Holt has faced bigger challenges than boxing

Kevin Iole
Yahoo Sports

Kendall Holt lives a ballet dance of a life, where he tiptoes between the Father Knows Best world of life in the suburbs and the grimy reality of an existence with a murderer in the family and danger around every corner.

It's not every day when one comes home from picking up a chicken dinner at a local restaurant and has to dodge bullets from two guys shooting at each other over, as he says matter-of-factly, "something really stupid, probably."

That, though, is what happened to Holt on Monday in Paterson, N.J., a day before he left home to fly to Barranquilla, Colombia, where he'll fight Ricardo Torres on Saturday for the WBO super lightweight championship.

He's almost assuredly walking into an ambush on Saturday, with the crowd, the promoter and, perhaps, the officials decidedly against him, but he essentially shrugs his shoulders with indifference.

He's not, he says cheerfully, concerned in the least about getting cheated out of a lifelong dream.

"When you've lived the life I've lived, not much of this kind of stuff bothers you," Holt says. "You just find a way to deal with it. And I will."

The life he's lived is one that would make most recoil in horror. And Holt himself, an engaging 26-year-old, recoils when it's suggested his 4-year-old son, Keshon, might follow in his footsteps and lead a similar life.

"Oh, no. No. No. Never. No way," he says. "That's the one thing that definitely won't happen."

Young Keshon is Holt's reason for fighting the fight, for slogging through troubled streets of the place he calls home.

It's the city where his mother, Debra, a one-time drug dealer, was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 15 years for stabbing a man who stole from her.

Though his father, Barry Porter, physically abused him when he was young, it was his father who tenderly explained to the 7-year-old that he wouldn't see his mother for a long time.

"He asked me if I knew what murder meant and he tried to explain what happened, but when you're that age, it's a tough thing to understand," Holt said.

Because his mother was incarcerated and his father was abusive, Holt was shuttled from foster home to foster home. He was young and innocent, but also wary, not sure who to trust.

His father, who was in and out of his life, took him to a boxing gym not long after his mother was sent away and Holt knew instantly what he wanted from life.

He was faster than the kids his age and more athletic. He was a natural with the gloves on his hands.

The gym was a refuge, a place he knew he could go where he'd find people he could trust and the problems of the streets would fade to the background.

"I started to dream about being a champion, of them putting the belt on me and announcing, 'And the new champion, Kendall Holt!' " he said. "I just felt that was something I really wanted."

And, it seemed, like something he might have a shot to get, at least until he picked up one of his mother's bad habits.

As a 17-year-old who was beginning to understand the differences between classes in society and the power of money, Holt realized he was at the bottom of the barrel.

He wanted more than he had and he began to deal crack cocaine as a means to get it. But his heart wasn't truly in it. Though the money was nice, the life of a drug runner wasn't one for him.

He never used the stuff he sold and, after several years, he wearied of a job where the risks were many and the rewards were few.

"You do that for any amount of time, there's a pretty good chance you're going to wind up dead or (in jail) for a long time, and that just didn't sit well with me," he said. "It wasn't me. I had to get out of that."

He had begun his boxing career and was clearly a talent. There are thousands of fighters who have had the talent to be a champion who never came close, whether from a lack of opportunity or a lack of desire.

He was determined to give himself every opportunity and that meant focusing entirely on boxing. Holt knew he couldn't control what others would do, but he wanted a championship badly and was willing to sacrifice for it.

He was also willing to give it all up for his son. After Keshon was born and Holt gained custody when the baby's mother showed no interest in having him day-to-day, he knew he had to supplement the meager income a fledgling pro boxer earns.

A local sports writer, Keith Idec of the North Jersey Herald News, introduced him to Henry Cortes, a local contractor.

Cortes, who had dabbled in boxing, knew of Holt and took pity. He gave him a job as an apprentice electrician.

"He worked and he learned and he was a very good employee," Cortes said.

But there was that talent. He had blazingly fast hands and a defensive ability that reminded some of Floyd Mayweather Jr.

But whereas Mayweather grew up in the USA Boxing program and represented the country in the 1996 Olympics, Holt had no such pedigree. No one offered him hundreds of thousands of dollars when he turned pro and no one was paying much attention to his early fights.

He had knocked out Gilberto Reyes in the first round, a KO which was seemingly replayed more on ESPN than Doug Flutie's legendary "Hail Mary" touchdown pass which lifted Boston College over Miami.

He enjoyed the notoriety, but it turned out it was his version of the Sports Illustrated cover jinx.

Cocky, under trained and less-than-focused, he was 15-0 and heavily favored when he met Thomas Davis on June 18, 2004.

Holt was hurting Davis repeatedly and enjoying his handiwork.

"I would counter his jab with an overhand right and, boom, every time, I was able to get it in," Holt said. "Every time."

But then Davis did a smart thing. He feinted the jab and Holt bit. He went to throw the overhand right again, but Davis fired a straight right instead of the jab.

The punch crunched Davis on the chin and sent him down and out.

"The laws of physics came into play," he said. "You know how the fastest way to get from Point A to Point B is a straight line instead of a loop? Well, he went with a straight line with his right hand and I went with a loop with mine."

The loss might have been the vehicle, though, that lifted him to the precipice of a championship.

He was angry at himself, for not preparing, for not taking the fight as seriously as he should have, for biting so easily on that feint.

He went into camp a few weeks later to help Diego Corrales prepare for a lightweight title fight with Acelino Freitas and said he received an education in professionalism.

"I could see the way the man went about his business, how focused he was on what he had to do to get ready," Holt said.

That instilled something in him that has him nearing completion of a lifelong dream. He handed David Diaz, now the WBC lightweight champion, his first loss after 26 consecutive wins, when he knocked him out on Feb. 4, 2005.

He was impressive in a unanimous decision win over a 25-0 fighter, the highly regarded Isaac Hlatshwayo, on Nov. 3. And then he earned his title shot by drubbing Mike Arnaoutis on April 20.

Things are looking up as well as they can for a guy who still has to dodge bullets on the way home.

His mother is out of jail, has a job and is trying to rehabilitate her life. But she's learned she has cancer.

"We have a relationship, finally," Holt said. "I'm not sure what's really going on, it's just tough. Real tough."

His father, too, is back in his life and served as his conditioning coach during his training camp for his title fight. His baby's mother, Kaliffa Young, is at least back in her son's life and is now interested enough to have regularly scheduled time with Keshon on weekends. Everything is lining up the way he wants it.

"I hear people say there are too many champions in boxing, but I'll tell you, you never hear a fighter saying that," Holt said. "What will it mean? Just about everything. When you have sacrificed your whole life just for this one night and you've gone through all the things we have to go through as fighters, that belt means everything to you.

"It's here now and it's up to me. I just have to go out and take care of my business and I'll finally be able to call myself a champion."