WASHINGTON—A black guy in dark shades and a pimp-style chinchilla coat strode through the D.C. convention center, headed toward the entrance to the fight. Ten feet behind him, a white guy in a button-up shirt surreptitiously snapped photos of him on his cell phone. "Look, a real live pimp, at the fight! What a kick!" Check and check. All of D.C.'s mascots were represented.
Amir Khan was in town for the first big fight D.C. had seen since Mike Tyson's late-period Super Sad Encore Tour of Regret. Khan had come all the way from England to fight D.C.'s Lamont Peterson. In this context, Lamont Peterson is never just Lamont Peterson; he is D.C.'s Lamont Peterson. He is referred to as such. His nickname is technically "Havoc," but that doesn't fit him at all. He's a mournful-looking guy, never really smiling or frowning, always watchful, wary, looking out for something. It's tempting to attribute this to his childhood homelessness, but it could just be the look of a guy used to getting hit. In any case, it's a D.C. look, a look you'll see on the face of thousands of guys standing on thousands of blocks. He's a D.C. guy.
D.C., the real D.C., is the odd city out on the east coast, an island unto itself. It is a wholly insular place. It has its own fashion. It has its own slang. It has its own music. No one outside of D.C. has ever been tempted to subscribe to any of D.C.'s trends, something D.C. takes as a point of pride. D.C. is happy being friends with D.C.. D.C. does not need to be friends with you.
D.C.'s Lamont Peterson, likewise, is the sort of quiet, self-possessed guy who can be very, very good without anyone in boxing taking much notice. He's pretty good at everything but great at nothing. He has pretty good speed, pretty good defense, pretty good power. But you wouldn't call him a flash, or a defensive wizard, or a knockout artist. He doesn't have holes, he doesn't have superlatives. He's a B-plus-plus guy, a tough opponent who will ultimately lose to the A-level guys, the superstars, in the same way that D.C. will never be more glamorous than New York or London, in the same way that a dish drenched in mambo sauce will never win a James Beard Award. D.C.'s Lamont Peterson seems okay with that.
Amir Khan, though. There is no demonstration of pure speed in the sport of boxing better than Amir Khan missing a jab. When he lands the jab it sort of sinks into the morass of his opponent's gloves, making it hard to see where it ends. But when Khan shoots a jab that misses, it's possible to track it all the way out and back to his chin, at which point it occurs to you just how fucking fast his fucking hands are. It makes you pine for a slow-mo replay, like the strike of a gecko's tongue. Amir Khan's hands have wacky speed, speed that possesses them with their own energy that appears to be separate and apart from his own will. He's so fast that he will often manage to throw two or three punches at the air as he's leaping into punching range, giving the appearance of a man riding an invisible hand bike across the ring. Khan is excitable; if his opponent is ducking properly, he's liable to throw four or six our eight hooks in a row that miss everything. It only takes about a second and a half, though, and he still circles beautifully around the back door afterward. If he ever manages to coordinate the movement of his hands and his feet, so that his punches have the force of his legs behind them, rather than just firing in all directions like super balls shot from a cannon into a locked room, he will truly be a fearsome thing to behold.
Amir Khan came to D.C. to fight D.C.'s Lamont Peterson because Amir Khan, the champ, the A-level shining star, was very confident that he could beat D.C.'s Lamont Peterson at home, in D.C., or in a tree, or in the sea. Wherever. The city would get itself a nice big fight, and that was its prize. The fact that the hometown boy had to lose was the cost. Everyone seemed happy with the arrangement. Lamont Peterson got paid $650,000, the type of payday he's been after for his entire career. D.C., having no idea what the hell it was doing, decided to hold the fight in a massive room in its even more massive convention center. Not an arena. Not even a room with bleachers. Just a huge, endless, flat room, flat as the Kansas plains, laid out with row upon row of chairs, farther than the eye could see, 9,000 of them. It looked as if they'd emptied out an entire Super Wal-Mart and threw a boxing ring right in the middle, underneath the exposed steel rafters and harsh white lighting overhead. Those sitting in the far seats were, let's say, peeved to learn that they had absolutely no visual angle to use to their advantage; rather than looking down into the ring from above, they were just gazing off into the distance on a long horizontal plain. They might as well have stood in Nebraska trying to watch a fight in Oklahoma.
The undercard was mostly a procession of mismatches in which D.C.-area fighters knocked out their out-of-town opponents in terrifying fashion. One professional victim, middleweight Robert Kliewer, traveled all the way from Minnesota to serve as prospect Fernando Guerrero's easy comeback fight after a loss. "His professional record—a deceptive one," said the solicitous announcer, telling you everything you need to know. Kliewer wore blue trunks with small stars and moons all over them, which was supposed to be a nod to his nickname, "Sweet Dreams," but instead made him appear to be dressed as a child's bedroom ceiling. "What does he even get out of this?" I wondered aloud. "He gets to wear his little star panties," said my seatmate. It was funny at the time. Sweet dreams. About 20 minutes later they finally managed to wheel Kliewer out of the arena on a stretcher.
Jamie Kavanagh, a young Irish lightweight who's famous because his trainer is Freddie Roach, managed to wangle a disappointing and undeserved draw with Ramesis Gil, who does not have the advantage of celebrity. Kavanagh is an example of what happens when a fighter has speed, but no defense. What happens is he gets cracked with left hooks until blood runs like a waterfall from his right eye. Some things work well in the amateurs, but not in the pros. One of those things is Jamie Kavanagh.
Lamont Peterson's brother Anthony fought and won a masterful decision. He's very, very good, as good as his brother—always balanced, methodical, capable of fighting inside or out, and able to keep his opponent at a proper distance to remain on the end of his punches, something that many fighters with reach advantages are incapable of. If Anthony Peterson just added a bit more fire to his style, he could take on anyone. He tends to build up to combos quite deliberately—One. Two. Three-Four. Five-Six-Seven—rather than the instant, hurricane-style One-Two-Three-A-Million combos needed to take out the top level of lightweight opponents. He's still a very polished fighter. His scientific effort was followed by D.C. heavyweight Seth Mitchell cracking and cornering and brutally smashing Timur Ibragimov in a mere round and a half, the type of beating that makes the entire crowd go "Oh! Oh! Oh! Oh!" in unison as every punch is replayed on the overhead screen. The D.C. metro pride in its craft and/or pure violence had risen, by then, to its highest possible point.
So it was a good time for D.C.'s Lamont Peterson to enter, to cheers. Respectable cheers. D.C.'s Lamont Peterson, in his hometown, got a good number of cheers. But Amir Khan got camera flashes. And movie-star shrieks. Through all the pomp and chaos of the two men's thunderous entrances, one bored middle-aged newspaper sportswriter sitting next to me couldn't even be tempted to raise his eyes once from the boxy doodles he was drawing on his notepad. A dead soul is a scary thing to watch.
Amir Khan in the first round of a fight means Amir Khan at the absolute peak of his energy levels, which means a man constantly leaping into his opponent from eight feet away, and whose hands appear to be on coke. Lamont Peterson looked a little overwhelmed by what he'd signed up for. Peterson went down twice in the first round, as much from Khan's spooky fast bodily jump into his personal space as from his fists. The ref waved off the first knockdown as a "slip," in an act of stunning generosity.
As the rounds progressed, a funny thing happened: Lamont Peterson figured out how to fight Amir Khan. Peterson began to time Khan's attacks; he would duck and bury his shoulder in Khan's belly when Khan came flying in, leaving his long arms to overshoot their target. By the third round, Peterson started moving forward, pressing, often practically chasing Khan around the ring, a headhunter who swung only for the body. Body, body, body, and hooks to the head only when he had Khan pressed up against the ropes with his arms glued to his temples, for self-preservation. D.C.'s Lamont Peterson understood damn well that trying to hit the head of a faster man is like trying to hit a BB with a baseball bat, but no matter how quick a man is, he can only move his body so much. So Peterson stalked and stalked and stalked Amir Khan's bellybutton, in a half crouch, like an angry troll coming to steal his baby, Khan's furious barrages of straight punches mostly sailing over Peterson's shoulder, as Peterson again and again endeavored to plant his forehead on Khan's neck and turn his hips and pop, pop, pop hooks to the ribcage. Generally boxers talk about "walking down" a fast opponent, but this was an instance of chasing him down, a bulldog trying to catch a flying ghost.
This was a schoolyard fight. Khan, the favorite, the golden boy, was clearly pissed at the upstart, and at the huge roars of approval Peterson got for every punch landed, punches that may not have hurt Khan at all. Khan would come back with frantic onslaughts of his own, and he'd extend his arms out. "What? What?" But by now Khan had completely given up on planting his feet in order to generate the kind of power that would actually result in a knockout. The two men were in full motion, which diminished Khan's speed not a bit but did, of course, reduce the source of his punching power to his shoulders, while Peterson, still in that low crouch, would wait until his prey was cornered and really turn his hips and dig in.
And goddamn if Lamont Peterson didn't win. I mean, it would be more accurate to say "Lamont Peterson narrowly lost, but the scandalously friendly hometown referee had taken away two full points from Amir Khan during the fight on dubious fouls, and those two points enabled Lamont Peterson to squeak by with a one-point majority decision." Usually these semi-shady hometown rulings prompt angry disquisitions on the corrupt nature of the sport. But this time it was kind of nice. D.C.'s Lamont Peterson is not the type of telegenic hero fighter to whom these things happen. Some of his cornermen were crying in the ring. He'll get a nice big money rematch, which he'll probably lose. But this was a moment of pure civic pride.
Welcome to D.C., Amir Khan. You got mugged. Don't be mad, kid. They needed it more than you.