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Brittle Vitali hoping to prove skeptics wrong on Oct. 11

8/30/2008 - Boxing
Vitali Klitschko, left, and Sam Peter were all business at the news conference Wednesday to announce their Oct. 11 fight. Tom Casino/Showtime

NEW YORK -- Grumbling sportswriters might have wondered why the promoters would go to the bother of hiring out midtown Manhattan's most prominent steakhouse only to serve up meager a repast of bagels and muffins, but trust us, Dino Duva and the K2 folks knew what they were doing. They didn't want to take a chance on Vitaly Klitschko hurting himself trying to lift one of those three-pound sirloins for which Gallagher's is justifiably famous.

Trust us, Dino Duva knew what he was doing. He didn't want to take a chance on Vitali Klitschko not being able to fight after hurting himself trying to lift one of those three-pound sirloins for which Gallagher's is justifiably famous.

The WBC's fragile champion emeritus had flown in from Beijing after attending the Olympics. His successor, Samuel Peter, flew in from Las Vegas, whence he had gone after opening his training in his native Nigeria. The two briefly convened in New York on Wednesday before going their ways to separate training camps in Europe.

Peter will prepare for his Oct. 11 date with Klitscho in the Black Forest of Germany, but instead of Hansel and Gretel, his playmates there will include a pair of Vitali impersonators culled from the champion's roster of prior victims: Julius Long, the Detroit 7-footer whom The Nightmare knocked out in one round at the Mohegan Sun a couple of years ago, and 6-foot-6 Jameel McCline, who floored Peter three times but still wound up on the wrong end of a unanimous decision at Madison Square Garden last October.

Klitschko, in the meantime, will spend the next month frolicking like Heidi through the Austrian Alps as he trains at the same Tyrolian resort where younger brother Wladimir prepped for Tony Thompson. Vitali's sparring partners have yet to be named, but according to manager Berndt Boente will come from a list of volunteers summoned by trainer Fritz Stunelz.

The ostensible purpose of bringing the principals together in New York was to beat the drums for the Oct. 11 Showtime telecast (the Berlin fight will be shown on tape-delay, followed by the live broadcast of Antonio Tarver-Chad Dawson), but there was another not-so-subtle message being delivered to the attendant media: "Look, here Vitali is. Only six weeks to go and he hasn't pulled out yet!"

Another Klitschko no-show?
The purchase of "cancellation insurance" was at one time standard boxing practice. To protect their posteriors against the unexpected, promoters used to take out a policy as soon as they rented a hall. But eventually the word got around that a canceled show could be even more profitable than an actual one. (See Lloyds of London vs. Don King, etc.) Premiums skyrocketed into the stratosphere, with the result that today's promoters would usually rather take their chances than pay them.

But you'd better believe Dino Duva has taken out insurance on this one. Given Vitali's track record over the past several years, the man would have to be a fool not to. But Duva says he doesn't expect to collect.

"I'm pretty confident Vitali will be there," said Peter's promoter. "He knows what's on the line. Even if he got slightly injured in training, I think he would still fight --unless he literally can't make it up the stairs, that is."

The litany of ailments that have beset Dr. Klitschko in the past decade makes him sound like Gene Wilder's monster gone haywire in "Young Frankenstein." There was, let's see: the torn rotator cuff that ended his fight with Chris Byrd in 2000; the bad back that postponed his fight against Larry Donald in 2002; three separate injuries, including the knee sprain, that postponed three fights against Hasim Rahman in 2004 and 2005 and precipitated his announced retirement from the ring; and then, after he un-retired last year, there was the herniated disk (and subsequent surgery) that scuttled his fight with McCline.

Now, you might say Vitali, who turned 38 in July, has been just unlucky, or you might say he's just getting old. But when the body of a guy who by his own admission used steroids in his 20s starts to fall apart when he's in his thirties, it is rarely a reversible trend. (In his 2004 autobiography, Vitali acknowledged having been booted off the 1996 Ukrainian Olympic team after testing positive for banned substances. If nothing else, this at least cleared the decks for Wladimir to win the superheavyweight gold medal in Atlanta.)

So who's the champ?
In New York, Vitali defended his right of succession.

"I did not lose the title," Klitschko said Wednesday. "I gave away my title freely because of my knee injury."

Merriam-Webster defines "emeritus" as "one retired from professional life but permitted to retain as an honorary title the rank of the last office held."

It doesn't say anything about the honoree being entitled to get his old job back.

This might be mere semantic quibbling. Perhaps WBC president Jose Sulaiman just made Vitali an "emeritus" when he meant to make him "in recess," but Samuel Peter, for one, seemed unimpressed.

"I want to clear up one thing," The Nightmare said. "I am the true heavyweight champion. Vitali, you never beat a champion. You say you are the champion, but you are not a champion. You can't be the champion until you beat me, and you can't [beat Peter]."

The Nightmare is wrong about one thing: Back in 1999, Klitschko did beat one champion -- Herbie Hide, to win the WBO title. But his point is well taken. In championship fights over the course of his career, Klitschko has beaten Hide, Ed Mahone, Obed Sullivan and Corrie Sanders. He lost in title fights against the only two decent heavyweights he fought -- Byrd and Lennox Lewis -- and withdrew from scheduled bouts with Rahman and McCline.

Now, in the spectrum of mediocrity that characterizes today's heavyweights, that doesn't necessarily mark him as undeserving. But it does make you wonder how and how everyone from HBO to Jose Suliaman to whoever is in charge of handing out the belts at The Ring magazine arrived, to their everlasting discredit, at the simultaneous conclusion that Klitschko was the logical successor to Lewis as the best heavyweight in the world.

He might, in fact, not even be the best Klitschko in the world.

None of which is to say that Klitschko can't beat Peter, himself an earnest man of modest skills.

"You must always show the skeptics," Klitschko said. "Skeptical people say that I won't win because I have been out of the ring for three years. But I have a lot of presents ready for Peter on Oct. 11."

John Hornewer, the Chicago-based boxing attorney who advises Klitschko, was asked half-facetiously whether his client was going to show up this time.

"Given his history, I guess that's a fair question," Hornewer said. "But I'll tell you what: If he fights, he wins."

"I look at this as the most difficult fight of Samuel Peter's career," Duva said. "Vitali hits harder than his brother, and I think in his prime -- say, five years ago -- he was a better fighter than Wladimir ever was."

"And the inactivity, you could look at in a couple of ways," Duva added. "One is that he might be a bit rusty, but the other is that Vitali Klitschko might just be fresh as a daisy -- and that's a pretty scary thought."

George Kimball, who writes for the Irish Times and Boxing Digest as well as ESPN.com, won the Nat Fleischer Award for Excellence in Boxing Journalism in 1985. His new book, "Four Kings: Leonard, Hagler, Hearns, Duran and the Last Great Era of Boxing" will be published later this year.