Holt steers away from easy money, focuses on the ring

Gangbangers prowled the streets, packing an assortment of lethal hardware, and you had to be prepared to duck every so often, as drive-bys were a daily occurrence.

Dealers did their thing, in broad daylight, and would pause from their business only if a street melee broke out, and cops were forced to come to North Main Street in Paterson, N.J., one of grittiest blocks in the city.

"It was," junior welterweight contender Kendall Holt recalls, "like any urban movie you'll watch. There was crack, dope, coke, a whole lot of dealers. And the dealers had the nice clothes, the cars, they became your role models."

The 26-year-old Holt (22-1, 12 KOs) will fight on Saturday night, against WBO light welterweight champion Ricardo Torres (31-1, 27 KOs), on Torres' home turf in Colombia. Holt's long since found better role models for himself, but as a pup in Paterson, the thugs looked badass, dressed the best and always had the best wheels. Little Holt, before he found the ring was a safer, better bet for survival, looked up to them.

When he was 5, Holt's mother was struggling with her own problems, and it became clear that she couldn't care for Kendall.

He was put in foster care, and then went to live with his father. While he ricocheted from home to home, he'd soak in the characters in the street, see their swagger and shiny baubles, and ponder growing up to be just like them.

Holt's mother, meanwhile, slipped further into the dark side. She was dealing, and one night, a thief tried to make off with her merchandise. She defended her turf and stabbed the man. He died, and Debra Holt was charged with manslaughter. She was convicted and given a 15-year sentence.

Holt's dad tried to show him more fruitful diversions, and brought him to a gym at age 7. He dug boxing, and kept at it even as he skipped from his dad's house, to the foster care system, and back again.

At 17, the lure of the streets seduced the teenage Holt. He explains why, despite his mom's tragic plummet, he went that route.

"I wanted more than I had," says the 5-9 boxer-puncher with a wicked left hook and a nifty shoulder-roll defense. "I wanted clothes, and cars and a motorcycle. The part-time job, at K-Mart, wouldn't do it. I started dealing crack."

Holt peddled for four years ("but I never used the stuff"), and even continued after he turned pro, in 2001.

Why'd you stop cold turkey then, he was asked.

"A guy came into the gym and he saw I had a gun in my locker," Holt recalls. "The guy had a friend in the probation department and he told me he knew that the police were going to raid my house. I gave away $10,000 worth of drugs. I stopped after I signed with [promoter] Dino Duva, after my third fight."

He saw the error of his ways, and his mother, too, has changed her lifestyle.

She was released in 2001, and, Holt reports, has two jobs, at K-Mart and McDonald's. She has an interview at an area hospital for a job and has her own apartment.

But Holt's road hasn't been free of potholes.

He lost his first fight, after 15 straight wins, in 2004. In June of that year, he took on journeyman Thomas Davis, got caught, and was knocked out. That setback came three months after he made "SportsCenter," with a picture-perfect KO over Gilberto Reyes.

After the loss, Holt had to claw to regain his prospect status. He begged small-time promoters to put him on their shows, and accepted tickets as payment.

By January 2005, Holt had recovered some mojo, and met up with 1996 Olympian David Diaz, then 26-0. Fight fans know Diaz beat Erik Morales three weeks ago, and on that night, the less-experienced Holt was the underdog.

"Nobody picked me to win that fight," he says. "He was No. 2 in the world, but to me, it was the biggest fight of my career."

Holt hit the deck in the seventh, but a round later, he turned up the heat, and notched a TKO win in eight rounds.

Surely, he figured, momentum would carry him to a title crack, and some decent money.

Not so.

Marquee matchups didn't materialize, and Holt got irked. He fought listlessly against journeymen Jaime Rangel and Vladimir Khodokovski in 2005.

He explains why he looked so pedestrian when he is capable of being an explosive hitter with power in both hands and smart movement of head and feet.

"For me to get up for a fight I need someone to pose a threat and they didn't," Holt says. "The first time I felt threatened was against Isaac."

"Isaac" was Isaac Hlatshwayo, an unbeaten South African. In November 2006, after a 14-month layoff, Holt met the touted fighter in Atlantic City, N.J., and put it all together. He dumped his foe three times and made off with a unanimous decision in 12 rounds.

That lengthy layoff, though, frustrated Holt. He split with his manager, and also spent time securing sole custody of his son, Keshon, now 4 years old.

The single dad didn't look like a prospect to put on your Must Follow The Progress Of list when he fought Mike Arnaoutis on April 20, but he did what was needed to get the win and snag a title shot against Torres.

Beyond the drama of the title shot, there's been some extra hubbub surrounding Team Holt in recent months. At the heart of the conflict is the question of who makes up Team Holt.

The fighter is now maintaining that his contract with promoter Duva has expired, and that he's a promotional free agent. Duva disagrees. Vehemently.

"I have a contract with Kendall," he told ESPN.com. "I invested time and money in him, and brought him back from the dead, after he was out with chronic injuries and he was pulling out of fights. It's one of those things, people try and screw you."

Duva didn't try to stop Holt from fighting Saturday, he says, "because that wouldn't do anybody any good." He says he's entitled to 25 percent of Holt's purse to fight Torres, about $13,000, and hopes maybe after the fight, the Paterson hitter will come back into the fold. Holt doesn't sound keen on that plan.

"No, I'd rather give someone else a chance," he says. "Dino said I was injured, that was inadequate information. I have doctors' letters saying I didn't need more than two weeks' total time to recover. And he said I turned fights down, I never turned fights down. For 14 months, he didn't return my phone calls. He breached the contract, he has no case. For me, he just did the bare minimum."

Potential legal wrangling aside, Holt says he's got his eyes focused on Torres and the task at hand Saturday.

He's watched the Colombian in action live, and on tape, and says he's a strong puncher, but basic.

The jab will be paramount in order to come back to Jersey with a belt, Holt says. And as the fight gets on in rounds, he promises to pick up the pace, and he says, hopefully pick up a KO.

"The pressure on him, it's his hometown and he has the belt he has to defend," Holt says. "My skills are superior. The fight will be a blowout."

On a good night, Holt can show a talent base that's in the top 10 percentile in the sport. He's showed mental fortitude in steering himself away from easy money and inevitable hard time, and if he can transfer that self discipline to the ring, Holt can raise his profile and make some noise and money in this game, and get the clothes, cars and cycles and the respect of Paterson, Keshon and Debra, to boot.

Michael Woods, the news editor for TheSweetScience.com, has written for ESPN The Magazine, GQ and The New York Observer.