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Chinny, Chin, Chin

"Keep your chin up" is good advice to give someone feeling down. But for boxers Oleg Maskaev and Samuel Peter, if they keep their chins up when they meet in the ring on March 8, one of them is likely to be feeling very down -- and out.

Before Samuel Peter was floored three times in his last fight against Jameel McCline, the only part of his body that had ever touched the canvas was his shoes. Peter had taken some thunderous shots dead-on from power-punching Wladimir Klitschko in their 2005 fight and remained on his feet, so it was assumed that the Nigerian had a good set of whiskers. Now, at first glance it would appear Peter's chin is in play. Or is it?

In Maskaev's case, there is no question his chin will be a major factor in this fight, as it has been in every fight since he first hit canvas in his seventh pro bout, a ridiculous mismatch with former champion Oliver McCall that lasted one minute and 22 seconds. Maskaev has lost five times in a 38-fight career, and in each case he was knocked out.

When Maskaev has been able to stay on his feet, however, he has been a formidable foe with considerable punching power of his own, winning 26 of his 34 victories by way of knockout. So it would seem that the most relevant question in this fight is, can Maskaev knock out a suddenly vulnerable Peter, or will the heavy-handed Nigerian shatter his opponent's glass chin?

The only problem with this analysis is that it fails to take into consideration a previously-undisclosed excuse Peter had for going down three times against McCline.

"Sam had a perforated ear drum before the fight and it had not yet healed when he stepped into the ring," said his manager, Ivaylo Gotzev. "His equilibrium was off, and he was off balance a lot as a result."

Nice excuse, but does it hold water? In repeated viewing of the three knockdowns on YouTube, it appears there is more than a little validity to what Gotzev says.

Just 15 seconds into the first round, Peter threw a right cross that McCline ducked under. The shot glanced off McCline's right shoulder, and in the process Peter clearly lost his balance. Peter was standing awkwardly on one foot when the 6'6" McCline came up from his crouch and his left shoulder bumped Peter further off balance. McCline then delivered a powerful uppercut that hit all chin and sent Peter sprawling to the canvas. It was a blow from the 266-pound McCline that Gotzev says probably would have knocked any heavyweight down.

As for the second knockdown, which came in the next round, Peter's ear drum had nothing to do with it. McCline threw a vicious right hook that caught Peter flush on the right side of his gut and staggered him. Peter immediately tried to clinch and hang on, but McCline broke free and fired a left-right combo that sent him to his knees.

The final knockout, in the same round, was also not necessarily an ear drum problem, but balance did play a factor. Trying to regroup after the second knock down, Peter was backing up after throwing a punch, and his feet were not planted when McCline lunged with his long right arm and put him down.

Peter got up, stayed on his feet until the bell sounded, and did not go down again in the fight. More significantly, he looked anything like a fighter struggling to survive. As he had done in the second James Toney fight, Peter began to box and move very well, repeatedly landing combos and blows to the body en route to a unanimous decision.

A closer look at the Klitschko fight further validates Gotzev's claim that the knockdowns were something of a fluke. At one point in the fight, Klitschko, who had 40 of his 44 victories at the time by way of knockout, landed four hard shots to Peter's head within a space of six seconds and Peter not only didn't stagger, appeared unfazed by the blows.

In the 7th round, Klitschko caught Peter flat-footed and nailed him with a bruising right cross that landed flush on the face. Again, Peter was not affected. One round later, Klitschko landed two hard rights between Peter's eyes, and seconds later connected with a crushing right cross that bounced off the Nigerian's face. Peter remained steady on his feet.

It wasn't until late in the final round, that an exhausted Peter walked straight into a crushing left hook to the jaw which caused him to drop his gloves and his knees to buckle. Peter staggered awkwardly to his right, but with little over a minute to go, Klitschko was not able to put him down. Peter, it should be noted, knocked Klitschko down three times.

So if Peter survived a brutal assault like that from a far heavier puncher than McCline, it doesn't seem to make much sense that he would go down three times, unless he was truly having a balance problem. Also worth factoring in is that McCline was a late replacement for the injured Maskaev, and that Peter is only 6'0" tall.

"We had trained for a 6'3" fighter (Maskaev) and two weeks away from the fight McCline came in," Gotzev said. "We only had a chance to get one or two sessions in with a tall sparring partner."

In assessing Maskaev, the equation is much simpler. It is fair to say that throughout the course of his career Maskaev has always been one punch away from either victory or defeat. The last time he lost, however, was in 2002 when Corey Sanders stopped him in the eighth round. After that fight, Maskaev underwent an extreme make over, ditching his entire team and bringing in almost as many caretakers as the average astronaut is pampered by.

Maskaev's new team included promoter Dennis Rappaport, trainer Victor Valle Jr, a strength coach, a nutritionist, a flexibility coach and a sports psychologist -- presumably in case his psyche was as abused as his chin. Always a very promising fighter, Maskaev suddenly stopped losing. He has won 12 straight, including a world championship victory over Hasim Rahman coming into this fight, and has not been knocked down.

Because of his chin and his power, Maskaev's team is rarely sure how a fight is going to turn out until the final bell sounds. In his eleventh pro bout, for example, he was 10-0 in 1997 when the rocket scientists who managed him then put him in with the wrecking machine that was David Tua (26-0). Maskaev got knocked out in the 11th round, but he was very much in the fight. One scorecard at the time of the stoppage had him leading 98-93; another saw him trailing by just 94-96, and the final judge had it even, 95-95.

Conversely, Maskaev is entirely capable of pulling out victory when he looks headed for defeat. When he first fought Rahman in 1999, Maskaev was behind on all three scorecards, 65-68 twice and 63-70 in the eighth round of a scheduled 10-round fight when he caught his opponent with a crushing right cross and sent him through the ropes and clear out of the ring.

Until recently, Maskaev would have had a distinctive edge in this fight as far as boxing skills were concerned. Unlike Peter, who had a limited amateur career and had to learn on the job, Maskaev was a very accomplished amateur with extensive international experience.

The Russian-born fighter, who is now an American citizen, has three basic punches that make him a very dangerous heavyweight - a hard left jab and hammer-like left hook, and a right cross, his best punch, as Rahman can attest to. Maskaev's main weakness, besides his chin, is below average speed. He does not move laterally very quickly, and is slow in blocking a shot or seeing an opportunity he could capitalize on. Also of concern, on March 8 he will have not fought in 15 months.

Peter's main strength - some used to say his only asset - is his enormous power. Lou Duva, the Hall of Fame trainer who has worked with 19 world champions, is Peter's manager. At the press conference for the Klitschko-Peter fight in 2005, Duva told me: "Sam's like the great big heavyweights of the past, Ken Norton, Earnie Shavers and Sonny Liston. His jab is a two-by-four, and he uses it from different directions. The first punch he gets off clean on Klitschko's chin, it's all over."

Duva's prediction proved wrong, but if his comparison of Peter to those three boxers - in particular Shavers, who won a phenomenal 68 of his 74 victories by knockout - is even close to being right, that could spell big trouble for the weak-chinned Maskaev.

At the same press conference, historian Bert Sugar raised a point that also bears directly on this fight. "We know he can swing, but we don't know if he can fight," Sugar said. "In the fights I've seen of his, I haven't seen him box yet."

That remained true though Peter's first match with Toney in 2006. Shortly thereafter, Peter's team of Gotzev, Duva, promoter Dino Duva and Don King -- who had just bought 50 per cent of Duva's company -- decided to bring in help for their fighter's long-time trainer, Pops Anderson.

The man they selected was Stacey McKinley, a very good technician and one of King's house trainers who had worked with many top fighters, including Mike Tyson in the final stages of his career. In the eight months before the WBC-mandated rematch with Toney, McKinley began to transform Peter into a more complete boxer.

The second Toney fight saw the emergence of a new and improved version of Samuel Peter, one who threw a jab with purpose - strong enough to knock iron-chinned Toney down for the first time since his loss to Roy Jones in 1994. Peter also had quicker hands, much better defense and showed the ability to make Toney come forward so he could connect with his new weapon, a counterpunch. If there had been any doubt about who won the first fight, there was none in the second. Peter coasted to a unanimous decision by wide margins, and out-boxed the master boxer.

Gotzev says the Samuel Peter who will fight Maskaev will be an even better version. "Sam is in the best shape of his career," Gotzev said. "We brought in a nutritionist and strength and conditioning coaches, and they started him on a fitness program."

While Peter has fought just once in 14 months, he has benefited greatly from the extra time with McKinley and his other coaches.

"We've been doing a complete overhaul on Samuel," Gotzev said. "McKinley has made Sam a more powerful puncher because he's teaching him angles and to be more precise in his punch. He's also learned to shorten up his punches. You won't be seeing Sam throwing any more of those wide, looping shots. He's a very compact fighter now. I watch him sparring and exploding on the heavy bag and it is scary."

While Maskaev is a tough and determined veteran fighter, and unlikely to come into the ring afraid, it is apparent that at the very least, he should treat his chin as a precious jewel, and hide it from Peter unless he wants his opponent to steal it and his title.

Oleg Maskaev vs Samuel Peter

HBO PPV - Mar. 8, 2008

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