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Klitschko long ago conquered strongest foe

When Wladimir Klitschko steps into the ring with David Haye on July 2, it will mark the culmination of a fight over two years in the making.

For many, it is the second-biggest fight the sport has to offer -- and the most important heavyweight bout since Lennox Lewis-Mike Tyson in 2002. It's also an opportunity to finally see the long-reigning king of boxing's (fading) glamor division in his moment of truth against a dangerous opponent in his prime.

But don't buy too much into that last part.

Because the truth is, Klitschko has been down this road before, already conquered those demons. The fighter, often criticized for a boring style and unimpressive resume, passed that test long ago.

It has been nearly six years since his career-defining moment in Atlantic City, N.J., when a 29-year-old Klitschko -- boxing's next big thing-turned-damaged goods -- took his final shot to right a career shipwrecked by stoppage defeats to less-than-household names Corrie Sanders and Lamon Brewster. Facing unbeaten slugger Samuel Peter in a title eliminator, Klitschko did just that by getting off the canvas three times to claim a unanimous decision victory in September 2005.

It wasn't pretty. And save for some effective boxing that widened the scorecards and exposed the wide technical gap between him and the heavy-handed Peter, it was touch-and-go for Klitschko for much of the final seven rounds. Although he often held (sometimes for dear life), Klitschko ultimately survived.

It's fascinating to consider how much his reputation has changed in the ensuing years. Not only has Klitschko not been threatened since the first Peter fight (Klitschko won a rematch by 10th-round KO in 2010), it's nearly impossible to recall a time he was rocked or even hit flush. The strapping, confident champion has run off streaks of 13 wins and nine title defenses (including seven by stoppage) since that mercurial night at Boardwalk Hall.

But it was on that night that he became a fighter.

"Peter was a big puncher who was in shape in those days, and Klitschko was a guy with a suspicious chin," said veteran referee and former heavyweight contender Randy Neumann, who officiated the bout. "You put those factors together and you had an interesting fight.

"Peter knocked him down three times, and I was surprised on a couple of them that Klitschko just about made it up. Fortunately, they came at the end of the round; otherwise he was history."

Klitschko's moment of truth came in the fifth round when Peter rallied to score two knockdowns. Fading fast in the same round he had been stopped a year earlier against Brewster, Klitschko held a similar deer-in-the-headlights gaze, with body language that screamed exhaustion. Only this time Klitschko wilted but never broke; he dug deep to survive the round.

All of Klitschko's losses up to that point (including a third stoppage loss to journeyman Ross Puritty in 1998) had been more the result of exhaustion than crushing blows. And if fatigue "makes a coward out of us all," as Vince Lombardi once said, it was in that exact moment against Peter that Klitschko defeated his two greatest adversaries to date: fear and doubt.

"I thought Klitschko was gone [in Round 5], but having been a fighter myself, I like to give the guys the opportunity since they are there to fight," said Neumann, who faced the likes of Jimmy Young, Jerry Quarry and Chuck Wepner before retiring in 1977 with a record of 31-7-0. "The win was very important because Klitschko had gotten knocked dead by guys that were not great fighters.

"But I think ever since the Peter fight, [Klitschko's trainer] Manny Steward has turned him into a defensive machine with that big jab out front and he doesn't get hit now like he used to. He has matured, as well. Remember, he was pretty young back then. But that's how you make fighters. You change and you learn things. You come along, mature and improve."

While Klitschko's rise to prominence has perfectly coincided with the fall of the heavyweight division (something out of his control), you have to appreciate what the champion has made of his career since.

Critics will always point to the lack of a compelling American heavyweights as a major cause of the division's demise. Ironically, the Ukrainian Klitschko's story of redemption to become a self-made success is as idealistic as the American dream.

It's true that Haye's punching power and ability to box make him the most dangerous opponent Klitschko has faced to date. But
Klitschko already has conquered a more intimidating bully: the one within. The one who begs you to quit.

Even Haye has nothing on that opponent. And since defeating it on that fateful night in Atlantic City, Klitschko, in all the best ways, hasn't been the same.