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Peter's humble upbringing set foundation for hungry career as a fighter

3/7/2008 - Boxing
AP Photo/Eric Jamison

CANCUN, Mexico -- For 16 months, heavyweight Samuel Peter has waited for his title shot, and he plans to make titleholder Oleg Maskaev pay dearly.

"I've been waiting for Oleg Maskaev to get into the ring with me for a year-and-a-half," Peter said. "Not only am I going to knock him out, but I will punish him for the long wait. He is going to feel like he is getting two years' worth of physical punishment. I'm going to bring excitement back to the heavyweight championship."

The knockout artist will finally get his title shot against Maskaev at Plaza de Toros -- a bull ring in the heart of this bustling resort city on the Mayan Riviera -- on Saturday night (HBO, 9:30 ET) in the first heavyweight championship fight ever staged in boxing-mad Mexico.

Opening the telecast, unified lightweight titleholder champ Juan Diaz (33-0, 17 KOs) will defend against mandatory challenger Nate Campbell (31-5-1, 25 KOs).

For Peter, 27, the title shot is indeed a long time coming after beating James Toney twice in official WBC elimination bouts, waiting through Maskaev's aborted negotiations with Vitali Klitschko and then, when he finally got the fight, Maskaev pulled out with a back injury on two weeks' notice last fall.

But rising to the cusp of a heavyweight championship was the furthest thing from Peter's mind as a youngster growing up with his parents, two brothers and a sister in Akwa Ibom, Nigeria.

There was no plumbing or electricity in the family home, so one of Peter's daily chores was to fetch water from the nearest well. Peter carried the large jugs on his head.

"It was like four miles to the well and four miles back," said Peter, who now lives in Las Vegas with his wife and their four children. "I was like five years old, but that's what we had to do."

Looking back on those days, Peter (29-1, 22 KOs) said that activity probably helped him strengthen his 19-inch neck, an asset for a heavyweight.

"I didn't know that it would help me," he said. "I did that every day."

But boxing wasn't Peter's sport back then. He loved soccer, but when he was a teen, he suffered a foot injury, derailing aspirations to play more seriously.

Boxing entered his life at 16 when Nigeria's national amateur team visited his school.

"I watched them and said, 'I can do that,'" Peter said. "I went to go and train with them to see what was going on. When I went, the coach told me, 'OK, come on.' He put me in with the guy who had been boxing for about six months before me, and I just knocked him out."

That moment was the start. It led Peter to a brief 18-2 amateur career that culminated with a run to the quarterfinals at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, where he lost to eventual silver medalist Paolo Vidoz of Italy.

Peter arrived in Sydney with virtually no international reputation, but he caught the eye of manager Ivaylo Gotzev, who was there scouting pro prospects.

"When I got to the Olympics, I had heard about Samuel but nothing super exciting about him," Gotzev said. "Once I saw him, I saw that not only was he so strong, but he had real potential to be a pro because of his punching power. He had a lot of raw talent. I saw him lose to Vidoz, but I definitely thought this kid would be a world champion."

Initially, Peter was not interested in pursuing a pro career, but Gotzev convinced him to give it a try. After six pro fights, Gotzev brought him to promoter Dino Duva.

"I had heard about him and seen a tape of one of his fights," Duva said at Thursday's weigh-in, where Peter scaled 250 pounds to Maskaev's 243. "He had unbelievable raw power. You could see he was green and he had to learn to fight, but I saw the killer instinct in his eyes."

Peter rolled to a 24-0 record and then met Wladimir Klitschko in a title eliminator. Peter dropped Klitschko three times, but lost a unanimous decision.

After two wins on the comeback trail, Peter met Toney in an eliminator in September 2006, a month after Maskaev knocked out Hasim Rahman to win the belt.

Peter outpointed Toney by split decision to become Maskaev's mandatory challenger. But the Toney camp cried about the scoring and the WBC ordered an immediate rematch while Maskaev went about taking an optional defense against Peter Okhello.

In January 2007, Peter thrashed Toney in the rematch. He knocked Toney down. He beat him up. He won a lopsided decision to remain the mandatory challenger.

Still, the WBC was hesitant to order Maskaev-Peter, mainly because former titleholder Vitali Klitschko (Wladimir's older brother) announced he was coming out of retirement, and the WBC allowed him to step in front of Peter's place in line.

Months later, the Maskaev-Klitschko deal fell apart and Maskaev was ordered to fight Peter. They were set to meet Oct. 6, but two weeks before the bout, Maskaev withdrew, claiming a back injury.

Peter didn't buy Maskaev's reason.

"He was getting knocked out in the gym, that's why he pulled out," Peter said. "He didn't pull out because of an injury. He pulled out because he was getting knocked down in the gym and he was afraid to face my power."

Maskaev (34-5, 26 KOs), looking relaxed and smiling after the weigh-in, shrugged off the talk of him trying to avoid the fight.

"I always wanted to fight him," said Maskaev, 39, a naturalized U.S. citizen originally from Kazakhstan. "It was the first time [an injury] ever happened in my career like that. They're just working on my mind."

After Maskaev withdrew, Peter instead faced substitute Jameel McCline for the interim title. Although Peter was surprisingly dropped three times and badly hurt for the first time in his career, he survived to win a decision, which finally set up Saturday's showdown.

"As hard as it was to get this fight on, we will leave behind all of the negatives and just make a great fight," Gotzev said. "But I was relieved when we saw Oleg Maskaev pulling in here."

While waiting for the fight to be made, Gotzev accompanied Peter last fall on a trip to Nigeria, where Peter, who was greeted by thousands at the airport, took him to his hometown and showed him the place where he grew up.

"You cannot believe where this kid came out of and how he rose to the top with no conditions to train in," Gotzev said.

Said Peter, "I used to train on the grass, on the rocks, outside in a field. We boxed barefoot."

The lasting image of the trip for Gotzev seeing where Peter used to train.

"There was still a car tire hanging from a tree in front of his house, and that is where he trained himself by hitting the tire with his bare hands. He went on to the national team and started knocking everyone out. It's amazing to look at the conditions where he rose from. Punching a tire instead of a bag? Are you kidding?"

Said Duva: "It's a really amazing story of where he came from and for him to reach this level. It's pretty wild."

Last chance for Ruiz?

Former two-time heavyweight titlist John Ruiz (42-7-1, 29 KOs) will face former title challenger Jameel McCline (38-8-3, 23 KOs) in a 12-round bout on the untelevised portion of the undercard.

"McCline put on a great show against Peter even though he fell short," Ruiz said. "He still has it and I'm looking forward to fighting him. We're both willing to go toe-to-toe. I'm glad to be fighting in front of a Latin crowd and I know it's going to be a tough fight."

It's a critical fight for both men if they want to continue their careers at the elite level.
Ruiz, 36, is coming off an easy victory against journeyman Otis Tisdale in October, but he lost his previous two bouts in Germany.

First, Ruiz lost his title to Nikolai Valuev in December 2005. Then he lost an elimination bout to Ruslan Chagaev in November 2006.

McCline, 37, who has failed in four title shots, has lost two in a row -- a title bout to Valuev and a decision to Peter in an interim title fight last fall.

For his part, Ruiz, never a fan favorite because of his clutch-and-grab style, realizes this is probably his last chance.

"I'm tired of talking about the new John Ruiz," he said. "I can't change people's minds without them seeing me fight. I need more action, less talking about it, and I intend to show them in the ring. I've blocked that talk out for this fight.

"It's my last hurrah. The heavyweight division is wide open and it needs somebody to step-up and take charge. The statement I want to make Saturday night is I'm that heavyweight. That's why I brought in [trainer] Manny [Siaca Sr.], trained very hard, and have gotten so mentally focused. I've talked less about it with reporters, but fans [in Mexico] will see the new John Ruiz for themselves."

Dan Rafael is the boxing writer for ESPN.com.