(Amir Khan, left; Washington Monument, middle; Lamont Peterson, right)
For the last couple years, there’s been a theory floating around that Washington, D.C. is ripe to be exploited as a “fight town,” that kind of U.S. city that embraces boxing and drives fans to the sweet science in droves. There were subtle pieces of evidence, like the enthusiastic showing at a D.C. press conference in 2010 for the Floyd Mayweather-Shane Mosley fight; the way shows in nearby Virginia featuring Jimmy Lange would sell thousands of tickets despite being largely insignificant to the bigger boxing picture; the way Paul Williams, who isn’t from here but trains in the region, said he would get accosted by fans eager to see him have a pro fight here.
Saturday night, that theory will get tested when junior welterweight Amir Khan — he’s one of the six or seven most gifted fighters in the world, and has rubbed shoulders with the likes of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton — takes on local boy Lamont Peterson in a card that will feature several more of the region’s most promising boxers. It’s the first truly high-profile boxing match in Washington, D.C. since Mike Tyson-Kevin McBride in 2005, which was more of a sideshow than an actual fight. The ingredients are here for a card that could do very well. And if it does do well, maybe, just maybe, D.C. puts itself on the boxing map indefinitely.
Personally, as a D.C. resident, I’ve encountered very little “buzz” for the card. Outside the circle of my friends and acquaintances in the area who are already big boxing fans and would go anyway, nobody’s approached me asking me about the fight the way they do sometimes, knowing that I’m a boxing writer; nobody I’ve brought it up to seems to have heard about it; and I’ve not overheard anyone in supermarkets or on the street discussing it. There are reportedly a lot of posters around, but I’ve not seen any of them.
This could be a delayed effect. The local media only recently began picking up on the fact that there’s a big show happening — The Washington Post, for instance, which among the nation’s biggest newspapers is foremost in its neglect of boxing coverage, wrote its first article about the fight two days ago. Since, it’s written several more. So have other media outlets, perhaps inspired by a meeting between Peterson, his brother Anthony, local heavyweight Seth Mitchell and the mayor of the city. The lack of buzz I’ve heard could have something to do with the fact that neither Khan nor Peterson are household names at this phase of their careers, and won’t be for a while yet, at best. Very few boxers are.
But maybe the lack of any broader buzz that I’ve heard could be secondary to whether it’ll be a success. I, Tim Starks, am not a statistically scientific sample, even if you include my friends and the friends of my friends I’ve asked, “Say, you hearing any buzz out there?” Mitchell, for his part, says he’s hearing buzz. And even a good while back, our Gautham Nagesh reported that ticket sales had been rather brisk according to the top local boxing official — 6,000 of them, a month ago.
You’re usually going to have a better time selling a card when there’s a local draw, and that’s the case here. For years, the Peterson brothers suffered from promotional neglect under Top Rank, which is usually as good as it gets at building people into stars but has periodic blind spots, and the Peterson boys were one of them. It makes infinite sense to see how the Peterson brothers would do in their own backyards, in a city that is heavily black and a sport that holds onto old ethnic and regional allegiances like no other, and that’s what current Peterson bros. promoter Golden Boy has done. Mitchell brings the same dynamic, only he’s a heavyweight, and America as a whole is craving a quality U.S. heavyweight, a craving not unique to just D.C. and black people.
One thing I’m going to be watching very closely is what Khan brings to the promotion. Khan has proven a big ratings draw in the United States, but so far not a big ticket draw. His British/Pakistani Muslim pedigree could be an asset in a city like D.C., where international immigrants like to set up shop and where half the residents really “live” somewhere else, mentally, working in embassies for their home country or congressional offices for their home state or what have you. Just go to a Nationals game for virtually any opponent, and listen to how loud the cheers are for the other team.
Fundamentally, there are other reasons Washington could be a big boxing town. The two local industries are “lying” and “fighting.” Boxing has both of those things in copious amounts. Ba-dum-bum. And D.C. has a track record of selling tickets to boxing matches pretty well, in addition to the Lange shows; Tyson-McBride drew more than 15,000, which says something about what a draw Tyson was even at that late stage of his career but might also say something about the city’s thirst for any boxing whatsoever. (On the other hand, the Tyson-McBride charade might have turned off a slew of D.C. fans.) Washington doesn’t have that gritty, blue collar thing that has made cities like Philadelphia at times big fight cities, but it’s not as if Montreal — currently the biggest fight town in North America, arguably — does, either.
I do wonder whether the diversity of the city, its immigrant population, might not also work against it in a way when it comes to boxing. I could see the city shrugging its shoulders at local boxers, because people here don’t always think of the D.C. product as “theirs.” That could be different, though, with black fans — many of the black people who live in D.C. were born here, and therefore have a greater allegiance to a sense of place. Black fans have not been the constituency for boxing that they once were, but I also still get the impression they’re kind of waiting to be re-energized.
What I’m even less certain about if the Peterson are the one to do it. They have a great up-from-nothing tale that could sell, and are fundamentally likable chaps who tend to be in good fights, but they’ve also shown themselves to be a notch below the upper tier of boxing talents thus far. Anthony is still rehabbing his career from a disqualification loss and won’t be fighting that upper tier for another couple fights, but Lamont has already come up short against Victor Ortiz and Timothy Bradley. Khan is more naturally gifted than both Ortiz and Bradley, so Peterson is a heavy underdog Saturday. If Lamont wins, all bets are off — he’d suddenly be one of the top stories in the sport. If Lamont loses, though, he’ll need to be competitive and/or exciting to maintain whatever audience comes out. If he fails at that, Anthony could be waiting to soak up some D.C. love, or maybe Mitchell could. Then, too, maybe some of the local pipeline of talent could start to mature, and a la Montreal, a little industry could be built up.
Khan-Peterson as a fight is a good one, regardless of the odds, and it has merit on that alone. That’s a topic for later. But one of the side stories is D.C.’s audition as a fight town. We’ll find out Saturday whether it’s not cut out to cast the role or whether it’ll be getting a callback.