Heavyweight Samuel Peter, the 24-year-old slugger originally from Nigeria, has been toting the tag of heir apparent in a division desperate for a new star.
Wladimir Klitschko, the Ukrainian giant, has been there, done that. Before shocking knockout losses to Corrie Sanders (2003) and Lamon Brewster (2004), Klitschko also carried the tag of "next big thing."
Now, in an ultimate crossroads fight that looms as the most significant non-title heavyweight bout of the year, Peter (24-0, 21 KOs) and Klitschko (44-3, 40 KOs) are set for their showdown Saturday night (HBO, 10 ET/PT) at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, N.J.
The fight is important for two reasons:
• It pits a pair of legitimate top-10 heavyweights at a time when many of the top contenders have been inactive or fighting weak opposition.
• The winner will earn a title shot and have the choice of a mandatory fight with either the winner of the Oct. 1 Chris Byrd-DaVarryl Williamson title bout or Wednesday's Brewster-Luan Krasniqi title bout.
Junior welterweight titlist Miguel Cotto (24-0, 20 KOs) faces mandatory Ricardo Torres (28-0, 26 KOs) in the co-feature Saturday, but it is the heavyweights who are the draw.
"The main event is by far the most meaningful and intriguing heavyweight matchup of the year to date," promoter Dino Duva said.
"It will have huge implications in the sport. It is a title eliminator and there is no question that the winner of the fight not only establishes himself as the No. 1 contender, but as the hottest, most important heavyweight in the world. The heavyweight division needs a change, and the winner will be able to freshen things up."
Peter has feasted on second-tier opposition since turning pro after the 2000 Olympics, and he has scored numerous highlight reel-worthy knockouts. However, he has yet to face a serious opponent. That is something the Klitschko camp hopes to exploit.
"Peter is going to be in with a class A fighter this time," said Emanuel Steward, Klitschko's trainer.
"He thinks he'll overpower this guy, but believe me, that is not going to happen. Peter is going in with an experienced big man this time, and he's going to realize it's a big man because of the way we're going to control him. This is a very experienced man who is focused. Peter is not going to just walk through him like he did these other guys."
But Peter said he is ready for a fighter the caliber of Klitschko, the 1996 Olympic super heavyweight gold medalist.
"I think I will be champ of the world. Nothing will stop me," said Peter, who now lives in Las Vegas and sparred briefly with Klitschko just after turning pro.
"I don't have no doubt about it."
"Samuel's confidence is very, very high right now," said trainer Andy "Pops" Anderson.
"He's ready for this, big time. It's one of those things where the timing is really great. His confidence is way up there."
Despite his role as the underdog, Klitschko was more than willing to make light of Peter's growing reputation as one of the sport's heaviest hitters.
When asked what he thought of Peter's punching power, Klitschko answered tongue in cheek: "It's a nightmare. I see him knocking this guy out, that guy out, and my confidence is going away!"
For Klitschko, the fight is about re-establishing himself as the fearsome machine who menaced the division from 2000 until his surprising second-round loss to Sanders in early 2003.
Klitschko, the younger brother of heavyweight champion Vitali Klitschko, has a resume dotted with impressive victories, including against Byrd, Jameel McCline, Ray Mercer, Monte Barrett, Frans Botha and Derrick Jefferson. None of those fights were even competitive.
However, if Sanders cracked Klitschko's armor, then Brewster seemingly shattered it. Many have declared Klitschko a has-been at age 29. His chin has been questioned. His stamina is the butt of jokes.
Klitschko has won his two bouts since the Brewster debacle, but against inferior opposition. In one of those victories, he was knocked down in a shaky technical decision against Williamson last fall.
"As far as my confidence, I'm not worried at all," Klitschko said, despite the constant questions about it. "People see me as an underdog, which is fine. I don't care about the stamina or about the chin or anything else. I care about being successful and destroying my opponent."
Steward, who will be in his man's corner rather than in his usual position broadcasting the fight for HBO, believes a victory will restore Klitschko's sagging reputation.
"One fight against a guy whom [the media] has made into this little monster, once he's knocked out, they're going to say, 'Wow! [Klitschko] is the best,'" Steward said. "That's why we took the fight. This one fight and he can jump over everything."
Around the ring
Bitter Byrd: Byrd is the longest reigning of the four alphabet heavyweight champions, having won a vacant title with a lopsided decision against Evander Holyfield in December 2002. However, Byrd has only fought three times since then and has become increasingly frustrated with the business of boxing.
"To fight three times in three years is crazy," Byrd said. "It has been disappointing to the point of sometimes you get frustrated and really just want to retire. I have been to that point, but God is faithful and I just keep plugging along. I just have to remain patient and fights will happen, but it has been disappointing."
Since the moment he won his belt, Byrd (38-2-1, 20 KOs) has battled promoter Don King to pay him his $2.5 million minimum purse, a point of contention that was a key reason for Byrd's inactivity. He finally is set to fight again Oct. 1 (Showtime, 9:15 p.m. ET/PT) against court-ordered mandatory challenger DaVarryl Williamson (22-3, 18 KOs), but for only about $425,000. That's because King won the fight in a purse bid -- despite promoting both fighters. Byrd is expected to sue King over the matter after the bout.
"I think more than anything it has been mentally draining," Byrd said of the ongoing battle with King.
"Mentally, it has been a struggle. The business side of this boxing is horrible and I think it has taken my best years of boxing. If I would have been very active these past three years, with two to three fights at least a year, you would have seen some really good fights, really special skills. But I still try to present them in the ring to the best of my ability."
If the hassle over his contract isn't enough, Byrd's fight with Williamson was a late addition to the Showtime card. The show features heavyweight James Toney (68-4-2, 43 KOs), in his first fight since a positive steroid test cost him a title, against Dominick Guinn (25-2-1, 18 KOs). The card also showcases bantamweight champ Rafael Marquez (34-3, 30 KOs) in a difficult mandatory defense against South Africa's Silence Mabuza (18-0, 15 KOs).
Although Byrd is a heavyweight champion, his fight has been relegated to the co-feature position behind Toney-Guinn. Byrd took the positioning of his bout in stride.
"(Toney) was the headlining fight coming in," Byrd said. "We just got added to the card. I guess they did not want to change it. It does not matter. I am just boxing. As long as the check clears, I do not care if I was the first fight coming out."
Lacy vs. Pemberton: Super middleweight titlist Jeff Lacy (20-0, 16 KOs) will defend his title next against Scott Pemberton on Nov. 5 (Showtime), although no venue is set. Lacy had been planning to go to Wales for a unification fight with Joe Calzaghe until Calzaghe injured his left hand while winning a decision in an ill-advised tuneup fight against Evans Ashira Sept. 10.
Lacy's goal is to unify belts, so there were preliminary discussions with the representatives for fellow title holder Mikkel Kessler of Denmark. However, they were very far apart on money, and talks ended.
That led to Pemberton (29-3-1, 24 KOs), a tough brawler-type who has waited patiently for a title shot for the past couple of years. Although he twice defeated Omar Sheika, including a brutal TKO in their second fight in January 2004, Pemberton watch as Lacy bypassed him and instead defended against Sheika in December.
Unification fight: The Jermain Taylor-Bernard Hopkins rematch for the undisputed middleweight title has been earmarked for Dec. 3 since shortly after Taylor won the title in a July upset. But now the fight has a home and a co-feature worth generating excitement.
The first bout took place at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, but the rematch will move up the strip to sister property Mandalay Bay.
The co-feature on the HBO PPV card is a doozy, a junior featherweight unification bout between champions Oscar Larios (56-3-1, 36 KOs) and Israel Vazquez. Besides deciding supremacy at 122 pounds, the fight is also a rubber match.
Vazquez knocked Larios out in the first round in a 1997 non-title bout. Larios reversed the outcome in a 2002 rematch, scoring a 12th-round TKO against Vazquez for an interim title in one of the fights of the year.
"We really wanted to make an exciting fight as well as get a big fight for Larios," said Richard Schaefer of Golden Boy Promotions, which promotes Larios. "I think this accomplishes both goals."
Tarver, Jones offer help: Light heavyweight king Antonio Tarver and Roy Jones, who meet in their rubber match Oct. 1 in Tampa, are both Florida natives and have been through their share of hurricanes. They have decided to forego selling advertising space on the ring mat and corner pads for their fight and will instead turn over the space to aid in relief for victims of Hurricane Katrina. The mat will give out the American Red Cross disaster relief phone number, 800-HELP-NOW.
"It gives me great honor to have the opportunity to make a difference and bring about awareness to the world of the devastation and the importance of the relief efforts needed after Hurricane Katrina," said Tarver, who was born in Orlando and lives in Tampa.
"I know from personal experience how devastating a natural disaster can be," said Jones, who has seen hurricane damage in his hometown of Pensacola, Fla. "Immediately after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast I wanted to create a way to help the unfortunate victims of this tragedy. I encourage everyone who watches me fight on Oct. 1 to pick up the phone and make a donation to assist our friends and neighbors who really need our help now."
Undercard update: Tarver-Jones III is not the only return match on the Oct. 1 HBO PPV card. The undercard will feature heavyweight Vinny Maddalone against Brian Minto in a rematch of their July 2004 ESPN2 brawl. Minto (20-1, 11 KOs) stopped Maddalone (25-2, 18 KOs) in the 10th round in one of the top fights of 2004.
The fight came together after a fight between Maddalone and Shannon Briggs failed to be finalized.
Also added to the TV portion of the card is a 10-round lightweight fight between rising contender "Kid Diamond" Almazbek Raiymkulov (20-0-1, 12 KOs) against former junior lightweight title challenger Nate Campbell (26-4-1, 22 KOs).
Raiymkulov, a 2000 Olympian from Kyrgyzstan, is coming off a controversial draw against former junior lightweight champ Joel Casamayor in June.
Campbell, who lost a decision to Casamayor in 2003, challenged Robbie Peden for a vacant 130-pound title in February but was stopped in the eighth round. Campbell has won two in a row since then.
The other TV bout will feature 2004 U.S. Olympic gold medalist Andre Ward (5-0, 3 KOs) in a six-round middleweight bout against St. Petersburg's Glenn LaPlante (9-2-1, 6 KOs).
Card postponed: When Don King recently announced a fight card featuring three title bouts for next Friday at the Savvis Center in St. Louis, it was met with surprise. After all, the card had no domestic television outlet, no standout main event, competition from higher-profile boxing cards and only about three weeks to promote the event. All that, plus competition in St. Louis from its pro sports teams.
Therefore, it came as little surprise this week when the card was scrapped.
It was to have featured Virgil Hill vs. Valery Brudov for a vacant cruiserweight belt, junior middleweight titlist Daniel Santos defending against Joe Wyatt and junior bantamweight titlist Luis Perez facing Hugo Ramirez.
"With a busy fall sports calendar and a short window before Sept. 30, the fight didn't make the immediate impact with the public that we had hoped for," said Savvis Center general manager Dennis Petrullo said.
"After staging one of the most successful boxing events in history in February, we decided it would be best to postpone this card and reschedule it after we find a better date to present the event. Savvis Center remains committed to boxing and looks forward to announcing a new date soon."
King's Feb. 5 fight card at Savvis Center drew a sellout crowd of 22,370, who watched Zab Judah win the undisputed welterweight title from St. Louis' Cory Spinks.
Card scheduled: King is working on a card to take place Oct. 29, possibly in Orlando, Fla., at the TD Waterhouse Centre, the home arena for the NBA's Orlando Magic.
Some of the fights from King's canceled Sept. 30 card in St. Louis probably will land on the card. In addition, King hopes to include Judah's mandatory defense against Carlos Baldomir.
Quick hits: Those who passed on last Saturday night's HBO PPV card can catch a replay of Marco Antonio Barrera's decision over Peden and Shane Mosley's decision over Jose Luis Cruz. HBO2 will re-air both bouts Friday at 11 p.m. ET/PT and Saturday at 9 a.m. ET/PT. In the wake of his shocking upset decision loss to Zahir Raheem, Erik Morales fired his father, Jose Morales, as his trainer and will hire someone else to work his corner for a Jan. 21 rematch with Manny Pacquiao. An injury forced Diego Morales, the younger brother of Erik Morales, to pull out of a challenge Sunday against bantamweight titlist Hozumi Hasegawa in Japan. Diego Morales, the mandatory challenger, suffered a cut in his final sparring session before leaving Los Angeles for Tokyo last week. Gerardo Martinez (27-5-3, 20 KOs) will replace Morales in the fight. Light heavyweight Eric Harding (22-3-1, 7 KOs) will face Daniel Judah (20-0-3, 10 KOs), the brother of Zab Judah, in a 12-round fight Oct. 21 at the Mohegan Sun casino in Connecticut. There had been some discussion that the fight would wind up on the Tarver-Jones III undercard. Former lightweight title holder Javier Jauregui (49-12-2, 34 KOs) of Mexico faces Randy Suico (23-1, 20 KOs) of the Philippines in Los Angeles Friday night (Telefutura, 9 ET) in what figures to be an all-action fight.
Quotable: "All I could tell him was to knock him out. There is no U.S. television, nobody is watching and you are fighting on Max Schmeling's birthday. I wish the best for Lamon and I hope he does well." -- Heavyweight titlist Chris Byrd on the advice he gave cousin and fellow heavyweight titlist Lamon Brewster, who faces the difficult task of fighting German mandatory Luan Krasniqi Wednesday in Germany, where Byrd fought twice under adverse conditions.
Dan Rafael is the boxing writer for ESPN.com.