NEW YORK -- All eyes were on Samuel Peter as he walked to the dais, more than an hour late to a news conference formally announcing his WBC heavyweight title defense against unretired champion Vitali Klitschko.
The biggest surprise wasn't that the usually punctual Peter was running behind, though, it was that Klitschko was standing there waiting.
Saddled with a well-worn reputation for backing out of fights because of injuries, Klitschko in fact showed up early Wednesday, eagerly professing his health after four years away from the ring and vowing to resurrect his career by capturing the belt he gave up when he felt his body breaking down.
"Always my biggest enemy was injury," Klitschko said at a Manhattan steakhouse, ahead of the Oct. 11 fight in Berlin. "There's never a guarantee, but I'm 100 percent ready. I have my health now and I'm very optimistic."
Not everybody is convinced.
"I'm still wondering if he's going to show up," Peter said, smiling and clasping his hands in mock prayer. "I signed the contract five months ago. They just signed the contract yesterday, or so they tell me."
Ivaylo Gotsev, who has coaxed along Peter's career since he turned pro shortly after the 2000 Olympics, was even more candid: "Get in or get out."
"Please, just be there," Gotsev added, turning toward a glaring Klitschko seated two seats away. "The business we'll take care of in the ring."
Klitschko relinquished the WBC belt just days before he was scheduled to defend it against Hasim Rahman in 2005, choosing to retire rather than speed through six months of rehab after tearing a ligament in his right knee.
The two-time champion has been busy since then, unsuccessfully running for mayor of Kiev, Ukraine, and closely following the exploits of his younger brother Wladimir, the current WBO and IBF titleholder and the man widely considered the best of an ambiguous and disorganized cadre of so-called heavyweight champions.
It was the notion that the two brothers could capture all of the heavyweight belts between them that drove the elder Klitschko back into the ring.
"Always we have the dream to be world champions at the same time," Vitali said.
So the erudite Klitschko announced he was making a comeback, scheduling his first fight for last September against Jameel McCline. In the weeks leading up to the fight -- and hardly shocking to anybody -- Klitschko hurt his back and needed emergency surgery.
McCline wound up fighting Peter (30-1, 23 KOs) for the interim title, and the stocky Nigerian-born and Las Vegas-based Peter easily won on points. Earlier this year, the popular puncher took care of Oleg Maskaev with a devastating sixth-round knockout in a Cancun bullfighting ring to stake his unequivocal claim to the WBC belt.
As the "champion emeritus," Klitschko (35-2, 34 KOs) was entitled to fight Peter whenever he chose to unretire. And he called for it without so much as a tuneup, even though Klitschko hasn't fought since an eighth-round win over Danny Williams on Dec. 11, 2004.
"Samuel is very strong. He's the biggest puncher right now among the heavyweights. That's why this is going to be an interesting fight," Klitschko said. "It's two world champions, two punchers. Let's meet in the ring and see who has the better skills.
"I know," he added. "I know the answer."
While the fight appears to be a make-or-break moment for Klitschko, it seems more like an annoyance for Peter, whose only loss came after Wladimir knocked him down three times in a close unanimous decision nearly three years ago.
Peter called out the younger Klitschko after his victory over Maskaev at Plaza de Toros, hoping to avenge his only loss in a fight between the best the heavyweights have to offer.
Like Peter, Wladimir has spoken passionately about unifying the fractured division and restoring the championship to a meaningful place in sports. But as usually happens in the sometimes seedy world of boxing, politics and sanctioning bodies got involved, forcing Peter to accept a defense against the former champ.
Now fight fans are left wondering whether Vitali will make it to the ring in six weeks, and whether another Klitschko should be stepping between the ropes.
"No, he doesn't deserve it," Peter said quietly, when asked his thoughts on fighting the elder Klitschko. "He made a great mistake coming out of retirement to fight me."