- Ron Borges
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NEW YORK -- If patience is a virtue, then Samuel Peter might be the most virtuous man in boxing. That may not be saying much in the byzantine world of prize fighting, but if Peter defeats Jameel McCline Saturday night at Madison Square Garden, that victory will say all that he's ever really wanted said about him.
It will say that he is, at last, the heavyweight champion of the world, or at least that portion of the world under the jurisdiction of the World Boxing Council. These days, controlling a portion of the heavyweight kingdom is about the best a man can hope for, and so Samuel Peter will, for a time at least, content himself with that if it comes to pass because perhaps no one in boxing understands better than he the vagaries of getting into such a position.
Twice Peter had to win "elimination" fights designed to decide a No. 1 contender just to eliminate one guy. Once he finally accomplished that, he never got to fight the man he'd fought twice to get his hands on. If this is confusing, so are the politics of boxing.
More than 13 months ago, Peter won a split decision over former middleweight champion James Toney to move himself into the mandatory contender's position. Peter foolishly believed that victory actually had accomplished what he'd set out to accomplish, which was to fight his way to a title shot against the winner of a bout between WBC interim champion Hasim Rahman and challenger Oleg Maskaev. When Maskaev won that fight in startling fashion by knocking out the imploding Rahman, Peter felt it would just be a matter of time before he became the first Nigerian-born heavyweight champion in boxing history.
He was right about that. He just had no idea how much time it would take.
"This title is not easy to get," Peter said recently in about as succinct an analysis as is possible of what he has been through.
Before he ever got to Maskaev, the WBC ordered Peter to fight a rematch with Toney because of the allegedly controversial nature of that split decision. That took place in January, with Peter this time dominating Toney so convincingly one judge gave him 11 of the 12 rounds while the other two gave him all but two. That finally seemed to have put the 27-year-old power puncher known as "The Nigerian Nightmare" on a collision course with Maskaev, which is where the nightmare really began.
First, Maskaev's people tried to convince Peter to take $2 million in step-aside money to allow Maskaev to fight for big rubles in Moscow against formerly retired ex-champion Vitali Klitschko. Despite the protests of co-promoter Dino Duva, Peter agreed only to learn later what Duva knew all along.
"There was never a dollar for real on the table," Duva said this week. "They never delivered the money. It was all b-------. They conned everybody for a couple of months. We agreed to a deal and then they never delivered it. That's what was so frustrating about the whole thing. We're never going to let that happen again for Sam.
"We're going to do everything we can to make sure he never gets delayed again. I'm hoping and expecting Sam to win, and if that happens, one thing I can promise everybody is that no Russians, no fighters, are ever going to delay Samuel Peter's career again.''
Among those "Russians" would be the elder Klitschko, the former WBC titleholder who tried to strong-arm his way into a direct title shot with Maskaev after a two-year retirement -- and he nearly pulled it off until the WBC was pressured into admitting the "emeritus" status they'd granted Klitschko did not entitle him to an immediate shot at the champion. That was especially true after Peter's lawyers began to prepare a lawsuit to make that point an expensive one for the WBC.
A string of injuries had forced Klitschko to retire two years ago and relinquish the interim title to Rahman without a fight. Rahman then lost it to Maskaev, making Rahman the second man in boxing history to hold the heavyweight title without ever winning an actual heavyweight title fight. Now, after all Peter has been through, he finds himself in the same position as Rahman was -- a champion without ever having won a championship fight.
The WBC awarded him the interim champion's status a week ago after Maskaev pulled out of their scheduled Saturday showdown because of several bulging discs in his back that have sidelined him indefinitely. But Peter believes his interim time atop the division will be a lot longer than Rahman's was.
"I'm coming into my time," Peter (28-1, 22 KO) insisted this week. "This is the time I've been waiting for all my life. I am heavyweight champion of the world. I consider myself the best heavyweight in the world. Life is all about timing. This is my chance."
His "chance" seems like a good one against the 37-year-old McCline, who has already lost three previous shots at the heavyweight title. At 6-6, McCline will tower over the barely 6-foot Peter but it is Peter who packs the kind of wallop that can make opponents null and void with one crushing left hook or straight right hand.
Coincidentally, McCline (38-7-3, 23 KO) had been preparing to fight the oft-MIA elder Klitschko himself when he learned that the former champion had injured his back. Opportunity seemed to have slipped away for him only for it to knock again almost immediately when Maskaev's injury forced him to pull out of his long-postponed appointment with Peter.
Through all of these ups and mostly downs, Peter has remained stoic and steadfast, believing that two things that could not be denied were on his side: Time and the power he carries in both hands. Knockouts, after all, remain the driving force in heavyweight boxing. Few people come to the arena expecting to see a heavyweight who reminds them of a contestant on "Dancing With the Stars." What they want, and expect, is to leave after someone in the ring has begun to see stars. That is what Samuel Peter will bring to Madison Square Garden Saturday night -- the aura of a man capable of causing concussions with either hand. It is the kind of calling card his bombastic co-promoter Don King would call, "Double shock power!''
"I'm now taking over as new heavyweight champion of the world," Peter said flatly. "I fought 24 rounds for the championship [against Toney] between September and January, so being heavyweight champion now, I'm fine [with it]. I'm taking over what I'm supposed to do. You will see it on Saturday night."
Actually, no one might have ever seen it had a troupe of amateur boxers not come to train at Peter's school in Nigeria in 1992. Peter was 11 at the time, and being the inquisitive type asked if he might train with them, a request the team's coach found singularly amusing. So amusing he thought he'd teach this precocious boy a lesson.
Legend has it that Peter was thrust into the ring with one of the team's top amateurs and knocked him cold. Legend in boxing is often subject to some rewriting over time but that is the story and all Nigeria is sticking to it.
Eight years later, Peter represented Nigeria in the Olympic Games in Sydney, losing to Italian champion Paolo Vidoz on points in the quarterfinals. He then turned pro and made a rapid ascent despite possessing only the rawest rudiments of the sport. His approach was, and remains, one of a bull in a china shop. He is in the ring to break things, most often his opponent's mind.
The only time that hasn't worked was when he faced off with Klitschko's younger brother, present IBF champion Wladimir, two years ago. As with Toney, Peter was fighting to eliminate his competition for the No. 1 ranking in both the IBF and WBO ratings and he seemed well on his way to doing so after dropping Klitschko three times. But such were the limits of his boxing skills that Peter barely won another minute of that fight and hence remarkably lost the decision, 114-111, on all three cards.
That night is well behind Samuel Peter now, though, and so is his long nightmarish tussle with the politics of heavyweight boxing. He is a belt holder today, an interim champion (aren't all champions?) who intends to cement his place in the minds of fight fans by hitting McCline in the head as often as necessary with something that feels like a fist full of cement.
"I'm 300, 400 times stronger than McCline," Peter said. "I've fought a lot of people, even in my training. Nothing is difficult. On Saturday, you will see."
What you'll see is a bull of a man who is supremely confident that his destiny has always been to be in this moment. To be in the ring at Madison Square Garden, which remains the mecca of boxing to many despite the rise of Las Vegas as a venue for big-money matches. To be standing with his hand raised and a champion's belt around his ample waist.
That is the dream of the Nigerian Nightmare. A dream, he says, whose time not only has come but which is long overdue.
"It doesn't matter who I fight," Peter said. "McCline is a good fighter, but what does it matter? I'll do whatever it takes to defend my title. I've waited nine months for this chance. I can't wait no more for anybody. I'm here. I've taken over."
Ron Borges, who has won numerous Boxing Writers Association of America awards, covers boxing for HBO.com and for Boxing Monthly.