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Peter, Maskaev set to meet -- finally

3/5/2008 - Boxing
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

An air of inevitability seems to hover about Saturday's heavyweight title fight between Samuel Peter and Oleg Maskaev on HBO. It's a sense that Maskaev's improbable reign as champion is about to come crashing down in Cancun.

Maskaev, 39, became one of boxing's unlikeliest champions when, having been knocked out in all five of his losses, he stopped Hasim Rahman in the final round at Las Vegas in August 2006.

Although Maskaev managed to fit in a title defense by outpointing the limited Ugandan Peter Okhello, he has a history of injuries, most worryingly the ruptured and herniated disc in his back that caused him to pull out of last October's scheduled bout with Peter.

At this week's press conference in Cancun, Peter expressed what seemed genuine anger at having had to wait more than a year for his championship chance.

Peter's ire is understandable. He was obliged to box back-to-back elimination bouts against James Toney, when his split-decision win in the first fight was considered sufficiently controversial to warrant a rematch.

The feeling in boxing circles has long been that the Maskaev camp would do its best to delay a meeting with the Russian's mandatory WBC title challenger.

When the match was finally made for Madison Square Garden, Peter was further frustrated when Maskaev pulled out. Matched in a so-called interim title bout with Jameel McCline, a seemingly unfocused Peter was shockingly dropped three times in the first three rounds before jabbing his way to a decision win.

With his long wait nearing its end, the Las Vegas-based Nigerian sounds like a boxer eager to get into the ring and do damage against a champion he feels has contrived to avoid combat until the last possible moment.

Peter promised at the Cancun press conference that he would punish Maskaev for three rounds and knock him out in the fourth.

Speaking over the phone from Cancun this week, Peter's trainer, Pops Anderson, said that the fans and viewers could expect a sensational performance in terms of technique as well as punching power.

"Samuel says he's going to knock him out in four rounds, but I really want everybody to see the potential that he has, his true ability," Anderson said. "I'd really like people to see that he's a good boxer and very quick, and not just a puncher."

In other words, Anderson would like Peter to use his improved left jab and combinations, take his time and set up Maskaev for a classical type of KO rather than simply seeking to club him to defeat.

Efforts to reach Maskaev's trainer Victor Valle Jr. and his promoter Dennis Rappaport for comment were unsuccessful.

New Yorker Rappaport has worked wonders in rebuilding Maskaev's career, taking him from apparent has-been to the heavyweight championship. Rappaport called it a "Cinderella story with a Russian accent," but one wonders if he senses an unhappy ending is looming.

Maskaev hasn't boxed for 15 months, and now he goes into the ring against a man who is probably the heavyweight division's most formidable puncher.

At the age of 27, Peter has developed into more than merely a one-dimensional banger. He was composed and competent when actually outboxing ring-wise Toney in their rematch. I give Peter credit for overcoming the shaky start to box his way home against McCline, which took character and a cool head.

Now, Peter seems destined to be champion. His manager, Ivaylo Gotzev, certainly believes so, saying in a phone conversation: "Samuel's going to take over and become a heavyweight champion that people can recognize."

Although Peter was outpointed by Wladimir Klitschko in his only loss -- despite dropping the Ukrainian three times -- Gotzev believes it was just part of the learning process. "We believe he's definitely advanced and developed," he said. "If he fought Klitschko at this hour, it would be a whole different outcome."

Still, Maskaev might be encouraged by the fact that Klitschko was able to outbox Peter, and that McCline almost stopped him.

Maskaev can hit with the right hand, as he showed vividly when he knocked Rahman through the ropes in 1999, and again when he broke him down to win the title seven years later.

Trainer Victor Valle has said that troublesome back and elbow training injuries prevented Maskaev from giving the sort of performance he was capable of giving when he stopped Rahman in Las Vegas.

The most surprising thing in that 2006 fight was the way Maskaev was able to take Rahman's best blows. He showed no hint of having a chin problem, making one wonder about all those KO defeats.

ESPN analyst Teddy Atlas raised the point that, during the dark days of his career, Maskaev was boxing as if he expected to get knocked out.

A more confident Maskaev has seemed to take a punch better in his fistic resurrection -- but then, he is yet to be hit by Samuel Peter.

Whatever happens on Saturday, Maskaev has made his mark in boxing history by staging one of the sport's most astonishing comebacks.

Rappaport once told me that it was a humbling experience to see Maskaev fight his way to the top after being down so low.

It has indeed been a feel-good story, but now a younger, powerful challenger is waiting impatiently to grab glory. As if this was not daunting enough, there is an unsettling backdrop to a fight in which Maskaev is the clear underdog.

Rappaport, in litigation with the Mexico City-based WBC over a mandated purse division that he feels unfairly favors Peter, has voiced concerns about Maskaev getting a fair deal in Mexico. He seems worried about everything from the judging to Peter getting away with landing blows to the back of the head to the possibility of a quick intervention by the Mexican referee. WBC president Jose Sulaiman responded by expressing disappointment in Rappaport's comments.

The prefight tensions cannot be good for Maskaev, one would think, but the Russian showed mental strength to go to Germany and outclass Sinan Samil Sam in front of a hostile crowd, and he was resolute when overcoming the fancied Rahman.

Sometimes, when a fighter feels everything is against him, he can rise to the occasion and, metaphorically with his back to the wall, produce a stirring performance. Does Maskaev have it in him, though, as he approaches his 40th birthday?

Maskaev is a capable boxer and a hard puncher, but if Peter uses the left jab as well as he did in the rematch with Toney, he will not be easy to outbox -- and when the heavy punches are exchanged, the advantage will clearly be with the younger, stronger, hungrier fighter.

The threat of Maskaev's right hand -- and perhaps the memory of running into trouble against McCline -- might see Peter boxing in a somewhat conservative fashion at the outset of the fight, despite his prediction of a quick finish. However, the power and pressure will surely be coming.

It's hard to imagine Maskaev holding Peter off for 12 rounds. Sooner or later, it seems inevitable that a big left hook or right hand from Peter will get Maskaev into difficulties, at which point the challenger is likely to follow up with a fight-ending barrage of punches.

"Six or seven rounds," says Pops Anderson.

I cannot argue with that.

Graham Houston is the American editor of Boxing Monthly and writes for FightWriter.com.