Peter Picks Himself Up, Past McCline

NIGERIAN NIGHTMARE SURVIVES A BIG TIME SCARE

Sam Peter’s dream of becoming heavyweight champion nearly transformed into the nightmare of a lifetime when he defended his WBC Interim Heavyweight Championship against Jameel “Big Time” McCline Saturday night in Madison Square Garden.

Originally scheduled to fight Oleg Maskaev for the WBC title, Peter (29-1) was elevated to interim status when Maskaev, after delaying the fight several times, finally pulled out altogether due to injuries suffered in training camp. Having been out of the ring since January when he defeated James Toney, Peter decided not to sit out the rest of the year and took on what many considered a relatively easy opponent in McCline (38-8), who was also left without an opponent when Vitali Klitschko backed out of their scheduled September bout also due to injuries. Having failed to capture heavyweight gold on three separate occasions, McCline had not been seen as a major threat to Klitschko and was considered even less of a threat to the very hungry Peter. McCline, however, turned out to be more of a threat than anyone could have imagined, and Peter’s decision to fight on less than two weeks notice nearly cost him the status he had worked so hard to achieve.

Unlike Maskaev, McCline is an exceptionally skilled heavyweight with solid hand speed and a respectable chin. Unlike Klitschko, Peter is significantly shorter than McCline. Regardless of these drastic changes between opponents, which would appear to the casual spectator to translate into important physical advantages for “Big Time,” most experts predicted McCline to inevitably fold once again. Citing a career long mental block in addition to the fact that his name had been mentioned amidst a newly surfacing steroid controversy, the experts expected McCline to become frustrated after failing to hurt the iron-chinned Nigerian interim champion and fail in his fourth title fiasco.

The experts could not have been more wrong.

Three rounds into the fight, McCline, who had come to the ring accompanied by no music to suggest he was all-business, had hurt and dropped what was thought to be an almost indestructible Peter three times. Just when it looked as though Peter had McCline in trouble and hanging on, “Big Time” finally lived up to his nickname when he caught Peter storming in at the bell to end the second round with a perfect counter uppercut that wobbled the Nigerian and put him on the seat of his pants. Peter appeared more embarrassed than hurt, but when he came out trying to reassert control in the next round, McCline immediately ripped him with another uppercut that sent Peter staggering back into the ropes on rubbery legs and in serious trouble this time.

Out of nowhere, the no-nonsense Nigerian, who had taken flush shots from Wladimir Klitschko for eleven rounds in 2005 before showing any sign of feeling the effects, was out on his feet and in danger of losing his interim tag. Peter did his best to hang on, trying to mimic the manner in which Klitschko survived the three knockdowns he had dealt the Ukrainian two years ago, but McCline escaped and floored the champion again with a left-right combination in the corner. Peter wilted away from the ropes and collapsed onto his hands and knees, looking like he was finished. Putting his gigantic heart on display, Peter returned to his feet ready for a war.

From there, it was a fight fan’s dream come true as the two behemoths traded monstrous left hooks, McCline’s doing the better damage. Struggling to find the legs to support him, Peter continued to eat crunching blow after crunching blow from McCline, who nearly punched himself out. It took McCline a good portion of the remaining minute and a half of the round to score another knockdown, but the discombobulated Peter finally went down again, this time into the ropes, but his going down seemed to have more to do with his own exhaustion than McCline’s relentless punches. Peter’s highly acclaimed chin proved its worth and held up under the most dire of circumstances, enabling him to survive McCline’s assault and give him a chance to retain the interim title and his position to face Maskaev.

The experts did get one thing right, however, and it turned out to be the most important element of the fight. As he did against Chris Byrd in 2004, McCline imploded after mounting an early lead and sat back while a come backing Peter took the fight to him and reestablished control. McCline’s first mistake was allowing Peter, who should have been in recovery mode the entire round, to take the fourth round on activity alone. Instead, it was McCline catching his breath after having spent himself in the destructive third round. Seeing McCline take his foot off the gas inspired Peter to take more chances with each passing round, throwing and landing some big punches on the challenger.

McCline opted to fight in spurts, satisfied to sit on what he must have considered a safe lead, but round by round, he let Peter back into the fight until he eventually gave it away altogether. Neither man made a strong commitment to pushing the action or asserting dominance, leaving many rounds close and determined at times by one or two eye-catching combinations. When the fight was on the table, Peter appeared to have more in the tank, landing the bigger shots on the plodding McCline and sweeping the last four rounds on all three judges’ scorecards.

Neither fighter attempted to celebrate following the final bell, mostly due to exhaustion, but their countenances reflected their doubts and the overall obscurity of the decision. Peter had performed better throughout the fight but had to be questioning whether he had done enough to dig himself clearly out of the hole McCline put him in early in the fight.

The judges decided, as did this viewer, that he had. Barely.

By scores of 115-111, 115-110, and 113-112, Peter retained his interim title with a close but correct unanimous decision. McCline, who is ten years Peter’s elder, provided the young champion with a valuable learning experience and a strong test on which he can build. Peter revealed that hand injuries had plagued him throughout the bout, which makes the win even more impressive even after he showed fortitude in getting up from some devastating knockdowns. It would be difficult to ask more than what he gave in defending his opportunity to face Maskaev.

Peter may not be the heavyweight savior he has been dubbed as of yet, but he took the fight on ten days notice, overcame a perilous start against a fast puncher, and continued punching with injured hands. When asked to show courage, Peter decided that the show had to go on and persevered to victory. The show must now continue with the long overdue title fight with Maskaev. If Klitschko is able to heel sometime in the foreseeable future, an exciting grand finale should follow.

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