Listening to Emanuel Steward during a conference call with reporters the other day, one reasonably may have assumed the Hall-of-Fame trainer was discussing classic heavyweight title fights such as Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier III, Evander Holyfield-Riddick Bowe I or Larry Holmes-Ken Norton.
Steward’s opening comments were something that might have been delivered by Knute Rockne.
The man is good, because he wasn’t talking about any classic fight here. He was discussing a match on Saturday in Germany between Wladimir Klitschko and Samuel Peter for the International Boxing Federation/World Boxing Organization heavyweight titles.
It is a fight that would not have ever been remotely even considered had the heavyweight division been in good health.
Peter is coming off wins over the likes of Nagy Aguilera, Gabe Brown, Ronald Bellamy and Marcus McGee, guys so inept that if they were basketball players, they’d likely be beaten by the Washington Generals.
Floyd Mayweather Jr. is more deserving of being feted by the United Nations than Sam Peter is of fighting for a version – any version – of the heavyweight championship.
The problem is, anyone remotely qualified to fight Klitschko has ran quickly in the other direction. David Haye, the World Boxing Association champion, essentially pulled a Mayweather. He talked a good game, but when it came time to fight, he went into hiding. At least to Haye’s credit, he hasn’t taken to his webcam and insulted large groups of people.
Alexander Povetkin was the IBF's mandatory challenger, but he got bounced after failing to show up for a news conference with Klitschko. There is no clear explanation why Povetkin didn’t take the fight, though his trainer, Teddy Atlas, has said he didn’t feel Povetkin was ready.
With those two out, and Klitschko already having run over most of the rest of the even marginally qualified contenders, Peter got the gig.
He lost a unanimous decision to Klitschko in Atlantic City, N.J., five years ago in which he knocked Klitschko down three times. He lost every one of the nine rounds other than the three in which those knockdowns occurred, and most of the time wasn’t in the fight.
Peter hasn’t set the world on fire since, and in 2008, he was stopped after eight one-sided rounds by Klitschko’s older brother, Vitali, in a bid for the World Boxing Council title. He followed that by losing a majority decision to Eddie Chambers, a light-punching heavyweight he was heavily favored to defeat.
After that, Peter’s management put him in with the boxing equivalents of Moe, Larry, Schemp and Curly. Bellamy had lost eight in a row before facing Peter. Brown weighed in against him at 363 1/2. McGee was 3-4 in his seven fights before meeting Peter. George Foreman would whip all three of them in the same night, and probably Peter, too, and he’s 61 years old.
Yet, here was the highly respected Steward telling reporters he’s more nervous for this fight than he has been for any in the six years he’s worked with Klitschko.
“I’m a little more on edge than I’ve been in a long time,” the always affable Steward said.
The one-thing Peter can do is punch. He’s slow and he’s robotic and anybody with a modicum of boxing skills shouldn’t have a problem with him. But Peter is like the Major League Baseball player with enormous home run power and a horrific batting average. He’ll strike out in six out of 10 at-bats and pop up in three others, but when he makes solid contact, it goes a long, long, long way out of the park.
Steward tried to sell Klitschko as one of the hardest one-punch punchers in the history of boxing, which was more than a little bit of a stretch.
He was trying anything he could to build interest in the fight in which U.S., where there isn’t much. In Germany, where the Klitschko brothers are national heroes, they’ll fill a soccer stadium in Frankfurt with 45,000 screaming fans and probably could have sold 25,000 more had there been room.
“I went to the top row of the stadium and a soccer field is much bigger than a boxing ring,” Klitschko said. “From there, you could see nothing.”
So, he went on, fans in Germany are there to be part of the experience. In the U.S., though, the fans want to see a real fight against a legitimate contender. The Klitschko brothers are, far and away, the most talented heavyweights in the world and are certain to be elected to the International Boxing Hall of Fame the minute they’re eligible.
Klitschko tried unsuccessfully to explain why he hasn’t reached the same level of stardom in the U.S. that he has in Europe, particularly Germany. But his wily trainer had already laid it out for him.
Anyone who witnessed Klitschko’s overly cautious, frequently timid, performance against Chambers in what turned out to be a 12th round stoppage in March couldn’t be looking forward to his next fight.
He’s got the skills to be great. He is immensely powerful, he moves as if he were 70 pounds lighter and he has a sharp mind in the ring. But he is so risk-averse during fights that his matches often become so tedious that the crowd will roar when he feints.
Steward, in trying to pump up the fight, which will be broadcast live in the U.S. on ESPN3 (espn.go.com/espn3) on Saturday at 5 p.m. ET/2 p.m. PT, suggested boxers need to begin fighting more instead of dancing cautiously around the ring.
“The biggest problem in boxing today is that nobody knocks anybody out,” Steward correctly said. “Everybody is fast and they do their little pad work thing on TV – the pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, pop – but nobody knocks anyone out.
“But (Peter) is the most dangerous opponent Wladimir has fought in five years. The rest of the guys we've fought … without degrading anyone … they were all truly good fighters, but we never had to worry about punching power.”
Peter can punch, but just because someone can throw a baseball 97 miles per hour doesn’t make him a big league pitcher.
The division is so decimated, though, that these days, just owning one attribute of the many required is enough to qualify a man to fight for what was once known as the most coveted prize in sports.
It is no longer that, to be sure, and it won’t be until there’s enough talent around to make the contenders, you know, actually beat other contenders to qualify to fight for the championship.
When there aren’t any, you get fights like Wladimir Klitschko-Samuel Peter II.
For now, sadly, this is what passes as elite in heavyweight boxing.