Junior welterweight Kendall Holt has been on top before. He has won world title fights -- and lost them, too.
He held a world title from 2008 to 2009, making one successful defense against Demetrius Hopkins before losing his belt to Timothy Bradley Jr. in a unification bout, despite scoring two knockdowns. So it's not as though Holt hasn't been in important fights before. Still, Holt says that when he enters the ring on enemy turf at the D.C. Armory in titleholder Lamont Peterson's hometown of Washington, D.C., on Friday night (ESPN2/WatchESPN, 9 ET), it will trump all the other fights he has been in.
"I'm looking at this fight as the biggest fight of my career," Holt said. "I don't feel like it's been so long since I've been a champion, but it doesn't even feel like I've been champion before. This feels like it's bigger than the first time I prepared to fight for a championship."
Maybe that's because Holt has had such a tough road back to the point where he could get a title shot again -- an opportunity he received as the mandatory challenger only because former titlist Zab Judah, who was ahead of him in the IBF's ratings, declined the bout in order to take a more lucrative title fight with Danny Garcia.
Holt (28-5, 16 KOs), 31, of Paterson, N.J., is just 3-3 in his past six fights, including the loss to Bradley and defeats by sixth-round knockout against Kaizer Mabuza, in a dreadful performance in a title elimination bout, and by decision to Garcia. But Holt also knocked out former lightweight titlist Julio Diaz in spectacular fashion and scored four knockdowns en route to a second-round knockout of Tim Coleman in his most recent fight 11 months ago.
Holt's lengthy layoff was prompted, in part, by surgery on his right shoulder, which has given him problems for years. But Holt said it now feels as good as it has in a long time.
"I've been having problems off and on since 2005," Holt said. "After the Coleman fight, it got really bad. I tried to train through it. I ended up having surgery. They found a torn labrum and rotator cuff, and I also had scar tissue -- all at the same time."
Holt had surgery in August and admits that the shoulder still isn't 100 percent, but added that it's "well enough and strong enough where I feel like I can compete. It's not hurting. I haven't had any unbearable pain. It's still sore, but I don't remember going into a fight 100 percent anyway."
When he fights Peterson (30-1-1, 15 KOs), 29, Holt will do so knowing that nobody in Washington is going to do him any favors. He knows Peterson won his title 14 months ago at home, via controversial split decision against Amir Khan.
"I don't have any problem going into his hometown," Holt said. "I've been to Colombia, and it doesn't get any worse than that. Anybody who goes to another guy's hometown has to know there may be some favoritism or close rounds that can go either way and go to the person whose hometown it is. Fighters know this."
The first time Holt fought for a world title was in 2007, when he traveled to Ricardo Torres' turf in Colombia and was controversially stopped in the 11th round of a fight that ended with fans hurling debris into the ring. Two fights later, however, Holt won a world title in sensational fashion in a rematch with Torres in Las Vegas -- an explosive 61-second brawl in which Holt rebounded from two knockdowns to knock Torres out cold.
Although Holt has been out of action for 11 months, Peterson will be fighting for the first time in 14 months -- his first fight since upsetting Khan. But Peterson's layoff wasn't caused by an injury. Rather, as he was preparing to meet Khan for his first seven-figure payday in a rematch last May, Peterson tested positive for synthetic testosterone -- a banned substance discovered during a random drug test conducted by the Voluntary Anti-Doping Association. Peterson had asked Khan to accept VADA's random drug-testing protocol in the lead-up to their fight, which wound up being canceled less than two weeks out.
Peterson said the synthetic testosterone, implanted in pellet form before he met Khan in December 2011, was prescribed by a doctor and was for therapeutic reasons. Although the WBA stripped Peterson of its belt for the positive test, the IBF allowed him to keep its version after its medical people concluded that his use of the testosterone was therapeutic, not performance-enhancing.
Nonetheless, Peterson struggles against the stigma of being labeled a drug cheat.
"Getting caught with [with performance-enhancing drugs] in boxing is the absolute worst thing next to [Antonio] Margarito and the loaded hand-wrap situation," Holt said. "We are jeopardizing our lives to begin with, and then to face a guy on steroids, or whatever, so he can have more strength? We're not hitting a baseball. We're not seeing who can run the fastest.
"We're actually jeopardizing our lives and the lives of the people we are facing. For any of these guys to get in the ring juiced up is terrible. If you get caught with that stuff, you should be banned from the sport."
Holt said he doesn't buy Peterson's story of using synthetic testosterone for medical reasons, although he isn't concerned about any funny business going into Friday's bout.
"I don't have any trepidation fighting him because of that," Holt said. "I can't think about that. I'm going to go in there with the mindset that no matter what he did, I am going in there to beat him. I don't think about the whole illegal substance thing. But I don't buy his story.
"It was in his system, and if you're not trying to hide anything or gain an advantage, why not disclose it? He didn't want anyone to know. If he wouldn't have got caught, he'd continue to use it."
Peterson has maintained all along that he didn't use any illegal substance for performance-enhancing reasons, which is what the IBF and Peterson's own medical experts said. He is just looking forward to fighting again and putting the episode behind him.
"To me, it feels great to get back into the ring and defend my IBF title," he said. "The layoff did not hurt me, because I've been in the gym training like I was going to fight for the past year. I don't believe in ring rust. A fighter fights, and that's what I do. But one good thing with the time off is that I have been able to rest my body and work on fine-tuning my skills. I'm ready to fight now."
How seriously is Holt taking the fight with Peterson? Very. A single parent with two children, Holt has custody of his 9-year-old son, and his 8-year-old son lives with the boy's mother. Usually, Holt trains in New Jersey, where he lives, but for this fight his mother took care of the 9-year-old while Holt relocated to Los Angeles to get away from the distractions of home and put in quality sparring under the guidance of trainer Jesse Reid.
"[Reid] pushes me real hard, and that's what I need to be successful in this fight," said Holt, who sparred with fighters such as Shane Mosley and up-and-coming welterweight Wale Omotoso. "I'm on weight and I'm looking extremely great in sparring. Jesse is a great trainer and I'm working harmoniously with him. Words can't describe how grueling it is training with these guys, but that's what's going to get me to the top."
Holt says that as important as it was to have a good training camp from a physical standpoint, his mental preparation was just as significant. For the first time in a long while, he embraced the rigors of camp rather than dwelling on its drawbacks.
"I trained in L.A. to get the best I could out of my camp," he said. "Usually, it's like, 'Oh, man, I got six, seven, eight weeks of training.' I would think about the negatives. This camp, I thought about the positives. I lost two close decisions [to Bradley and Garcia], and had I had better training, those would have been wins for me. Those two guys have gone on to become millionaires. I take that with me. I know if I had a more positive mentality going into those training camps, I would have been more positive going into the fight.
"So for this fight, I am positive. I want to use my intellect and set up my knockout. If I think I'm behind and it's late, I will plant my feet and let these hammers go. My career needs this win. This fight can change my whole life and the lives of my kids. I want to win. I will leave it all in the ring."