Peterson likes it like this, the relative solitude before the hype of another let’s-get-it-on news conference in New York on Wednesday, the weigh-in, the pre-fight introductions, the klieg lights swirling over the ring — his new life since that surreal night at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center 18 months ago.
It reminds him of the 16 years he put in before they called him “Champ,” when no one outside of the fight game knew his name and he could go about his business by himself.
“When I was young and always wanted to be world champion, I kind of left this part out: all the attention, things like that,” he said, wrapping the hands that have won 31 professional fights. “I’m used to being shy, laid-back. I’ve learned to adjust to all the attention, but, yeah, I can do without it.
“At the same time, I feel as if I owe it to people. They look at me as a role model now that I’m champion. Back before it happened, I didn’t even think about how I would learn to deal with the public. I just wanted to get a shot to prove myself.”
Back before it happened — the night he scored a split-decision win over Amir “King” Khan in front of his hometown fans on HBO, took Khan’s two world titles and became forever known as the kid from the District who was homeless, along with his younger brother, until a good man came into their lives and showed them the beauty and power of a left hook. And how that kid showed up at the gym every day, dreaming his dream, until it amazingly came true.
On Saturday night at Boardwalk Hall, in what boxing observers suspect might be one of the great action fights of the year, he has been pitted in a non-title fight against a brawling, big puncher from Argentina, among the most lethal fighters in the 140-pound light-welterweight division. Lucas Matthysse has knocked out 31 of his 33 opponents, lost twice and just smells of danger, someone who could ruin Peterson’s bid for an elusive million-dollar payday.
But Peterson knows he doesn’t have forever. He signed with one-time nemesis Golden Boy Promotions, Khan’s old promoters, to help ensure the Matthysse bout would happen just three months after he knocked out Kendall Holt at the D.C. Armory, that fight coming after an arduous and controversy-ridden journey to get back into the ring after he beat Khan.
“I think the [Matthysse] fight happened so fast because everybody was running around and saying, ‘He’s the most feared fighter,’ and once I heard that, I made it my business to let ’em know: This is who I want to fight next,” Peterson says. “Knowing what type of guy Matthysse is, he was going to accept my challenge.”
Neither Peterson’s IBF belt nor Matthysse’s WBC interim title is at stake, but a big payday is up for grabs. There are rumblings about a Sept. 7 date at Verizon Center for a unification bout against Philadelphia’s Danny Garcia, if Peterson wins Saturday.
“I’m thinking if everything goes right the next four fights, I could be done,” he says. “Two or three years, I could be done. I’m 29 now. I’ve been boxing for 18 years. Lot of wear and tear on the body, I understand that. I train a little harder than most — a lot harder than most. So I don’t want to keep putting it through the longevity of hard training because eventually your body is going to give out. And I want to enjoy life after boxing.”
The dream sequence of his career would end, of course, with Floyd Mayweather, the sport’s biggest star, for untold millions in Las Vegas. “That would be the fight I would like to go out the door with, him or Timothy Bradley,” Peterson said of the one fighter to beat him. “Barry [Hunter, his trainer] said he got a call about it from someone inside who’s connected to those type of deals, saying that it’s a possibility next year [a Mayweather fight] could go down.”
The biggest challenge to beat Matthysse is more physical than mental. A chameleon in the ring, Peterson can change styles in a blink — from a circling, jab-and-move artist to a free-swinging mauler aimed at dropping his opponent.
But in Saturday’s fight he almost has to think of Matthysse as Marvin Hagler, one of the greatest middleweights of all time. If he trades punches wildly with Matthysse, like Thomas Hearns did with Hagler in 1985, he could end up glass-eyed and on the canvas like Hearns after three rounds. But if he’s more Sugar Ray Leonard, flurrying to win rounds late — staying at a comfortable distance while continuing to land — he frustrates the puncher and emerges with his hand held high like Leonard over Hagler in 1987.
“Sometimes, people might try to talk you into banging with them, you know: ‘Why you runnin’?’ Things like that,” he said. “You just have to understand you need to stick to your game plan. It is a mental thing. When you’re home at night, laying in bed, sittin’ on the couch, those are the things you have to have in your mind and go over and over and over. So when it happens, it’ll be like tying your shoe.”
From a psychologically standpoint, it must be unbelievably difficult for a person — a prizefighter, no less — who has had to scrap so hard for everything in his life and his career to suddenly tell himself: “Don’t slug it out with him. That’s what he wants. Fight your fight.”
But then, it takes even more discipline to show up and shadowbox in front of a Southeast Washington mirror for almost two decades — cutting the air with left jabs, right feints, combinations and grunts — “Pah. Pah. Pah-puh-pah-puh” — without anyone really knowing that kid would grow up to be a champion, pride of the District, a man most responsible for keeping a lot of kids from the Bald Eagle Recreation Center up late Saturday night, in front of their televisions.
“Good thing is it’s the weekend and they don’t have to go to school the next day,” said Lamont Peterson, smiling, as a shirtless youngster with glasses is almost knocked over by the heavy bag he strikes. “So they’ll be okay.”
For more by Mike Wise, go to www.washingtonpost.com/wise.