WASHINGTON -- Lamont Peterson winning the light welterweight championship from Amir Khan should be one of the best sports stories of the year.
Peterson lived parentless with his brother on the streets of Washington D.C. from age 9 to 14. Oddsmakers had installed him as 7-to-1 underdog against Khan, the well-groomed Freddie Roach protégé and Olympic silver medalist from England who'd spent the past two years cleaning out the 140-pound cupboard and climbing the pound-for-pound charts.
Then on Saturday, Peterson fought with rare tenacity and made the most of his second shot at the title, feeding off the near-sellout crowd of 8,647 at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center and nicking a split decision. After 12 back-and-forth rounds, judges George Hill and Valerie Dorsett scored it 113-112 to Peterson, while Nelson Vasquez tipped Khan at 115-110. (SI.com had it 113-112 to Khan.)
From homeless to world champion. What a story.
"Things were always rough for me," the 27-year-old Peterson (30-1-1, 15 KOs) said afterward, a nod to his extraordinary origins. "Things have never come easy. I was prepared for a backyard fight and that's what it was."
Roll credits, right? Alas boxing, as life, seldom fits cleanly into made-for-Hollywood narratives.
Khan (26-2, 18 KOs) was deducted two points by referee Joe Cooper, for shoving in the seventh round and hitting off the break in the 12th. Roach, Khan's chief second, said both came without prior warnings. If the first point isn't taken, Khan retains the title on a draw. If both are ignored, the 25-year-old Brit wins a unanimous decision.
"He did a terrible job," Roach said. "The referee shouldn't decide fights, he's not a judge. He made himself a judge tonight."
Said a despondent-looking Khan at a circus-like press conference: "It was like I was against two people in there."
It was said to have been Khan's idea to fight in Washington after he was invited by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to a White House dinner for prominent Muslim athletes in connection with the 10th anniversity of 9/11. Surely he regrets it now.
"I knew it would be tough in his hometown," said Khan, whose purse totaled $1.1 million before his (ample) cut of the U.K. TV receipts, "but this is why boxing hasn't been in D.C. for 20 years: you get a decision like this."
The controversy sullied what is certainly now among the frontrunners for the best fight of the year.
Khan sprinted out of the gate at the opening bell, landing a one-two combination before Peterson could blink. It was a meaner, more proactive Khan than previous outings -- hitting off the break, using his elbows more than usual. You saw the familiar hand speed and well-schooled combinations that observers have grown accustomed to, but everything uncoiled with a little more spite and vigor. And it ended with Khan dumping Peterson to the canvas twice near the end of the round. Both appeared to be clean knockdowns from ringside, though the referee deemed the first a slip. ("The first knockdown was clearer than the second one," Roach later recalled in disgust, "and he called the second one.")
In the second, Khan picked up right where left off, battering Peterson backward with a six-punch combination. But something was different. Khan was the faster, bigger, cleaner puncher, but Peterson was finding range with his jab and returning fire on the inside.
Peterson found his sea legs in the third and came alive, connecting with flurries to the body and head as chants of "D.C.! D.C.!" began to sweep across the hometown crowd, which buoyed the atmosphere at the first major fight in the nation's capital since Mike Tyson's ignominious farewell to Kevin McBride in 2005 -- and the first championship bout since Riddick Bowe (in attendance Saturday night) defended the heavyweight title against Jesse Ferguson in 1993. By the end of the third, it seemed Peterson had Khan in serious trouble.
Five straight left hands for Peterson at the start of the fourth -- hook, hook, uppercut, hook, hook! -- further boosted the frenetic crowd energy. Khan was still sharp on his combination punching, but found himself dealing with a demon on the inside. The Briton was now on his bicycle, moving almost exclusively in reverse, while Peterson's defense seemed only to harden.
Khan made a smart adjustment for the fifth, giving Peterson a different look. With the challenger loading up on his punches, Khan kept his distance and scored with the jab. This was the Khan the oddsmakers expected to see, measuring and countering with ruthless accuracy. And it carried over into the sixth. It came as little surprise Khan won both rounds on all three cards.
Peterson rallied in the seventh, backing Khan up against the ropes for long stretches and ripping uncontested shots to the body and head. One hellacious uppercut snapped Khan's head back along the top rope and sent blood spraying into the VIP seats.
"[Khan] laid on the ropes a little bit too much," Roach said, "He gave him too much momentum, but I never thought he was in danger."
In the ninth, Khan took a flush hook that sent more fluid into the audience, but he immediately bit back with a vicious combination that clearly hurt Peterson, whose right eye had been swelling since the early stages. By the end of the round Peterson looked gassed, but both fighters gamely traded flurries through the final three rounds -- where Cooper's 12th-round deduction needlessly altered the result.
"He took two points away for nothing and he didn't give warnings," Roach said. "This is like an amateur referee. A referee at this level of competition shouldn't make those mistakes. He decided the fight, not the judges. The referee took it out of the judges' hands, which is bull---t."
Khan's fans travel well and create a carnival-like atmosphere sprinkled with airhorns, flags and noisemakers, but Peterson's hometown advantage was palpable. ("They were pushing me on in there when things got rough," he said.) Although the scoring would have been close whether Saturday's fight was in Washington, Bolton, Las Vegas or wherever, there's no denying that Cooper's questionable deductions superseded the three ringside judges and cost Khan his titles.
One thing everyone seemed to agree on -- from Peterson to Khan to Golden Boy Promotions president Oscar De La Hoya -- was that an immediate rematch was necessary.
"He won the fight tonight and I'm ready for a rematch, straight away, immediately," Khan said, lobbying for a return bout in the United Kingdom. "I came to your hometown. Let's see if you've got the same balls as me."
Peterson, the newly minted champion, seemed happy to oblige -- and it should make for one of the most anticipated fights of 2012.
"I would definitely give him a rematch," said Peterson, who netted a career-high purse of $650,000. "Why not? He gave me a shot at the title. I will give him a rematch anytime."
Khan, who managed to avoid talking about the referee as much as humanly possible, remained upbeat about his future. He said he's postponing his long-fancied move up to welterweight until he wins his titles back from Peterson. Then it's up to 147 pounds and, possibly, a much-rumored showdown with Floyd Mayweather -- an international bonanza that could draw 80,000 fans to Wembley Stadium.
"I'll come back even stronger," he promised. "This is what boxing is all about, how you come back."