ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. Wladimir Klitschko proved he can last 12 rounds. But just barely.
Klitschko, who fell out of the heavyweight picture after a pair of upset losses in 2003 and 2004, survived being knocked down three times by Samuel Peter on Saturday night en route to a unanimous 12-round decision in an IBF elimination bout.
''It's wonderful to be back (in contention for a title),'' he said. ''Hopefully, I've convinced some of the critics that I have the stamina to go 12 rounds.''
He went 12 rounds, all right, but not the way he wanted.
Dominating early with his size, quickness and experience, Klitschko the 29-year-old brother of WBC heavyweight champion Vitali Klitschko had his hands full with the favored Peter.
Peter, a muscle-bound 25-year-old Nigerian with knockout power but very little finesse, entered the ring to the strains of ''The Harder They Come,'' a reggae song by Jimmy Cliff whose refrain is ''the harder they come, the harder they fall, one and all.''
But he couldn't keep the 6-foot-6 Ukrainian down, although he confounded Klitschko at times with his awkward style. Frustrated that Klitschko was repeatedly tying him up, Peter resorted to hitting him in the back of the head during clinches, knocking him down with one such punch in the fifth.
Klitschko (45-3) went down a second time later in the round, but he hung on and began to take advantage of the tiring Peter.
He kept him at bay with quick combinations and a long jab as Peter seemed to run out of stamina, throwing fewer punches with less power as the middle rounds wore on.
Peter nearly ended it in the 10th, though, connecting on an overhand right that staggered Klitschko. He chased him into the corner and unloaded about a dozen more punches, but none were big ones.
Klitschko escaped, but his legs were rubbery and as he retreated, Peter caught him again with a right to the face and Klitschko went down for the third time in the match.
Still, Peter (24-1) couldn't put him away. Klitschko dominated the last two rounds, scoring at will with left-right combinations. All three judges scored it 114-111 for Klitschko, who is now the mandatory challenger to IBF champion Chris Byrd.
''I took Klitschko's best punches and knocked him down three times, but he came to win,'' Peter said. ''He came with his best. Maybe on my best night, I could beat him, but he beat me tonight.''
Klitschko's stock as an up-and-coming heavyweight plunged with his losses to Corrie Sanders in 2003 and Lamon Brewster last year, and he needed a victory over Peter to boost his career.
Klitschko got $1.5 million to Peter's $900,000 for the fight.
The 10,137-person crowd at Boardwalk Hall observed a moment of silence before the fight as the ringside bell was rung 10 times in memory of fallen Atlantic City native Leavander Johnson.
The 35-year-old Johnson died Thursday from injuries sustained in his IBF title defense against Jesus Chavez a week ago.
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