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The night that made Klitschko

Wladimir Klitschko
Tom Briglia/WireImage
There were no titles on the line when Wladimir Klitschko and Samuel Peter met in the ring for the first time. But it was a match-up with far-reaching implications that captured the imagination of fight fans, writes Thomas Hauser

KNOCKOUT power is an aphrodisiac in boxing. And the heavyweights are boxing’s flagship division. Because of these realities, a lot of dreams were riding on Samuel Peter’s broad shoulders when he arrived at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City on the night of September 24, 2005, to fight Wladimir Klitschko.

Peter was born into a middle-class family in Nigeria and is one of the two best heavyweights ever to come out of Africa. Ike Ibeabuchi is the other. He was a promising soccer player, fast and strong, until an adolescent knee injury ended his hopes for turf glory. Then he turned to boxing and came to the United States in 2001 to pursue his ring career. Prior to fighting Klitschko, he had 24 wins in 24 fights with 21 knockouts.

A likeable man with a ready smile, Peter was married with two children. At times, it appeared as though his cell phone was surgically attached to his ear.

“I’m a happy person,” Samuel said. “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.” As for residing in the United States, he declared, “It’s a great life here. Someday, I will be buried in Nigeria, but I am happy where I am now.”

Regarding the sweet science, Peter proclaimed:

  • “In boxing, I have never been knocked down and I never will be. I am a special fighter. I don’t think anybody can put me down. I don’t compare myself with anybody because I am special. One day, people will compare other fighters to me.”
  • “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.”
  • “Boxing to me is a game. 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.”

Meanwhile, prior to fighting Peter, Klitschko was considered damaged goods. After starting his career with 24 consecutive victories, he’d been knocked out by Ross Puritty (a 13-loss journeyman). He rebounded with 16 straight wins (all but one by knockout) and claimed the WBO heavyweight title. But even then, there were danger signs.

Klitschko had totally dominated Jameel McCline and Ray Mercer during his second streak, but appeared to bail out each time either man threw serious punches. Then he lost his title when 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 Wladimir had been drugged. “We know the result of the fight,” Klitschko said. “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.”

Extensive tests overseen by Dr. Margaret Goodman (chief ringside physician for the Nevada State Athletic Commission) found no evidence that Klitschko had been drugged. And regardless of the reason for his failure against Brewster, Wladimir often looked as though he was skating on thin ice when he was in 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. Desultory wins over DaVarryl Williamson and Eliseo Castillo after the loss to Brewster did nothing to restore his lustre.

“From nothing to everything is a very long road in boxing,” Wladimir acknowledged. “But from everything to nothing is just one short step.”
On paper, Klitschko-Peter was an intriguing match-up. Wladimir voiced the view that the fight was “where I will regain my stature.” But the odds suggested otherwise.

Peter was a 7/5 betting favorite, based on his punching power and Klitschko’s suspect chin. Indeed, many of Samuel’s partisans were counting on Wladimir’s weaknesses as much as Samuel’s strengths in calculating Peter’s keys to victory. But others wondered how Samuel 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 Peter 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,” Steward declared. “Peter is nothing more than a 10-month sensation. And in my mind, he hasn’t even been that sensational in those 10 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.”

★ ★ ★

Wearing gray sweatpants and a white T-shirt with “www.samuel-peter.com” emblazoned in green letters across the front, Samuel Peter entered his dressing room at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City on fight night at 8:20, lay down down on a rubdown table, and closed his eyes.

He seemed smaller than his 243 pounds. Samuel’s wife, Enobong, came into the room and squeezed his hand. At 8.35, he signaled for someone to turn on his music. Gentle sounds filtered through the air.

Peter sat up on the rubdown table and began to sing. “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.”

Assistant trainer Cornelius Boza-Edwards took a pair of scissors and started cutting loose threads from the blue sequined trunks that Samuel would wear later in the evening.

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 – the taking of a urine sample by the New Jersey State Board of Athletic Control, the referee’s pre-fight instructions – followed. From time to time, Samuel stood up and danced to the music.

At 9.05, Vitali Klitschko (Wladimir’s older brother) and James Bashir (an assistant to Emanuel Steward) came in to watch Boza-Edwards tape Peter’s hands. Samuel ignored them and 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’d 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 was 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. Boza-Edwards 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.

At 9.35, the taping was done. Peter would be called to the ring sometime between 10.20 and 11.00 depending on the length of the semi-final bout between Miguel Cotto and Ricardo Torres.

Once again, Samuel began to 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 had begun. Samuel began a series of stretching exercises. Then he gloved up and hit the pads with Croom.

Over the next half-hour, there were reports on the progress of Cotto-Torres… “Torres is down in round one… Cotto is down in the second round.” Samuel sat on a folding metal chair and stretched out his legs. Then he stood up and began to dance, smiling at his reflection in a mirror on the wall.

“Cotto and Torres are in round five,” he was told.

Kenny Croom and Samuel worked the pads again.

Cotto stopped Torres in the seventh round.

“You walk in five minutes,” Team Peter was instructed.

Pops Anderson led the group in prayer.

At 10.55, Peter left his dressing room for the ring. Every fight is a journey into the unknown. The fact that he was stepping up in class made this encounter particularly unpredictable for him. For the first time in his professional career, Samuel would be facing an opponent whose tools were comparable to, if not better than, his own.

Wladimir Klitschko
Christof Koepsel/Bongarts/Getty Images

In the end, neither fighter was as flawed as the other side had hoped for. And neither lived up to the high expectations of his backers. Peter was the aggressor for most of the bout, but it was often ineffective aggression. As a person, Samuel is straightforward and honest, with little artifice. Unfortunately, that was also true of his ring style. He rarely feinted and often was off-balance after missing with wild looping punches, leaving him wide-open for counters. But since Wladimir bailed out when punches were fired and fell into a clinch when Samuel got inside, the counters rarely came.

Klitschko did his most effective work with his jab. On occasion, he landed solid right hands. 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 on the canvas. 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 off the ring.

After nine rounds, Peter was visibly tired; his right eye was closing; and Steward suggested that Klitschko pick the pace up a bit to give Samuel a reason to fall. But to put an opponent away, a fighter has to move into 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, Klitschko became elusive again.

All three judges scored the bout 114-111 for Klitschko, who outjabbed Peter by a 129-to-26 margin. The “power punch” numbers were even.

Wladimir won because he was the technically more proficient boxer. And he did something that he’d been unable to do in the past. He came back from adversity to win a fight. He proved his courage if not his chin.

Samuel showed heart and the ability to take a good punch. But he was exposed as a work in progress rather than a finished fighter.

Following the loss to Klitschko, Peter won decisions over James Toney (twice) and Jameel McCline. Then he knocked out Oleg Maskaev to claim the WBC heavyweight title. But he was still a fighter who relied heavily on brute strength. In the first defense of his belt, he was knocked out by Vitali Klitschko (who was returning to the ring after a four-year absence). Vitali won every minute of every round. He might have won every 10-second segment. Showtime blow-by-blow commentator Steve Albert labeled the bout “a glorified sparring session,” and expert analyst Al Bernstein said Samuel’s prerformance was “dreadful.” Eventually, Peter was relegated to opponent status, fighting at weights as high as 291 pounds and losing six of his final 10 bouts between 2010 and 2019.

At the other end of the spectrum, in the years following his triumph over Peter, Wladimir Klitschko crafted another long winning streak (22 fights including a 10th-round knockout in a 2010 rematch against Samuel). He collected multiple belts and was widely recognised as the class of the heavyweight division. Finally, in 2015, Wladimir was outpointed by Tyson Fury and relinquished his crown.

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