Of all the extreme stories about fighters' troubled backgrounds, perhaps the finest belongs to Manny Pacquiao, the world's finest boxer. Pacquiao, remember, is said to have left his family shack for the three-day journey to Manila as a stowaway on a tuna boat at the tender age of 16 when his heartless father killed little Manny's pet dog. The dog, so the tale goes, was saved from starvation by little Manny; the father, so the story goes, only butchered the dog to feed his remaining kids. Nice tale, probably total cobblers.
This Saturday in Washington DC, Amir Khan defends his two light-welterweight world titles for the sixth time when he meets local fighter Lamont Peterson. It's a difficult defence because Peterson's only loss in 31 fights was on points to Tim Bradley, another world champion at Khan's weight. However, it is Peterson's history, all of which is true, that is more disturbing than the threat he poses in the ring.
Peterson was one of six brothers and five sisters and all seems to have been relatively calm in his life until the crack wars took over the streets in his Washington DC neighbourhood in the late Eighties. Peterson was a boy of five at the time. The so-called War on Drugs, which President Nixon announced in 1971, was about to take a serious beating on the streets of the American capital.
Peterson's father had worked in a supermarket but soon his drug dependency took over and the family house, which was large and comfortable, had its water and electricity cut off. The descent was not unique on the street where Peterson lived. The father's desperation and craving put an end to anything close to a normal life. The family lived in the dark and grime of the home because the alternative was truly grim. "The streets were full of junkies and desperate men and women. I knew that it was scary out there," remembers Peterson.
The inevitable eviction took place and the doors were sealed on the home and the family were on the streets, which at the time were among the most dangerous in the world; the streets are still in the top 10 most dangerous places to live in the USA. During the next five chaotic years, Peterson's father often went to prison and as many as four of his brothers were also jailed at the same time. It was all part of the epidemic that first ruined and later started to kill off Washington DC's street people; they were all dealers or junkies or both. The Peterson family were typical and anonymous victims.
The family, or what was left of it, lived in a truck for a time. Little Lamont was soon working for dealers on corners all night, missing school completely according to records and graduating to running his own corner. He was part of a mugging crew, which is often euphemistically referred to as being a "pick-pocket". This is Washington DC in 1994 and not Fagin's London. Peterson was nine and hardened and realistic about a future he simply never had. There is no existing list of the friends he lost along the way, but he knows a lot of dead people.
"It was prison and death or death in prison," he has said. "It could have been prison for 100 years but that is the same. Too many people I knew are no longer here." He had nights in custody, which was often a way to get warm, clean and fed. As each winter came and went, Peterson forgot a little more from a childhood that vanished far too early. The memories were, after all, thin before the drugs took over.
"I never missed what I never had. All I can remember is having nothing, trusting nobody and living from night to night. People ask me now what I missed. Nothing, that's the truth; I never had anything to miss," recalls Peterson, his face and eyes quite brilliant at concealing feelings from onlookers.
He was in and out of foster homes but found it hard to resist the quick riches he found on the streets. His stays in shelters were also brief because of the same problem. Peterson had the latest trainers and the cash to live, for a 10-year-old, a ridiculous life as a tiny gangster.
He was clearly unpleasant which is difficult to reconcile with the inspirational man he is now. The tiny gangster had various scrapes with the police, which are documented, and with rival dealers, which are stored in heads for revenge or retribution at a later date. He is often vague when the darkest of his days surface.
Lamont was finally given a chance just before his 11th birthday when he pushed open a heavy door and discovered a boxing gym. He also found men inside who were prepared to help, but not forgive or accept his excuses. The street kid was suddenly surrounded by father-like figures who were not high or behind bars.
"He had to act proper from the first day – there are too many street kids out there and I can't help any of them unless they help themselves first," said Barry Hunter, the trainer at the amateur gym. As a grim reminder of the streets and bus stations where Peterson was often sleeping, he had to get treated for body and hair lice. "I would take him and his brother, Anthony, to eat and they would always order more for their family. He was sleeping in bus depots at the time."
It was a slow process to get Peterson and his boxing brother Anthony away from the streets. Hunter and his wife were prepared to become legal guardians at one point when it looked like the city would separate the brothers and put them in care.
This is not a fake tale of hardship; there was no instant redemption at the foot of a heavy bag for Peterson. Hunter will be in Peterson's corner on Saturday, still monitoring the kid he helped save.
It has been an amazing journey for Peterson. His father is now a positive part of his life again and has been clean for 16 years. Peterson, who is now 27, could finally get the Hollywood ending to his life if he beats Khan at a venue surrounded by the streets that he once called home.