Can Sam Peter still be a great heavyweight?

Don't count out Sam Peter just yet; he still has time to make a name for himself in a shallow heavyweight division. Marty Rosengarten/Ringsidephotos.com

Sam Peter was 20-0 with 17 knockouts when he met one-time contender Jeremy Williams on Showtime in December 2004.

Up to that point, Peter, who meets comebacking Vitali Klitschko in Berlin, Germany, on Saturday, was seen by most as an interesting prospect: a young, strong, heavy-handed puncher.

Who knew what else? Maybe he was nothing.

In the second round, Peter knocked Williams utterly cold with a single bomb, and the sight of the prone Williams, as unconscious as any fighter has ever been in a prize ring, dramatically enhanced Peter's status among the masses.

Never mind that even at his best Williams possessed a weak constitution for taking punches. Peter instantly went from interesting prospect to, in the minds of some and if we were lucky, the next great heavyweight. It was that kind of knockout.

Fight fans love a great heavyweight -- especially one who can punch. And in that respect, "The Nigerian Nightmare" fit the bill.

The Tyson era was long over, and other big heavyweights who could punch were maddeningly inconsistent, on their way out or otherwise unworthy of worship (see the brothers Klitschko, Lennox Lewis, David Tua, Ike Ibeabuchi, Hasim Rahman, Lamon Brewster, Corrie Sanders, et al). Therefore, many fans were willing to gamble on Peter.

He had the look. And who was to say? Maybe he could be another Tyson.

We all know what happened then -- a loss to Wladimir Klitschko, a pair of wins over James Toney (one impressive, one not so much), a near disaster against Jameel McCline, then an impressive kayo of Oleg Maskaev to win the highly contorted WBC heavyweight title.

As he heads into the most important fight of his career against a former heavyweight champion in Klitschko, the question becomes: Is it too late for Peter to be the next great heavyweight?

"It's not too late for Peter for three reasons," Showtime analyst Steve Farhood told ESPN.com right before heading to Berlin. "He's young, at least by heavyweight standards; there's room to get better, as evidenced by Peter's improvement from Toney I to Toney II; and there aren't many fighters in the division who have to be feared."

It is easy to forget that Peter is a relative baby at 28 years old. Klitschko, his opponent on Saturday, is 37. Little brother Wladimir is 32. Nikolay Valuev is 35, as is Cuban contender Juan Carlos Gomez. Ruslan Chagaev is 29, as is Alexander Povetkin.

And it's been well-established that we do not today find ourselves in the midst of a heavyweight renaissance. Peter could take that as rather an insult if he were so inclined. He is not.

"I'm heavyweight champion of the world," Peter told the assembled press earlier this month. "I struggled to be who I am today. People tell me that I don't have skill. But who is heavyweight champion today? Samuel Peter. What anybody says doesn't concern me. Samuel Peter is Samuel Peter. I don't want credit from anyone. I'm heavyweight champion of the world today. I'm happy."

Technically, he is the WBC champion; his only conqueror, Wladimir, is universally recognized as the best heavyweight in the business. It is that which, apparently, has in part driven Vitali, after almost four years out of the ring, back between the ropes.

Now supposedly free of the myriad injuries that postponed one fight after another and led to his retirement, Vitali wants to reign with his brother as -- purists look away -- simultaneous heavyweight champions.

"As it happens right now, Samuel Peter is the world champion and I'm happy to fight him," Klitschko said. "I've recovered 100 percent and I feel great. The injuries are in the past. I feel healthy and I don't think about it. I just look forward to the fight. I'm ready to show my performance inside the ring, and I'm not worried about whether you will see the old or the new Vitali Klitschko."

Some think it's not so much which Klitschko shows up, but that there's only one Peter -- and he isn't the fighter he used to be, either.

"He is ready to be beaten," Victor Valle Jr. told ESPN.com. Valle is the long-time trainer of Maskaev, whom Peter stopped in the sixth round in his last fight. "I think Jameel McCline took the juice out of him. Sam Peter is a guy who can't take the best punch anymore. Jameel McCline softened him up.

"Anybody who has good boxing knowledge and a good boxing education and is determined and has good conditioning can beat Sam Peter," Valle said, after claiming that Maskaev went into his fight with Peter with debilitating physical injuries and personal problems.

Indeed, it is the McCline fight that many find most troubling when considering Peter's chances for long-term success. He was floored three times and came within a punch or two of being stopped.

A more assertive heavyweight almost certainly would have stopped him. And Maskaev wobbled Peter briefly before Peter clubbed him into near unconsciousness.

Doesn't that mean it's too late for Peter?

"No, it's not too late!" renowned trainer Buddy McGirt told ESPN.com. "Jameel McCline's a big heavyweight who can punch. Peter got knocked down but he showed a lot of resilience. That's what he's been doing lately, showing he's got the resilience to come back. He was hurt and he got up and did what he had to do. The guys who go down and get up to win are the ones that have what it takes."

Still, McGirt sees Saturday's fight as a toss-up.

"It depends on how much effect the layoff had on Klitschko. And Sam Peter's been busy. Klitschko has the ability to beat him, but we don't know what will happen if Peter can take him into the later rounds, into deep waters. We don't know if Klitschko will be able to handle the pressure."

If Klitschko comes back after nearly four years out of the sport to beat him, any question surrounding Peter's status is answered, and not in his favor. But if he beats the elder Klitschko and does so impressively, he remains in the running.

The Ring's senior writer William Dettloff co-wrote the book "Box Like the Pros" with Joe Frazier.