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
Last spring, when he was working out as the champion and anticipating his fight with Khan, Peterson shuffled silently into the low-slung, temporary gym in Southeast where Hunter moved his troops so the addition at Bald Eagle could be built. He started pulling off a sweatshirt, taping up his hands, without saying a word. Hunter came in, saw his star student and bellowed, “I’m gonna punish your ass!”
Peterson sneaked a small smile. To understand how he handled the past year, you have to understand the punishment he endured to even be in such a position, what Hunter did to make sure he got there. Winning a championship? Just a chapter, and a short one. Take, for instance, Peterson as a teenager, with his promise long since identified and Hunter’s investment in him beyond hours or days, but years — meals and shoes and rides.
“Boxing is my mistress,” Hunter said, and he has more than occasionally lamented the time he spent in the gym rather than with his own kids.
Back then, Peterson started smoking marijuana, and lots of it. He started drinking, too often and too much. He tried to train through it, tried to fight through it, tried to hide it from Hunter. He couldn’t. He would show up for workouts in no shape to fight. Hunter smelled the difference in his student. His solution: ramp up the intensity.
“See what you do out there?” Hunter would yell as an unfit Peterson tried to spar. “See how it gets you in here?” In his head, Peterson had to acknowledge: “Yeah, you’re right.” He slogged through some amateur fights, lost to opponents he once would have easily dismissed.
“I was doing so much damage to my body,” Peterson said. “I couldn’t come in here and do that type of workout.”
So after a while, he didn’t come at all. He sat on the edge of two disparate lives.
“It was right there on the line,” Hunter said. “It was that [stuff], or it was this [stuff].”
But anybody who has come through the Headbangers program, which Hunter has headquartered in several down-and-out rec centers over the past quarter-century, knows Hunter’s relationship with the Petersons was different. Anthony, too, is a pro fighter now, a lightweight with a 31-1 record. Back when Lamont and Anthony were 11 and 10, Hunter — a contractor by trade, a boxing coach by passion, an evaluator of the human spirit by nature — sensed a quality in them that he found rare.
“Y’all got something in y’all that I wish I had,” he told them.
“What the hell do we got that you could possibly want?” Anthony remembered thinking. “You a grown man, got your own business, got a beautiful family.
“It didn’t dawn on us until now: The stuff that y’all been through, y’all supposed to be crazy or in jail or dead somewhere. How did you have a sense of humor to come out of all that and still smile and say, ‘It’s okay’?”
‘My whole life’s been hard’
It’s okay. That’s essentially how Lamont Peterson handled this long, involuntary layoff. In the fall of 2011, with his first fight against Khan less than two months off, Peterson felt tired. He grew dizzy when he rose. Something wasn’t right, and according to doctors and Peterson himself, a battery of tests showed it: low testosterone.
Searching for a solution, Peterson turned to a doctor with whom he had worked extensively in the past, John A. Thompson of Las Vegas. Thompson’s approach, according to Peterson, Hunter and letters from Thompson and others obtained by the boxing Web site www.RingTV.com: surgically insert a soy-based testosterone pellet under the skin in his hip to deal with a problem that wasn’t athletic, but of an everyday person.
“I was comfortable with the procedure,” Peterson said.
It cured him of the fatigue, yet ended up causing headaches and heartache. With what Thompson described as a slow-releasing testosterone in his system — an amount Thompson’s letter contends could not have enhanced his performance, but was aimed at merely returning him to normal levels — Peterson fought Khan in a thriller, and won by a split decision.
But one day in April, as he was well into the preparations for the rematch, he received a letter from the Voluntary Anti-Doping Agency, which was conducting pre-fight testing. He opened it. A test Peterson took in March had come back dirty.
Peterson’s immediate thought: “This’ll all get cleared up,” he said. Yet in May, 10 days out, as Peterson was preparing to climb onto a treadmill and work off his final few pounds, Hunter called him. The fight was off.
“It hurt,” Peterson said. “Couldn’t sleep.”
As the weeks passed, he drifted in and out of the gym, spent time with his 4-year-old daughter Sommer, spent time by himself, took quick trips to New York or Ocean City, Md., trying to digest it all. He and his camp said they pursued opinions on what could have happened, both locally and nationally — endocrinologists from Penn State, from the University of Louisville, from George Washington. They saw specialists in Washington. The experts came back with the same opinion as Thompson, his original doctor in Las Vegas: that nothing about his physical condition suggested the use of testosterone to enhance performance.
In a letter to one of Peterson’s attorneys dated May 8, 2012, according to RingTV.com, James F. Mackin, an endocrinologist in Bethesda, wrote that Peterson’s condition was “not compatible with anabolic-androgenic abuse. Testing has showed no evidence of illicit drugs use.”
Adisa Bakari, one of Peterson’s attorneys, declined to release such letters for this story. But unbeknownst to Peterson’s camp, the International Boxing Federation, who awarded Peterson one of the two belts he took from Khan, hired its own endocrinologist to consider the case.
“The physician determined that the testosterone levels noted in the VADA report are consistent with the therapeutic use of the hormone and not for the purpose of performance enhancement,” the IBF wrote in August. “Therefore, these levels would not have enhanced Lamont Peterson’s training for or performance during the bout” against Khan.
Moreover, the IBF pointed out that a subsequent sample taken from Peterson in April tested negative in early May.
“But people weren’t paying attention,” Peterson said.
Peterson shrugged. Public opinion is difficult to change. Hunter, though, grew livid. If people both inside and outside boxing weren’t willing to take the time to figure out what actually happened with Peterson — “Why not seek the truth?” Hunter preached — was it even worth associating with the sport to which he had turned over his life?
So in the midst of it all, Peterson became the rock. He called Hunter occasionally, just to check on how he was doing. And one afternoon, standing outside that temporary gym in Southeast, he laid out his vision about the entire affair.
“Sometimes,” Peterson told Hunter, “we’re quicker to react than let things play out.”
Hunter’s eyebrows were drawn. He was still angry, emotional, raw. But he said nothing. Peterson, normally quiet, kept talking.
“Look, man,” he said. “My whole life’s been hard. This ain’t gonna be no different. At the end of the day, if it do nothing else but take the covers off the corruption in boxing, then I’m all right with that.”
Hunter shook his head at the memory. Why hadn’t he thought of it that way? Why was he still “mad as hell,” so much so that he paced his house, that his wife of 20 years, Cologne, had to talk him down?
“Now I’m tripping off this dude,” Hunter said, his voice rising. “This is me, years ago, telling them. Now I feel like the student, and he’s the teacher.”
A failed drug test and 14 months on the shelf. Championship belts in question. Training for fights that never happened. Enough to break someone’s will.
“I started making an understanding of the situation,” Peterson said. “I started thinking about it like this,” and he paused a good . . . long . . . while. “Maybe it’s a good thing.”
Only someone who came up hard could come to that conclusion.
‘Always angry’ for a reason
The streets, more than anyone or anything, served as the Petersons’ parents. Lamont and Anthony made all their own decisions: what to do, when to do it, where to stay and for how long. What evidence was there that adults can provide support, shelter, food, advice? For the boys, there was scant evidence that they should be trusted. There was plenty of evidence that they couldn’t be trusted.
The Peterson kids, particularly the younger half-dozen in a brood 12 strong, learned such lessons from birth. Lamont, the 10th, was born at his mother’s home in Northeast. Performing the delivery: his older sister Takisha. She was in third grade.
“He was just lying there,” she said. “Didn’t cry one bit.”
For much of the Petersons’ childhoods, their father was in prison on a variety of drug charges. Their mother all but broke under the pressure of raising such a large family. She essentially allowed alcohol to control her life, several of her children said. Some of those children then roamed the streets. The older ones got to stay with their grandfather. Lamont and Anthony had to sneak into the filthy basement to try to sleep, often among rats.
This was the framework for a young, directionless life, washing car windows at busy intersections to earn money legitimately, picking pockets to earn money illicitly, ending up in foster care, starting school in second grade because no one made them go any earlier.
“I didn’t like grown-ups at all,” Lamont said. “At all. Didn’t get along with ’em. Always had altercations with ’em. I was a man. Took care of myself. No one ever told me to go clean your room — or go clean yourself. Homework? Go to school? Nobody told me anything. I did what I wanted to do.”
For a time, the Peterson boys — prepubescent men — hung out in Columbia Heights, back before the Target store became a symbol of the neighborhood’s gentrification. There, Patrice Harris, an older kid toggling between the boxing ring and the streets, had his eyes on Takisha Peterson, “the sweet one,” Anthony said. There, Harris took to Lamont and Anthony, paying them a dollar or two to go beat up kids who annoyed him.
The family lore built from there. A favorite story: The time an older kid bullied Anthony at the arcade, repeatedly pulling down his pants from behind as he tried to play a game. Lamont saw it, marked the kid, followed him outside. Never mind that the kid was four or five years older, a foot taller, who knows how many pounds heavier.
“Of course I said something to him,” Lamont said.
“Anytime he fought,” Anthony said, “it was protecting me.”
Lamont started wailing on the kid, who decided his only defense was to scoop up Peterson and toss him to the ground. Lamont bounced up and resumed the pummeling. Thump! Back down again. He rose once more.
Harris stumbled on the scene, and “I’m just watching going, ‘What is this kid thinking?’”
That is the roundabout way the Peterson boys came to Hunter: because Harris thought they needed some direction, knew they could fight, and had worked with Hunter himself. Harris is now married to Takisha, and he’s an assistant under Hunter at Headbangers. But when they first came to work out at Hunter’s gym, Lamont was 10, Anthony 9.
“Lamont,” Hunter said, “he was almost like a mute.”
So in almost any relationship with adults, Anthony served as Lamont’s delegate. Here’s what he’s thinking. Here’s why he’s upset. Here’s what he told me. Lamont constantly carried the hangdog look of an unhappy child, because that’s what he was.
“It was so normal to feel this way,” he said. “I was hurting, but I never knew why. Always angry, never knew why. I could never put my hand on, ‘Why are these kids playing and happy, and I’m not?’ ”
Hunter, at the time, already was training dozens of kids. A product of the District’s projects himself, the only boy in a four-child household in which his own father appeared only occasionally, he had resisted the pull of the streets as a kid. He wanted to pull kids from them as an adult.
“I know what it’s like to be hungry,” Hunter said. “I know what it’s like to have some shortcomings. And then when you see that, people going through that stuff, you got to ask yourself, ‘What type of person would I be, knowing that I see this child going through this, knowing that there’s something that I could do, but I don’t?’ ”
So Hunter did. The Petersons became fixtures in the group that used to pile in the back of Hunter’s pickup truck, riding through rain or snow to and from the gym. But Hunter was more than just transport, more than just someone who showed up with bags full of Taco Bell to make sure the kids ate.
“He was the first guy ever in my life to say, ‘Anthony, no. Don’t do that. That’s wrong. Do it this way,’ ” Anthony said. “But it wasn’t like he imposed his grown-man authority on me. He talked to me like an individual, not like a child.”
Lamont once got into an argument with an adult outside the Columbia Heights rec center at which Hunter then held his boxing program. To this day, Lamont can’t remember the topic, the nature of the dispute. He remembers only that it changed his life.
“You know what?” the adult said. “I’m gonna take you into the gym and tell Barry.”
He dragged Lamont inside. Hunter heard the tale. Then, he turned to Lamont.
“So,” he said, “what’s your side?”
Lamont reeled at the inquiry. He gathered himself, told his version of the events. And the strangest thing happened: Hunter believed him.
“At that point, I knew there was something different about him,” Lamont Peterson said. “I knew I could trust him.”
‘We want to change boxing’
Bald Eagle Rec Center finally quieted one afternoon a couple of weeks ago, and Barry Hunter’s apostles — nearly two dozen fighters who had sparred and shadowboxed and thudded on punching bags — came by, casually, for their post-workout handshake and hug. One by one, Hunter embraced them, thanking them for them work, hoping he would see them the next day. While this was going on, Lamont Peterson crouched underneath a barbell, bent his knees, and shot back up with a guttural grunt.
“Can’t get him outta here,” Hunter said, nodding in Peterson’s direction. “Always been that way.”
This is what chafes at Hunter still: that the positive test and the canceled fight might overshadow the fact that the IBF ruled in August that Peterson should retain its belt, that the World Boxing Association has called Peterson only a “champ in recess,” never officially stripping him. The controversy, Hunter believes, overshadows the work.
“Everything we put into this?” Hunter asked, incredulous. “It really did change my outlook on people, the system, everything.”
Part of the system, though, is promoting fights and fighters, and Hunter still cares deeply about promoting and preserving Peterson. So there must be posters and flyers, because whether at the Mandalay Bay or the D.C. Armory, Peterson vs. Holt is on ESPN2, live, and the broadcast would be better with a packed venue. The posters and flyers bear block letters proclaiming, “Redemption.” Catchy and, on a surface level, appropriate.
Redemption, though, isn’t something Peterson feels he needs. Not personally, at least. But if something good is going to come from all this . . .
“To be honest, redemption is necessary for the moves we trying to make,” Peterson said. “We want to change boxing. Who wants to follow a cheat? Who’s going to listen to a cheat?”
And who would pursue a cheat? Last month, Peterson surprised the boxing world — and even himself — by signing a deal with Golden Boy Promotions, the very same outfit that manages Khan, the very same outfit that had railed against Peterson after his failed test. In some ways, these are just the kind of folks that Peterson and Hunter and “our little ragtag group,” as Hunter said, have tried to avoid in the past. Now, here they were, at his doorstep, offering redemption.
“Sometimes, you look at it, and you got to make a deal with the devil,” Peterson said. “As long as your heart’s in the right place, and you know what you want to do, you do business. . . . To be honest, I still feel a certain way about Golden Boy. But that’s just the way it is. It’s just business.”
It is also, Peterson believes, a vehicle. Golden Boy still manages Khan, still has other fighters at 140 and 147 pounds, such as the undefeated Danny Garcia of Philadelphia, who would make attractive, money-making matchups for Peterson. Such a platform provides other benefits.
“I always tell people we need stricter drug testing, things like that,” Peterson said. “Maybe this will shine the light on this subject. Maybe it’ll get done.
“A lot of times we ask for stuff, and when it don’t come the way we want it to come, we start crying.”
He will not cry about it. By that point, the gym was quiet. The other fighters had dressed, headed out into the cold. Peterson put down his last weight, then walked back toward the ring, done for the day. His expression revealed none of the hurt of the past year, none of the hope for the future. What stood in the light that shone through the windows of Washington’s best boxing gym was only a will, unbroken.