Friday Night Fights on ESPN2 makes a much-needed shift this weekend in its matchmaking from "unwatchable dreck" to "as good as the program gets" with a bout headlined by Lamont Peterson vs. Kendall Holt, two junior welterweights with top-10 talent, both trying to reestablish themselves after long layoffs. No one's saying you ought to ignore the controversial elements involving Peterson's failed drug test last year, and we haven't. But there is a time and place for looking at Peterson-Holt solely as a quality match-up; that place is here and that moment is now, and there's a lot to like about the looks of it. Just on the competitive merits, it's a bout worth staying home to watch if you're not in Washington, D.C., and worth going out to catch live if you are in the nation's capital.
Despite layoffs of 14 months and nearly a year, respectively, Peterson and Holt are not far removed from the big leagues of HBO. Peterson's last fight was an upset victory against Amir Khan on that network, while Holt appeared on HBO pay-per-view in late 2011 in a loss against Danny Garcia before returning to ESPN2 for a win over Tim Coleman. Both have had stints in the top 10 of their division, although they got their via different methods: Holt is an enigmatic talent equally capable of scoring a sensational knockout or sleepwalking his way to a loss, while Peterson is a clever, blue collar battler who finally notched that elusive "big win" against Khan. Both have at times shown a knack for being outworked by more aggressive opponents, but both took it to their men in their last ring appearances.
They are fighting on the cheap Friday night, relative to the kind of purses they've made before, because ESPN2 doesn't have the budget of an HBO or Showtime. And, really, this wouldn't be a main event on either of those networks; it's simply as good as it gets for FNF. Yet the winner will be right back in the mix to get called up to the majors again.
I do fear the slightest chance that Peterson and Holt will revert to a more lethargic pace than when we saw them last. Peterson is well aware of the kind of explosive power Holt possesses. Holt has said he won't be looking for the knockout, and instead will be fighting for the long haul. That could combine for a slower, more tactical bout than I'd like. But I'm confident that even if it starts that way that at some point, one man will force the other's hand, literally.
Peterson has responded well when he's been in a hole, if not always well enough. Timothy Bradley knocked him down, as did Khan and Victor Ortiz. He upped his attack against Bradley, although Bradley still outworked him in a decision loss; he upped his attack against Khan, which resulted in him winning a close decision; and he upped his attack against Ortiz, making it close enough that the judges called it a draw. He started aggressive and stayed aggressive against Victor Cayo, and that worked out well for him.
Peterson is at his best when he's forcing action on the inside, or counterpunching from a distance. He's got passable speed, power and defense, but he makes up for his so-so qualities with an impressive body attack, combination punching and the ability to make intelligent adjustments to what his opponents give him.
Holt said this week that he's also typically reacted to what his opponents have given him, to the point that he never even had come into the ring with a game plan for his opponent. I suppose if you were going to fight off, basically, instinct, you're better off doing it with the kind of speed and power Holt possesses than not. Looking back, his tendency to drift around the ring aimlessly at times makes all the more sense; if things aren't going his way and he doesn't have any idea what he ought to do to fix it, then waiting for a chance to blow up suddenly is all the "plan" he's had.
Those blow-ups are nothing to sneeze at. In the Ricardo Torres rematch, Holt went from near unconsciousness to knockout victor in the very 1st round, which might be why Garcia essentially left Holt alone when he had him hurt in the 11th round of their bout. Julio Diaz was engaging with Holt in the 3rd round and had him on the defensive before Holt rocked him to sleep with a double left hook. Bradley went down in the 1st round, then took firm control against a fading Holt to suddenly find himself on the canvas again in the 12th round.
The x factor in every Holt fight is his state of mind. When he has come in to a fight focused, he's been formidable, even if he hasn't always won. Other times, he has appeared utterly disinterested. He now says he's healthy where he hasn't been in the past, and got to escape for a full training camp for the first time. That all sounds nice. The whole "now I have a game plan" thing sounds like a new wrinkle for a 31-year-old to embrace that could do as much harm as good. In other words, I have no idea how prepared he is mentally or physically (his energy ebbed big time against Garcia).
Because it's impossible to know which version of Holt will show up, and because Peterson has been a bit more consistent, Peterson has to be the pick. He's the mentally stronger fighter and besides, he's fought big explosive punchers before and held his own, and those guys were better than Holt. That home field advantage won't hurt, either, in the event it's closely contested. I expect Holt will start better than Peterson -- not well enough to hurt or drop him, but well enough to make Peterson turn up the heat. He'll get inside Holt's reach (both rangy men are about the same size, but one is more comfortable in tight) and get inside his head. Holt might surge one last time, but Peterson will remain in control and might even stop Holt. Rather, a clear unanimous decision is the call, and Peterson will have at least a litle of the "Redemption" he's seeking.