In Offseason, Francis Trades Hoops for Ring

Steve Francis, the Knicks guard and former Maryland star, middle, is promoting a seven-bout boxing card at the D.C. Armory.
Steve Francis, the Knicks guard and former Maryland star, middle, is promoting a seven-bout boxing card at the D.C. Armory. (Jonathan Newton - The Post)
By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 25, 2007

Steve Francis, seated in front of a boxing ring this week in a cramped, musty gym in Southwest Washington, lifted his red Houston Astros cap and rubbed his freshly shaved head.

"If it wasn't for basketball, it would've been this," said Francis, the New York Knicks guard and former Maryland star. Francis looked on from the Bald Eagle Recreation Center, where brothers Lamont and Anthony Peterson were working out in preparation for tonight's ESPN2 fight card at the D.C. Armory.

Francis, a boxer? "If my chin could've held up," Francis said with a laugh.

Growing up in the same Takoma Park neighborhood as former world champion Sharmba Mitchell, Francis said he has always been fascinated with boxing. Francis is president of Peake Management Group Boxing, which was founded by his friend and business manager Nate Peake, and he has learned the inner workings of the sport over the years. Peake said Francis has sat in on dinner meetings with Don King and Bob Arum and helped negotiate deals with HBO.

Now, Francis is heavily involved in promoting the seven-bout card headlined by the Peterson brothers, both D.C. natives and amateur stars who have yet to suffer a loss since turning pro in September 2004.

"When [Francis] is not playing basketball, this is his full-time job," Peake said. "He loves it."

Francis bypassed sleep on Wednesday to catch an early morning flight from Houston and do a media blitz for the event, which he hopes will help boxing become relevant again in Washington. Floyd Mayweather Jr., fresh off his defeat of Oscar De La Hoya for the WBC light middleweight title, is expected to be in attendance tonight at the Armory.

"I've been loving boxing since I was about 6 years old. Sugar Ray [Leonard], with him being local, I always watched him," Francis said. "I think it's going to be a great thing for Washington."

Francis's agent, Jeff Fried, was among the initial investors in former heavyweight champion Riddick Bowe's career, and Francis has known Peake since childhood. Peake, 37, a business associate of Fried's, has been around boxing for 19 years and said that Francis was always interested in the business side. "It's not like he's in it because of who he is. He's been groomed in it all his life. He's been raised in it," Peake said. "As I would travel and do my business, he would always give his input and want to get involved. He'd say, 'I really like this.' I said, 'Why don't you be a part of it?' "

Francis signed on as president of PMG after completing his rookie season with the Houston Rockets in 2000. PMG scored something of a coup on the Washington boxing scene five years later, when it helped promote the Mike Tyson-Kevin McBride fight at Verizon Center.

Francis likes this card more than that one.

"We got two guys, super hungry to get to that next level," Francis said of the Peterson brothers. Many boxing observers view both Anthony (22-0, 16 knockouts) and Lamont (20-0, 8 KOs) as future world champions. "If I had this work ethic, like they are working here, I'd probably have four championships right now."

Anthony Peterson, 22, will fight Luis Ernesto Jose (27-4-2, 24 KOs) for the World Boxing Organization's lightweight (135-pound) title in the card's main event. Lamont Peterson, 23, will meet John Brown (23-13-2, 11 KOs) in a 140-pound feature. Both bouts will be televised.

As a professional basketball player with millions in the bank, Francis said he doesn't want anyone confuse him with a certain loudmouth, big-haired boxing promoter.

"Unlike Don [King], I want to play fair as far the purse is concerned," said Francis, who is set to earn $34 million from his NBA contract the next two seasons.

But Francis said he wouldn't mind having a name in boxing that someday resonates like King's. "Definitely, trying to," he said. "It's not easy. You've got to crawl before you walk. This is definitely crawling here."

Francis said that when he's home in the offseason, he comes to Bald Eagle once or twice a week to work out with the Petersons' trainer, Barry Hunter. "With boxing, you use every single muscle in your body," Francis said. "I purposely didn't put on my boxing shoes today, so [Hunter] won't put me in the ring. He'd probably try to destroy me."

While watching the Peterson brothers work punching bags with rapid-fire precision, Francis couldn't resist joining in.

"Let me see that right there," Francis said.

Francis picked up his equipment of choice and slid between the bags, gracefully moving from one end of the floor to the other -- dribbling a basketball between his legs.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company