about,” said Steward. “If you look at the last two big and exciting heavyweight fights for a championship, I think the most exciting fight was probably between Vitali Klitschko and a guy named Lennox Lewis. When it comes down to just drama in heavyweight title fights, you have to go back to the fight with Wladimir Klitschko and Sam Peter where Wladimir was down three times and came back to win a unanimous decision and when it came to the 12th round, he had Sam Peter out on his feet, which you can’t get much more dramatic than that.
“This type of fight is what makes boxing and the heavyweight division and I am excited by the fight,” continued Steward. “A little nervous but I have much, much respect for the opponent and his new trainer and his mental attitude and his condition.”
Still, Steward feels his guy is the one to beat here. Even with all the accolades and the high KO percentage, Steward feels his charge has not quite let the dogs out the way he can. According to him, we have yet to see the best of Wladimir Klitschko, who, like Lennox Lewis before him, looks at the sport like chess instead of a dogfight. That tendency has made some of his fights, like the recent Eddie Chambers last-seconds KO win, less than exciting to watch even with a KO to cap it off. This time, Steward feels we won’t be waiting all night for the lights to go out.
“I think in this fight the way the emotions are building, I think Wlad will unload his missiles earlier than usual,” predicted Steward. “He is a very accurate puncher. When he punches a little harder sooner, people get knocked out. I don’t see it going more than five or six rounds.”
ESPN3.com will present live coverage of the Wladimir Klitschko/Samuel Peter bout from Frankfurt, Germany, for U.S. fight fans beginning at 5 PM, ET on Saturday September 11, 2010. ESPN Deportes will also air the fight on tape-delay at 8 PM ET with a re-air set for ESPN on Sept. 12 at 4:30 PM ET.