Lucas Matthysse, the hard punching Argentine, WBC interim junior welterweight titlist and number one Ring-ranked junior welterweight, will challenge the IBF strapholder Lamont Peterson this Saturday in Atlantic City. It’s a storied town, one that has seen some classic fights down the years. Yet it’s also synonymous with the darker side of the sweet science, and the forces at work behind the scenes that so often keep the fans and their expectations tantalizingly apart. I suppose in that sense it’s the perfect setting for these two, given the extent to which their respective careers have been intertwined with that mercurial virtue known as justice.
In fact, you’d have to go quite some distance to find a match-up involving two guys so battered by the winds of fortune. Peterson, as we’ve all likely grown tired of being told, was a child who grew up homeless on the streets of Washington D.C., left to fend for himself and his younger brother Anthony after their father had been incarcerated and their mother was deemed unfit to provide for them. Having been rescued from this itinerant existence by Barry Hunter, a local amateur boxing coach who has since become his manager, Lamont worked his way up through the ranks before eventually being awarded a title shot against Timothy Bradley in 2009. Although being thoroughly dominated on the way to losing an unanimous decision, Peterson’s was the classic rags to riches story that has always defined prizefighting, and while it may have been told a little too often by doe-eyed reporters eager to paint him as some sort of figurehead for the downtrodden, it retains some potency nonetheless.
Following this first loss, Peterson regrouped and took on Victor Ortiz in late 2010, being rewarded with a majority draw following a fight he dominated the back end of and arguably did enough to win. Next came a match with Amir Khan in his hometown of D.C., with Khan’s WBA and IBF titles on the line. Although the result -- a split decision win for Peterson to claim both belts -- proved somewhat controversial, as many felt the two points deducted from Khan for pushing were excessive, it cannot be denied that the challenger boxed well, frustrated Khan, and did his part to make it a very close fight. I don’t think he won, especially when you consider that he was the guy challenging, but it was by no means the worst decision I’ve ever seen in a boxing ring. For a moment, at least, Lamont Peterson seemed to have overcome the odds.
However, his time as the man in the division were short-lived. Despite his sad, puppy dog eyes and repeated assertions that he “stood for something,” in the weeks leading up to his multimillion dollar rematch with Khan, in March of 2012 the news broke that Peterson had tested positive for synthetic testosterone. The usual excuses were trotted out, with the fighter claiming it was contained within a medical supplement he was required by his doctor to take, but it seemed fanciful at best, and was especially hard to swallow given his relentless positioning as a figure of sympathy in the past. The rematch was off, while the WBA belt was stripped from Peterson’s waist and offered to the winner of the Khan/Danny Garcia bout that summer. Having won the titles on a split decision, his titles were then split, with the IBF inexplicably allowing him to remain their beltholder despite calls from some corners of the boxing world to have him banned from the sport for life.
It was all rather difficult to accept for the fans that had celebrated his ascent as a victory for the outsider and triumph for the marginalised. He was supposed to be better, and that made his indiscretions worse. Ultimately, all it did was ensure that when he eventually returned against Kendall Holt in February of this year, it was very much as the forgotten man of the sport. A full 14 months since his previous outing against Khan, there was no denying that Peterson looked impressive as he upped the pace in the mid rounds and overwhelmed Holt on the way to scoring an 8th round KO. But we should remember that he was fighting a B-level opponent, one with power but not a whole lot else. When Lucas Matthysse last took on a similar calibre of fighter, in the form of Mike Dallas, Jr., in January of this year, he knocked him out inside one round. And that’s not to paint Matthysse as some sort of flat, power-punching bully. The man known to fight fans as "The Machine" is far more than that.
In a sense, you could say Peterson has a habit of getting the job done without looking all that impressive. Matthysse is quite the opposite, and has cemented his position as a fan favourite by virtue of the fact that he can always be relied upon to hurt his opponent, whether he ultimately goes on to secure the victory or not. I suppose they’ve both built their careers on proving people wrong. For Peterson, it was the society that had seemingly abandoned him at such a young age, while for Matthysse it was the judges of his bouts against Devon Alexander and Zab Judah, both of whom he knocked down before ultimately going on to drop controversial decisions to. The decisions were so hotly disputed, in fact, that many observers still deem him to be an unbeaten fighter, with the two Ls on his record sufficiently bogus as to be discarded completely.
Matthysse has never had a problem making his opponents bend. Knockdowns are arguably the defining feature of his fight style. He seems to score them almost at will, famously notching up nine over the course of eight rounds against DeMarcus Corley. He’s a rugged dude, both physically and stylistically -- the kind of gaucho you can imagine smoking a filterless cigarette while undercooking a steak to the point of danger. He possesses a solid chin and a noble, silent persona that’s doubtless conducive to a large collection of admirers amongst the female contingent of fight fans, despite his garish collection of homemade tattoos and foot-long rattail. He’s the swarthy, unkempt dark horse from the South American plains, who has that mystical quantity known as one-punch power in either fist, and will continue to fight on, seemingly against the odds and the various boxing federations, in search of the glory and 140 pound dominance that many feel has been his in all but name for a while now.
So there we have it. A man some believe to be unworthy of his current status as titleholder, versus a man seen by many as the rightful king of the division. If the match-up sounds like a dream, that’s because it is for the most part. Both these guys will enter the ring with bad intentions and a point to prove, and although I’m picking Matthysse, I’m sure Peterson will acquit himself well. But I guess it wouldn’t be boxing without a catch, and that lies in the fact that it’s a non title fight. That’s right. Due to the seemingly inevitable squabbling of the powers that be, whoever emerges victorious on Saturday will remain merely a small piece of the title jigsaw at 140 pounds, rather than the dominant force in the division. I guess it adds to the allure of the junior welterweight ranks at present, which are talent rich but poorly represented in terms of titlists, with the still semi-disgraced Peterson and that old leaden-footed, saddle-sore slugger Danny Garcia raking in three belts between them. The weight class is so stacked with talent, it’s frankly a little odd to see such average "champions" at its helm without notable examples of cherry-picked opponents to highlight. But I guess that’s boxing in the modern day for you. The gold around the waist rides roughshod over the talent and power in the fists.
Whoever wins this weekend, the outcome for both fighters will be a familiar yet bizarre case of being both over and underrated at the same time. Matthysse will continue to lack the recognition he deserves -- at least in terms of title straps -- while maintaining a curious niche appeal that sees his reputation ever so slightly inflated by certain self-conscious corners of the boxing world. Peterson, conversely, will keep his belt and little else beyond a tattered reputation. It’s testament to the disconnect between the "recognised" title belts and the hierarchies concocted by fans based on what they actually see in the ring. It’s another instance of the sport eating itself, chomping away at the lines between fiction and reality while we watch on with a sigh.
On the one hand, I get the sense that Mattysse has enough good will in the bank to be absolved by boxing fans no matter the outcome on May 18. On the other, although I’d be reluctant to call Lamont Peterson a paper champion, it’s clear boxing still has a ways to go before it forgives him. His misdemeanors may have robbed the masses of the rematch with Khan they so craved last spring, but there is nothing he can do to derail his opponent this time. The public can sense that they will at last be party to the kind of toe-to-toe contest they eternally desire. Because both fighters understand the need to deliver on action, whether they’re fighting for redemption and the opportunity to address past wrongdoings, or for the right to mount their steed, flick their rat tail majestically in the wind, and make a glorious, unsolicited charge for the upper echelons of the sport