It's one of those kind of fights, is Lamont Peterson vs. Lucas Matthysse Saturday on Showtime: The more you dissect it, the more footage you watch, the harder it gets to figure out who will win. You might have started off one way and flipped back and forth repeatedly. In that sense, your fractured crystal ball reflects the odds in general — by one sports book, Matthysse is the ultra-narrow favorite, but the closer it gets to fight night, the more writers come out picking Peterson.
That kind of fight might be enticing enough on its own, but the attraction is compounded by yet other things, like the ways in which Peterson and Matthysse are alike, and they ways they're different. Matthysse is a brawler who can box; Peterson is a boxer who can brawl. If you mope around lamenting the sorry state of body punching in boxing today, this weekend has a pot of gold to cheer you up. Even if both men take turns avoiding contact for stretches, there will be a significant percentage of the war waged in the trenches. The winner, too, will cement his spot as a top-two fighter in the top-heavy 140-pound division, with a nearly equally compelling fight awaiting the victor against Danny Garcia that could crown a new lineal junior welterweight champion.
Peterson-Matthysse has got all of the colors of the rainbow, only if a rainbow could be drenched in blood — pretty, mixed with violent, mixed with the sharp-contrasting-mingling colors, mixed with the excitement of such a rare event. There are people, and I'm one of them, who have been looking forward to this bout more than any other on the 2013 calendar.
That was no hypothetical at the start — I just watched a number of Matthysse fights, and thought, "Matthysse has this one," then I watched Peterson and action, and thought, "Peterson should take it."
Peterson has the better wins, over Amir Khan and Kendall Holt, but at least one of them has an asterisk. Matthysse has losses against good fighters in Zab Judah and Devon Alexander, but both of them have an asterisk. Peterson had synthetic testosterone in his system when he beat Khan, and his excuses don't age very well. He proclaimed after getting busted that he'd use advanced drug testing going forward, but only for higher-level bouts since it's costly, yet neither testing outfit USADA or VADA are involved in this bout, because Peterson is doing his own testing, as if that ought to inspire any confidence.
Matthysse, meanwhile, beat Judah and Alexander both on my scorecards, and I'm not alone. Still, the experience edge goes to Peterson, because he has been in with a few other top junior welters, Timothy Bradley and Victor Ortiz, and held his own even without getting the wins. And Matthysse has some solid wins, over Humberto Soto, Ajose Olusegun and Mike Dallas, Jr.
Matthysse's biggest weapon is his punching power — he knocks everyone down in every fight — and his second biggest weapon is his chin. Somewhere down the line, but not inconsiderable, is that he is not without skill. The issue is how, or even whether, he employs it. There are boxers I would definitively pick to beat Matthysse on this logic: Matthysse might have deserved decisions over Judah and Alexander, but both of them outboxed him for stretches, and both did enough work to impress the judges more than Matthysse, even with knockdowns in the mix. Matthysse has improved since those losses, some would say, but looking at the video, I see that he has primarily improved by not starting so slowly in bouts and digging himself holes on the scorecards.
In his rush to increase his work rate overall and earlier, he has also gotten worse. He defends capably when he keeps his gloves high, but the more punches he throws, the more opportunities he gives his opponents to catch him with his gloves elsewhere. As he's less focused on defense, though, he can't be frozen as easily with flurries; his iron chin gives him the ability to take a couple to give more back. And as he has been throwing more punches, his technique in recent bouts has degenerated a little. Mostly he's trying to land anything, so his punches are wider, sloppier — although it works out for him because even his glancing blows, even his jabs, are so heavy with both hands. Yet when he wants to throw a straight, pristine one, he can, like with the counter that put Dallas down in frightening fashion.
Peterson is the more versatile of the two men, the more nimble mover, the one with the better speed and reflexes. That speed advantage will be a rare place for Peterson to inhabit. He's always had good speed, and Matthysse's isn't actively bad, but Peterson's opponents have been some awfully fast men — Holt, Khan, Bradley, Ortiz. That might be key. Another key will be how well Peterson deals with his own tendency toward slow starts, and how susceptible he'll be to suffering knockdowns from Matthysse, who scores knockdowns on his way to 7-Eleven. Peterson has a tendency to get dropped, then adjust. Maybe it goes to this low testosterone affliction he claims to have, something he says still isn't fixed. At minimum, he's a smart boxer who ends bouts better than he starts them. But he does have a tendency to get dropped, something Bradley, Ortiz and Khan did to him, even if the Khan knockdown was less legitimate.
The flexibility comes in his ability to fight inside or outside. He prefers inside, where he can fire arcing shots with either hand to the head and body. He's fine jabbing from the outside if he has to, and on paper, he'd be better served doing so against Matthysse, the harder hitter and the smaller man — 5'9" to about 5'7", 72" reach to 69" reach. Peterson certainly hits hard enough to sting, and his body punching is especially fierce, although if anyone gets stopped in this fight, it won't be Matthysse. Peterson could, however, sap some of Matthysse's power and fire if he can damage Matthysse's ribcage.
Matthysse might be the #1 puncher in the sport today, with middleweight Gennady Golovkin his top competition, so no matter who he fights, a violent knockout is a viable scenario — Olusegun had been a pretty sturdy sort before he met Matthysse. In retrospect, it's hard to figure out how Judah survived Matthysse, more understandable how the stronger-chinned Alexander did. I put Peterson's chin at somewhere between the two.
If you accept, as I do, that both Alexander and Judah gave Matthysse difficult competition with their movement, defense and speed, and that those factors always figure to trouble even an improved Matthysse, another big question becomes: How does Peterson compare to Judah and Alexander in those categories? Probably worse than both in all three areas, actually.
So. Matthysse's power and Peterson's chin, in combination with Peterson's speed, movement and defense relative to other people Matthysse has dropped, figure for at least one knockdown. Where I lean toward Peterson is in this — he's smarter than anyone Matthysse has faced, better at figuring out how he got dropped and responding. And he ought to find gains in being faster than his opponent for once, so maybe his defense will be all the better in this bout for it.
The calculus of this fight is complicated, which makes it compelling. The most basic elements are thus: If Peterson takes too long to get going, I think he loses; if he starts faster than usual, or gets dropped early enough to adjust and take over, I think he wins. It will be close no matter what happens, even if it ends early, for as long as it goes. But I'm picking Peterson by a narrow, perhaps controversial, decision. And when I wake up in the morning, I'll almost surely regret that choice.