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Rated R: “There was one time in my life when both my parents were in jail at the same time,” says Kendall Holt

Kendall Holt
Ed Mulholland/USA TODAY Sports
His mother was jailed for murder and his father jailed for child abuse, but that didn't stop Kendall Holt becoming a world champion, writes Elliot Worsell

IT should have been no different to any other school day. He should have woken up, got dressed, eaten breakfast, brushed teeth, rolled eyes, grunted, and left. There should have been no time for conversation. No time for questions. No mention of murder.

“Do you know what it means?” Barry Porter asked his son.

He meant murder.

In response, a 10-year-old shook his head, more shock than ignorance, then listened to his father tell him to read the newspaper, where, as promised, Kendall Holt found her name, Debra Holt, and the word, that word. His father wasn’t lying, Kendall established, but the rest of the article washed over him. Only the important details stuck: his mother’s name and the words murder and arrested.

He didn’t acknowledge the specifics of her crime nor consider his mother committing a crime to be particularly shocking. Arrests, after all, were par for the course in a city like Paterson, New Jersey, and Kendall knew enough about Debra Holt, his mother, to realise that him ending up in care at the age of five, then being raised by his father from seven, had been no unfortunate mix up.

“I don’t even remember what the article said,” Holt recalled. “All I remember was that it said she had been convicted of murder and that she put her face in her hands and was crying when she said she did it.”

Additional words Holt ignored at the time but would later understand included manslaughter, guilty and 15 years. Yet the remaining details were sketchier. Some accounts said Debra Holt was dealing drugs when she stabbed and killed a thief who encroached her turf and tried making off with her merchandise. Others said Debra and three men she met at the Alexander Hamilton Hotel were convicted of killing a homeless man during an evening of random, senseless violence – an act known as ‘thrill killing’ – on September 15, 1990.

“To this day I really don’t know anything about it,” Kendall said. “Even when I asked her about it last year, she was reluctant and hesitant to talk about it. I just left her alone.”

**

Nobody was around to ask Kendall Holt if he knew what child abuse meant. He just experienced it.

Nor, before that, did anybody ask him if he wanted to box. He just did it.

It all started when Holt, at seven, was given a pair of boxing gloves by his father, manipulated into a fighting stance and taught how to punch. His preference, had he been allowed one, would have been to do karate because it looked cool on TV, but Barry stressed to his son there was no money in karate and ordered him to instead put his hands up and fight his brother, Barry Jnr.

“I was just like any other kid,” Holt said. “I was running around the neighbourhood doing little mischievous things, like chasing girls, playfighting with friends and learning how to do backflips and cartwheels. The only difference between me and everyone else was that I had a militant father who taught me how to box because that was his favourite sport.

“Obviously growing up in one of the worst parts of New Jersey, one of the first things you learn as a young boy is how to defend yourself. If other kids deem you to be weak, they will exploit you.”

Because he lived with his trainer, Kendall’s days were regimented, gruelling and always based around boxing. “Is your homework done?” would, under Barry’s roof, be a question asked not because a father wanted to keep abreast of his child’s academic progress but because he wanted to steer his mind away from books and back towards boxing. After homework, he had a hundred press-ups to complete. After that, there was a bag in the basement that needed punching.

Other times he would spar his brother, older by a year and heavier by 25 pounds, in the backyard. “For me,” Holt said, “boxing was not fun growing up.”

Be that as it may, both Holt boys were good at it. They progressed from the backyard to the local park in no time and it was here their father, armed with gloves and a timer, would make them fight other children in the neighbourhood.

“Living in a neighbourhood where there’s poverty, you have a lot of kids, and most of them went to the park and were aggressive,” said Kendall. “Fighting, that was in our nature. That’s what we did growing up. A lot of kids wanted to fight. That’s how they released aggression. They got their dukes up and settled things.

“When I was going to those neighbourhoods and beating up other kids, people started recognising me around town. That part of it was fun.”

From the park they upgraded to the boxing gym in the Fifth Avenue housing project and demonstrated all the skills their father had for six months been teaching them. The better his boys got, the more excited Barry became. The more hopeful he became. The more militant he became. The more violent he became.

The less fun it became.

“There was one time in my life when both my parents were in jail at the same time,” Kendall said matter-of-factly. “My mother was inside for murder and my father went away for child abuse.”

**

As a teenager, Holt used a little of what he learned from his mother and a little of what he learned from his father to excel both in the ring and on the streets. Often the two worlds collided.

“In my first ever fight I fought this tall kid called Alfonso,” Holt said. “I won a decision after three rounds and he was later, as a juvenile, in jail with my brother. Those two started talking and they realised I had fought Alfonso in the amateurs. They called me one day and I spoke to both of them on the phone. An interesting coincidence, right?”

Kendall didn’t want to go the way of his brother and Alfonso but did briefly carry guns and deal crack cocaine. He did so because jobs at K-Mart and local movie theatres weren’t giving him the life he desired and because slinging drugs had long been considered the quickest way out of Paterson.

Had other options been available, Holt, when graduating high school, would have gone to college to study physiotherapy. He would then have looked to repair damage rather than cause it. “But my father wasn’t signing me up for college so we were getting into arguments and he would be yelling at me a lot,” he said. “He would have a go at me for not taking out the garbage or for not doing this and that. After that I was like, ‘You know what? I’m going to turn pro.’ I pursued a professional boxing career to make enough money to leave his house.”

Holt, who lost just five times as an amateur, cared little for world titles or tokens of success and instead used boxing to escape – from his father, from Paterson, from his past, from a bleak future. By March 2001, he had made his professional debut. Within a month he had a nickname.

“The night after my second pro fight in Ohio, Hasim Rahman knocked Lennox Lewis out and afterwards described the knockout as being ‘Rated R’,” he explained. “I was in the hotel watching that and from that point on I took that name.

“Hasim Rahman Jnr, years later, actually asked me how I got that name. I told him, ‘It was because of your dad.’”

Before any of his wins could be described as Rated R, Holt had to contend with a shocking first-round loss at the hands of Thomas Davis, his own video nasty, in 2004. “I was reluctant for years to watch the fight back,” he said. “You have to have a short memory. If you dwell on that it’s going to hinder you from progressing. It happened, I accepted it and I just mind-dumped it and moved on.”

Eight months later, Holt was paid $15,000 to box Olympian David Diaz, 26-0 at the time, in a fight he was expected to lose. Diaz had the momentum and support network Holt lacked but an edge in power secured Holt an eighth-round stoppage victory.

“My trainer didn’t think I would win that fight,” Holt said. “He thought Diaz was too aggressive and too strong and the press agreed. I was like, ‘No, this kid can’t beat me. Trust me.’

“There were all these TV cameras and reporters around for that fight. Everything you see on TV or read about in magazines, I was experiencing that night. I had dreamed about that.”

As a result of this breakthrough, Holt was able to give up his job in 2006 and concentrate solely on boxing. He had a manager and a signing bonus and could afford to get a car and pay bills. “It wasn’t a lot,” he said, “but it kept the lights on and meant I could go to the gym full time.”

Later that year Holt, with renewed dedication, spoiled the unbeaten record of South Africa’s Isaac Hlatshwayo via unanimous decision, before then outpointing Mike Arnaoutis, the WBO’s number one contender at super-lightweight. He was now on a roll and the world title Barry Porter always wanted was within touching distance of his son, a reluctant avatar.

Kendall Holt
Holt was never the happiest fighter (Action Images/REUTERS/Marsh Starks)

**

The day before he left New Jersey for Barranquilla, Colombia, Holt was picking up a chicken dinner from a local restaurant when he was suddenly forced to dodge bullets from the guns of two Paterson gangbangers shooting each other. He bobbed and weaved, got out the way, and made the flight the next day. In doing so, two things became clear: one, Holt’s defensive instincts were sharp, and two, Barranquilla, despite its reputation, was unlikely to faze him.  

As it turned out, it was while in Barranquilla, in 2007, that Holt started to embrace all he had so long looked to avoid. There, in his first world title fight, Holt went back and forth with heavy-handed local Ricardo Torres in the most hostile of environments and couldn’t have felt more comfortable.

“I remember thinking this can’t be a championship fight because it seems too easy,” he said. “But then he hit me with a punch that was so hard I thought he broke my jaw. And I was excited for that. Why? Because this was something I’d seen on TV and heard about. Champions overcoming adversity. Muhammad Ali fought damn near 15 rounds with his jaw broken. I was super excited to think I was in a championship fight and my jaw was broken. I finally felt like a professional boxer.”

Holt was controversially stopped in the 11th round of a WBO title fight many felt he was winning and the calls for a rematch, shouts tough to ignore, were answered 10 months later. This time they would fight in Las Vegas. This time Holt would be spared the enmity of Barranquilla but find himself decked by a Torres right hand after just 12 seconds.

“I threw a jab and Torres came over the top of it,” he recalled. “But I wasn’t paying attention because I had just seen Mike Tyson at ringside. I was like, Holy s**t, Mike Tyson is watching me. I then throw this lazy-ass jab and he goes over the top of it and I go down. After that I thought, You know what? Let me focus.

“We’re throwing punches and I’m trying to grab him to stop his onslaught. I end up going back down. What made me mad was when I got up he hit me with a hook that nobody ever talks about. That right there p***ed me off. Once I got p***ed off, I thought, All right, man, let’s go to war.”

Stung into action, Holt’s violent riposte left Torres sprawled on the bottom rope, unconscious, and concluded one of boxing’s greatest one-round title fights.

“I started retreating but I was bobbing and weaving, which was something I actually worked on in camp,” he said. “A lot of people don’t know this, but I knocked him out with a straight right hand, and I went into that fight with a fractured right hand. It was pure adrenaline.

“After the fight I was in the hospital with all these other boxers and MMA fighters and my hand was hurting. But I was super happy. Why? Because I was champion of the f**king world.

“In the ring they wanted to dry the blood off, and I was like, ‘No! Let it flow!’ This is what I grew up watching, champions fighting and bleeding. Let me bleed. Now I feel like a world champion. Why? Because this is what I grew up witnessing champions go through. Let me look like a champion.”

The image of a bloody Holt fleeing a crumpled Torres to vault the top rope is the enduring one from his 12-year professional career. The video, meanwhile, all 61 seconds of it, will never slip through the cracks.

“Every year somebody is posting it on social media and I’m getting tagged by thousands of people,” Holt said. “It lives on like it’s new, like it just happened yesterday, but it’s almost 12 years old. It’s always on these ‘Greatest Knockouts’ DVDs and I also made the cover of Boxing News. That was great for me. I have that cover hanging up in my house.”

Torres vs. Holt II: A minute of mayhem

**

Like lives in Paterson, Kendall Holt’s spell as WBO super-lightweight champion was eventful but brief. It consisted of just one successful defence, a decision win over bitter rival Demetrius Hopkins, before Timothy Bradley cut the reign short in April 2009. 

“A fighter’s first goal is to become world champion,” Holt, 28-6 (16), said. “I became champion of the world and there were red carpets and I was hanging with all types of celebrities. I felt like a star. I had hundreds of thousands of dollars and I was taking care of my family. But once I lost the title the itch to get it back was just not there.”

Subsequent victories against Julio Diaz and Tim Coleman suggested he still had it, while losses to Kaizer Mabuza, Danny Garcia and Lamont Peterson suggested otherwise.

To be safe, Holt went to school to become a dialysis technician and learn about the human body. With this education came knowledge and with knowledge came work and with work came regular income and distractions. Soon enough, he had no time for boxing and, rather than officially retire in 2013, simply drifted away from a sport he never liked all that much in the first place.

“If I’d had representation I would have continued with my career,” he said. “In fact, even though I was inducted into the New Jersey Boxing Hall of Fame last November, I still have hopes and aspirations of making a return. I still want to come back.

“I want to win another world championship. People say, ‘Oh, anybody can do it one time but it’s the real fighters who do it multiple times.’ I look at it now and think, Maybe I’m not a real world champion. The way I won my championship was controversial (some believe he knocked out Torres with an accidental headbutt). But, s**t, I won it. I want to win another one, though.”

Holt, inactive for six years, currently works as a biometric screener, which sees him visit corporate businesses to help employees save money on health insurance. He draws blood and checks cholesterol and sugar levels, body fat percentage and body mass index (BMI), and works for 30 dollars an hour.

“I’m a self-contractor,” he explained. “The good thing about that is I can make my own hours but when there’s no work there’s no money. I have to be mindful of that.”

**

As well as a working man, Holt is a father to two boys, aged 16 and 14. His own father had eight children, but Kendall has never been one to follow his lead.

“I didn’t want my son to go through what I went through,” he said. “I was determined to not be like my father in that way.

“My oldest son had a couple of fights and won the New Jersey Golden Gloves. He asked me if he could do it when he was younger, and I started letting him go to the gym. But I wasn’t taking him all the time. I wasn’t pushing him. So little by little he got away from it.”

Holt didn’t chase him. Nor did he chase his mother upon her release from jail. They reconnected and remain in contact, but 15 years is a long time and a lot can and did happen in that period. Debra left behind a boy and returned to find a man.

“She came out and has been working consistently since,” said Kendall. “She moved to Georgia a couple of years ago, she has her own house, and she’s raising my brother’s son. We have a mother-son relationship but it’s long distance. It is only what it can be.”

That Holt, now 38, finds it easier detailing physical damage, the kind accrued in a boxing ring, than psychological damage could perhaps explain why he stuck with boxing for as long as he did. It could also explain why he wants to come back.

“Everyone says, ‘Man, I can’t believe you went through this. How did you survive? Why aren’t you a hoodlum out in the street with a long police record?’

“But they look at my upbringing as this dramatic thing that happened. To them it was chaos, whereas to me it was normal. It was a part of my life.

“I moved past it, grew up and followed the law. I became a productive member of society. I didn’t want to go to jail. I took this path and some people in the same situation took another path. My brother, for example, took the other path.

“My wife says I have mommy issues. But I don’t know. I have thought about it a few times in the last couple of months, but I haven’t been able to pinpoint where it has affected me. I’m sure it has but I just don’t know where.”

According to the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), the meaning of an R rating is as follows: Restricted – Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

‘Rated R’, therefore, was more than just a Rahman-inspired nod to Kendall Holt’s preferred type of knockout. It was, for a boxer who spent the first half of his life witnessing scenes unsuitable for young eyes, with empty seats either side of him, also sadly fitting.

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