Lamont Peterson leaned against the ropes in the corner of a ring at the Bald Eagle Recreation Center in Southwest Washington, sweat rolling off his chin. Behind him, a giant poster bearing his likeness leaned against the wall, not yet hung up. It is the kind of promotional material reserved for stars, for world champs. Like much of the past year of Peterson’s life, it sat as an afterthought, cast aside.
Over the thwap-thwap! of leather on leather, over the chaos of two dozen boxers grinding through workouts, a tone sounded, signaling the beginning of another round of sparring. Peterson strode forward in the ring. In two weeks, he finally had a fight. In two weeks, he finally had a future.
Outside one corner of the ring sat Barry Hunter, Peterson’s trainer, mentor, father figure, conscience, backbone. Hunter folded a flip-flopped leg onto the canvas, furrowed his brow underneath his vintage, navy Washington Senators lid, and focused his student.
“Hold your ground!” Hunter yelled. “Don’t get sloppy!”
When the violence came within a foot of Hunter’s knee, he didn’t flinch. He is 50 now, with more than 30 years in the game. He has seen just about everything boxing has to offer, and to take, though the past year has taught him there’s always something else. And as Peterson stalked his sparring partner back across the ring, Hunter saw something he liked. Peterson’s opponent’s mouth fell open. He was gasping. He was finished.
“That’s our whole thing,” Hunter said. “To break your will.”
It is their most stark advantage. What would Lamont Peterson, what would Barry Hunter, know about broken wills? By now, nothing. Peterson’s will wasn’t broken when he and his brother Anthony slept in abandoned cars and bus stations when they were 7 and 8 years old. Hunter’s will wasn’t broken when any of the young boys he yanked off the streets of his native Washington were sucked back in from whence they came. Some are in jail. Some are dead. Hunter remains, coaching still.
And now, Peterson and Hunter are here: In a brilliant new gym that is, in some ways, the culmination of everything they worked for: a $5.3 million facility — funded by the District, just four months old — that seems so distant from the rodent-and-roach-infested afterthoughts they used for years. And here, they are trying to salvage their reputations.
Fourteen months ago, in his home town of Washington, Lamont Peterson beat Britain’s Amir Khan to become the world champion at 140 pounds. Five months later, while preparing for the rematch, a routine pre-fight drug test — part of a testing process Peterson requested in his deal to fight Khan again — revealed Peterson had an abnormally high level of testosterone. The fight was canceled. Peterson’s view of the world, and the world’s view of him, changed.
“I could go on to be the greatest fighter ever,” Peterson said last month, “and somebody’s still going to think, ‘He’s just a cheater.’ ”
Friday night, Peterson will fight for the first time since he became champion, since the drug test, since public opinion got up and ran away from him. The scheduled site for the abandoned rematch with Khan: the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, a marquee venue, home to countless championship bouts. The site for this fight, against former champ Kendall Holt: the D.C. Armory, the tired, 70-year-old de facto warehouse up a scrubby slope from the Anacostia River. Peterson’s guaranteed purse for the second Khan fight: $1.5 million. His guarantee for Friday’s fight against Holt: $37,500.
“It means nothing to me,” Peterson said of the money. “I can’t control what people say, what people think. Don’t care. A lot of times we try to take control over our life and do certain things, but when stuff’s meant for you, it’s meant for you. A saying I say: Things going to lay the way they lay. You throw a blanket in the air, it’s going to come down the way it’s going to come down.”
And at that point, it is clear: In the past year, Peterson’s blanket — tattered but strong — has settled differently than he ever expected. As he rose to prominence in boxing, racking up a record of 30-1-1 and becoming a champion, his story has been about those homeless nights on the streets of the District, about how Hunter, an out-and-out sage, saved him. It has been about all Hunter has taught him: labor and love and life, with a little boxing mixed in.
But over the past 14 fightless, pointless months? Peterson is 29 now, not a kid. Turns out he could teach his mentor about what it means to keep your will unbroken.
“Lamont held me up,” Hunter said. “He held everyone up. He taught me something. Yes, he did.”
Choosing the right way