Boxer Lamont Peterson’s first victory was over homelessness
New WBA welterweight champion and his boxing brother helped each other survive the streets as children
“A blow from life is a lot harder to get up from than a blow from a man in a boxing ring.” — Barry Hunter, trainer of world-class boxers Lamont and Anthony Peterson
From where he has come — and trust, he has been places few can relate to — one might think Lamont Peterson would have stood atop the ropes of the boxing ring in Cincinnati a fortnight ago, pounded his chest and screamed when it was announced he had won the WBA welterweight championship.
Instead, Peterson accepted hugs from his corner and the gaudy title belt he snatched from Russia’s David Avanesyan with the demeanor of a man who had completed a task expected of him. Nothing more.
Part of his composed reaction stemmed from the fact that he had been a champion before. Most notably, he was the WBA and IBF light welterweight title holder six years ago before being stripped of the WBA belt after testing positive for synthetic testosterone. (The IBF found the tests inconclusive.)
“Been there, done that,” he said.
Yes, but no. This championship was different, meant more, because Peterson, at 33, affirmed his skill and longevity at a time when there was much doubt about his future. He had not fought in 16 months and moved up to welterweight for the bout. But neither the unusually long wait nor the heavier weight class deterred him from again reaching the apex of his sport.
Mostly, though his subdued reaction to winning reinforced the notion that Peterson is not built like other fighters. Neither is his younger brother Anthony, the 37-1 super lightweight contender who hopes to reach the championship level again this year.
Boxers often come from harsh, hard-to-bear backgrounds. The Peterson brothers’ story, however, is especially chilling because they were mere kids when confronted with unfathomable crisis. That experience has given them an internal reservoir from which to draw strength and courage and fortitude — and even calm and patience — in desperate moments. Forced to battle, they do so with the enthusiasm of street fighters.
But know this: They are not street fighters . . . although they come from the streets.
For almost two years, starting when they were 8 and 6, household chaos left them homeless and on their own. They were the second and third youngest of 12 children. Their father battled drugs and went to prison and their mother struggled with alcoholism. The family broke apart, with older kids going to grandparents and other relatives. Lamont and Anthony had no one but themselves.
Placed into foster care, the brothers did not like the arrangement and sneaked away. They tell their story with a bit of reluctance because they said they do not want to lean on it as an excuse to fail. With Lamont protecting and leading, they wandered the streets of Washington, D.C., sleeping in unlocked cars, abandoned buildings or bus terminals. For a short time, they were allowed to sleep in the unfinished basement of a grandparent’s house that was infested with rats, roaches and an occasional snake.
“We haven’t told everything that happened to us,” Anthony Peterson, 31, said to The Undefeated. “We’ve told enough for people to get a sense of what it was like for us. But what we went through is true. And we went through it all.”
Barry Hunter met the brothers when they showed up at his gym. Lamont was 61 pounds at 10 years old and Anthony, 8, was 55 pounds, Hunter said. After learning they were homeless, he became a sort of surrogate father.
He trained them while they spent the next several years shuttling between foster care and relatives. When Lamont was 17, Hunter helped him and his brother get an apartment — their first semblance of relative order in nine years.
Now, 23 years after they came upon Hunter, Lamont Peterson stands atop the boxing world in a new weight class. They hope that by the end of the year, Anthony will have a matching title belt, capping an improbable brothers’ return to boxing’s upper echelon.
“I am blessed to have picked a career at a very young age,” Lamont Peterson said. “I never wanted to do anything else. It’s been a long road to get where I am. There were times when I wanted to give up, but there was nothing else I wanted to do.”
He attributes his resiliency to his upbringing. Fighting the elements in winter while wearing only a windbreaker, searching trash cans for scraps of food, washing car windshields to earn money, riding the bus all night because there was nowhere to go. . . pushes him, he said.
“Their story would be something you’d only see in a movie or read in a novel,” said Hunter, chief of the Headbangers Gym in Southwest D.C., where the brothers train. “And even at that you would be skeptical about it. The average or maybe above-average person would have succumbed to what these guys went through. But they not only did not surrender to it, they have thrived. They never use it as an excuse. They never complain.
“Lamont waited 16 months for this last fight to be made, and he never complained. He trains hard every day. You can believe being that patient and that hardworking comes from what he went through as a kid.”
Indeed, each of the dozen children got through the turmoil and are living productive, “normal” lives. Many of the siblings work in the federal government. Younger brother Jerry is about to start work on a second advanced degree. Sister Evie Peterson-Johnson has built a multimillion-dollar beauty business.
Peterson-Johnson said that when Lamont and Anthony were on the streets, she was living in a crack house in D.C. with a boyfriend. “We all went through it in one way or another,” she told The Undefeated. “You learn a lot of habits on the streets. You learn failure is not an option. You learn to grind, to hustle, hustle, hustle to make it. And we carried with us something our father instilled: Do what you have a passion for and success will follow.”
At family gatherings, Peterson-Johnson, 38, said resentment is not a part of the occasions. “Our parents are really good people. Just because you fall doesn’t mean you don’t get up. They instilled in us something that has helped all of us as a family: We don’t do excuses . . . And so we’re all close.”
Lamont and Anthony Peterson are so close that they did not separate until a little more than a year ago, when Anthony got his own place. But the bond they share, built on the streets of the nation’s capital as vulnerable youths, will never fade, they say.
“No brothers are as close as we are,” Anthony said.
Their homelessness has left marks, however, the most significant one being a lack of trust. “Especially adults,” Lamont Peterson said.
Their circle of friends is small and close. They have made amends with their parents, who have long since recovered from their previous troubles. Their mother and father attend their fights, but declined interview requests.
“Our mom doesn’t like watching,” Anthony Peterson said. “Our dad knows a lot about boxing. I’m proud of him. He conquered a vicious drug addiction that helped crush our family. But it’s been about 25 years since he’s put his hands on that stuff. He’s very smart and is living a good life.”
So are his boxing sons. Lamont’s life is largely devoid of partying. He prefers quiet evenings at his Maryland townhouse. He has an 8-year-old daughter and newborn son as well as a girlfriend and stepdaughter.
As a fighter, he’s a cerebral boxer, a tactician who can rough it up when called upon, as Avanesyan learned in the championship fight, when Peterson, normally a stick-and-move boxer, pressed (and surprised) the former champ to earn a unanimous decision.
Three days after he reached the pinnacle of his profession, Lamont was back in the gym. “He’s different kind of professional,” Hunter said. “He doesn’t believe in time off.”
At 35-3-1, he said he hopes to fight for another five years, or as long as his body allows, whichever comes first. “I have people around me I trust who will tell me when I’m a step slow or my skills have diminished,” Peterson said. “I will rely on them and what I see and feel.”
Lamont Peterson has plenty of options — and a potentially significant payday — for his next bout. He could attempt to avenge a 2014 loss to Danny Garcia. He could fight Amir Khan, whom he defeated in a controversial majority decision in 2011. There have been whispers of fighting Manny Pacquiao.
“I’m not rushing anything,” Peterson said. “We will let it play out.”
Meanwhile, Anthony is single with no kids, and is both gregarious and introspective about life and boxing. “I have found my inner peace and coolness,” he said. “I can handle a lot. There were times when I was a kid in the cold at 20 degrees on the streets. I don’t know if I overcame that because I was born with whatever it took or if it was banged into me because of the situation. But it’s there.”
In the ring, Anthony is active and tough. Hunter said he’s grown from “aggressive to explosive,” meaning he will capitalize on his opponent’s weaknesses instead of consistently pressing the action. Although he struggled with several injuries for a while, his only defeat was a disqualification for repeated low blows against Brandon Rios in 2010. He has 24 knockouts in his 37 victories.
It’s puzzling to many in the boxing world that Anthony Peterson is not in line for a title bout. If it bothers him, however, he has not said.
“I have never asked when I would fight for a title,” Anthony Peterson said. “I just continue to do what I need to do — train hard, work on my craft. When I get the call, I get the call. And I will be ready.”
They may have different personalities, but the Petersons are consistent about one thing: speaking to inner-city youths about making something out of their lives. They meet together and separately with youths, and almost always without media or photographers around.
“I tell kids first and foremost that God exists,” Anthony Peterson said. “I tell them, ‘You won’t be in any position forever and that you’re not in a situation for no reason.’
“Everyone needs an inspiration. It made me feel good when I ran into some kids I had spoken to in 2009. They remembered me and told me they benefited from me having shared my story. I was like, ‘Wow.’ But it let me know we can make a difference.”
Added Lamont Peterson: “The title doesn’t mean as much as people might think. I’m glad I won the belt, but I’m not young anymore. We speak to kids about making it in life. That’s what everything is about. Making it. Everyone has his own path. Ours was a lot different from most people’s. Harder. But we made it.”
That the Peterson brothers are alive at all “is somewhat of a miracle,” Hunter said. “When Lamont was 17 or 18, we were in Colorado Springs for [the amateur championships]. I went to the office to find video on a Cuban boxer.
“A woman working in the public relations office asked me to come into a room. Then she played a tape. It was Lamont’s voice. It was one of the first times he told his and Anthony’s story. And the people in the office listening to the tape were crying.
“I respect those guys a lot because they made it — I mean, really made it. They are an inspiration. It’s a unique story that touches you. It would be really sad if the streets had gotten them . . . But they didn’t.”
This article has been changed to correct which organization stripped Peterson of a championship.