Lamont Peterson works out at Agua Caliente Spa in preparation for his fight… (Tom Casino / Showtime )
The opportunity tonight to become a world boxing champion isn't where Lamont Peterson's life once seemed to be headed.
"Dead, or 100 years in jail," Peterson said this week, reflecting on his early childhood spent in horrid poverty in Washington D.C.
Peterson, 25, will fight World Boxing Organization junior-welterweight champion Timothy Bradley of Palm Springs at the Agua Caliente Spa Resort Casino in Rancho Mirage in a bout that has generated buzz because both are undefeated. But Peterson's road to this fight was anything but easy.
As a child he was often homeless, raised amid the despair of having a father jailed on a drug-related crime and a mother overwhelmed by the task of caring for 12 children.
Peterson and his younger brother Anthony navigated a grim existence.
Lamont Peterson didn't start school until the second grade. He was homeless for extended periods, forced out of shelters to huddle in his mom's station wagon, or hope that family or friends would offer a place to sleep. Lamont and Anthony worked for spare change by washing windows when cars stopped at red lights.
Before turning 10, their thickest winter clothing was light wind-breaker jackets. They used newspapers for toilet paper, and participated in drug sales and pick-pocketing because they didn't know it was wrong, Lamont said.
"We'd do our stuff during the day, then meet up at night and figure out where to go," Peterson said, referring to himself, his brother, two sisters and their mother, Elizabeth, while up to four other siblings were incarcerated. "We had a lot of problems."
Shortly before Lamont's 11th birthday, he was invited into a boxing gym by his sister's boyfriend. The coach he met was Barry Hunter, a carpenter who helped the Peterson brothers work out and began to observe some troubling signs.
"They were just coming out of the foster care system, and I'd hear about their sleeping in bus depots," Hunter said. "They had hair lice, body lice. I'd take them to eat once a day at Taco Bell, and they'd order so much food. It was the only time they'd be eating, and they wanted to take some home to their family too."
Hunter and his wife, Cologne, agreed to help protect Lamont and Anthony from future trouble. One time, when the boys' father nearly lost custody, the Hunters were prepared to become their legal guardians.
Lamont followed Hunter's lead because he had never known an adult male who owned his own business, earned a conventional living and wasn't a hustler. Hunter relied on boxing as a tool to reach the Peterson boys.
"I understood that a child has a voice, feelings, and that adults should respect that," Hunter said. "Lamont, being the older one, he took more of that stuff on him. I can tell it's still in his heart to this day. I just did my best to let the boys know that, even though you went through that stuff in the past, you don't have to go through it anymore."
With Hunter as his trainer, Peterson won the 2000 Junior Olympics and 2001 Golden Gloves at 132 pounds, then competed in the U.S. Olympic box-offs in 2004, where he was defeated just shy of a trip to the Athens Olympics.
Both Peterson brothers turned pro in 2004, and they haven't lost since. Anthony is 29-0 with 19 knockouts as a lightweight.
Lamont is 27-0, with 13 KOs, and has trained for what is expected to be a close fight against Bradley (24-0, 11 KOs). Showtime will televise it on a delayed basis.
"The guy who outworks the other, the guy who's busier, that's your winner," said Hall of Fame matchmaker Bruce Trampler of Peterson's promotional company, Top Rank.
At Friday's weigh-in, Anthony Peterson said the road from homelessness to a world title shot for his brother is "like a fairy tale, a book that should be written. I can remember when Lamont first came to tell me he met this new boxing coach. He went from learning all those fundamentals to this pinnacle."
Bradley, a hometown hero in the desert, knows that in Lamont Peterson he's fighting "a good guy [who was] kicked to the curb as a child. I know he carries that chip on his shoulder. But I don't think he's faced the quality of opponents I've faced. I've had to dig down deep to become a champion, and I don't think he's had to do that in the ring yet. I'm curious to see if he can step up."
Peterson is confident he will. "This was what the whole dream was about, and I've prepared myself physically, mentally, spiritually," he said.
The perfect ending, Peterson said, is to hand his trainer-manager Hunter his first world title belt.
"It'll be a good little payback from me to him, to see his child made it," Peterson said. "I'd love to see that smile on his face."
Told that, Hunter was silent for a moment.
"That's pretty heavy," Hunter said. "I know he will win, but I'm already proud of him, seeing how far he's come, to survive the street - that's just incredible strength and will.
"It's important we finish this mission now, to send a message, especially in these days of the bad economy when so many others are out there still suffering. But if these little dudes can make it, come on, man, anything's possible."
TIMOTHY BRADLEY VS. LAMONT PETERSON at Agua Caliente Casino-Resort-Spa,
12 rounds, for WBO junior-welterweight title
9 p.m. on Showtime (Delayed)