Goals: Peter making his rep; Klitschko restoring one

Saturday night at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, N.J., heavyweights Samuel Peter and Wladimir Klitschko engage in one of the most intriguing heavyweight bouts of 2005.

When you really think about it, this is an indictment of the current state of the division since one (Klitschko) is considered a "has been," while the other (Peter) is a decided "hasn't been."

This is a matchup of two big men who are in The Ring magazine's top 10, with Peter ranked eighth, and Klitschko right behind him. (ESPN.com's Dan Rafael also ranks Peter eighth, Klitschko ninth in his September ratings.)

Yet, we are still intrigued by this bout for some reason. It has a chance to be one of the most entertaining bouts the heavyweight division has seen in years. No, I'm not saying it's going to be Foreman-Lyle, but you do have two big, strong heavyweights that can crack.

The loser, as they say in professional 'rassling, has to "leave town" (at least for a little while, after all, this is the heavyweight division). The
winner, well, no one's really sure what's in store for him.

But we'll be the first in line to learn. We just can't help ourselves.

"I think if Peter should knock out Klitschko, I'm not sure how much credit he'll get," said HBO analyst Larry Merchant, who will be ringside calling the action.

"Everybody will say Klitschko had a glass jaw, and if Klitschko beats Peter, everybody will say, 'Well, he just wasn't the real deal.' But it's a fascinating matchup; I think inside the boxing world, it's sort of 'the last heir apparent' fighting somebody who may be 'the next heir apparent.'"

Merchant is right on many accounts. Klitschko has been written off like chalk at an elementary school after knockout losses to Corrie Sanders and Lamon Brewster in the past few years. Peter, despite a bandwagon that is picking up passengers daily, has yet to beat a legitimate top 30 heavyweight. His last three victories have come against Yanqui Diaz, Gilbert Martinez and Taurus Sykes. That's not exactly the toughest gauntlet to go through.

Merchant, just a few years ago, was high on Klitschko before he started to melt down regularly against anyone who could punch.

"I think that he had so much talent and it came more or less easy for him, and he had the attitude that prizefighting was kind of a sport and not a nearly life-and-death kind of thing," Merchant said of the Ukrainian.

"You're going to have to be able to stand up to big, strong guys, and I think he's learned something about that.
We'll see if going to a gulag in the Pocono Mountains for six or seven weeks will make him a different kind of fighter."

Klitschko's work ethic has never been in question. But a chin that turns bad is like milk that goes past it's expiration date -- it's irrevocable and permanent.

But in Peter, he's fighting a boxer who's as crude as the oil mined in Saudi Arabia. And as of now, there are more unknowns than knowns about the Nigerian.

"I think it's fair to say that he's not tested, but listen, when people saw Mike Tyson after his first 12 or 13 fights, he certainly wasn't tested but everybody got all excited, as people do about dynamic, hard-hitting, heavyweight prospects, and he turned out to be what he turned out to be," Merchant said.

But there is a flip side.

"We've seen others like that; when they moved up to the B-plus level, you suddenly started to see flaws and never even got to the A level," Merchant said.

"I'd say that Peter is an exciting prospect. He hasn't fought anybody I'd say would be a B level opponent as of yet."

But Merchant admits the physical tools Peter has been blessed with are impressive.

"You look at the guy and he's 6-0, 6-1 and 240 [pounds] and he can punch like hell and you wonder if he has the poise and the chin and there's always going to
be questions before the guy gets to a title. And this will answer some of those questions," Merchant said.

One question he seems to have answered thus far is that while he might not be the equal of fellow countryman Ike Ibeabuchi inside the ring, thankfully,
he's nothing like the impeached and incarcerated "President" outside of it.

So does a victory against Klitschko legitimize Peter?

"I think it will legitimize him in the minds of a lot of people," Merchant said.

"I think it's the sort of confrontation on a big fight that's on television that right or wrongly, will legitimize him. I think that in the boxing world people know about Samuel Peter but I'm not sure that they do outside the boxing world, yet. So if he should perform spectacularly, I think people will get excited about him."

But Peter isn't the only one with something on the line Saturday night. While Peter's trying to earn his status in the game and build his reputation, Klitschko is trying to rehabilitate his.

"I'm not sure what Klitschko has to do to get people re-excited about him," Merchant said. "Maybe if he gets knocked down and gets up or if he shows that he can take a better punch than people think he can, shows the kind of toughness to go along with his skills, then people may be willing to revisit him.

"As I've said before, either he's going to be Michael Grant or Lennox Lewis. Grant, after he was knocked out, disappeared. Lewis, after he was knocked
out, came back and was then knocked out again and came back and finished on a very high note as the best heavyweight of his time. So I've been a little
bit more willing to let the Klitschko story play out."

Merchant then adds with a laugh, "But most people seem to have already made their decision about him."

But he could change a few minds Saturday night. And that's exactly why we'll be watching.