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So far, the knockout blow to boxing hasn't landed, but, like a punch-drunk fighter in the last round of a long bout, the "sweet science" is hemorrhaging badly after uppercuts from competitors like mixed martial arts; disinterest from a public increasingly turned off to the thought of brain damage as a public spectacle; and decades of its own corruption.
Why would anyone with half a brain—and a desire to keep it intact—have any interest in joining a waning enterprise like boxing?
But there he is, standing in one of the four practice rings at Gleason's Gym, the throwback heart of Brooklyn's glorious past as a boxing power.
New York's odd new hope in the storied heavyweight division is a young man with the marquee-ready name of Tor Hamer, who just might throw off professional pugilism's miserable recent record and bring back those rarest of days: the epoch of the educated, erudite Gentleman Boxer.
Hamer is thoughtfully considering the words of his trainer, with whom he is having a discussion that seems surprisingly philosophical for one taking place in a damp, sweaty, and stifling gymnasium: "How do I distinguish between a slip and a body shot?" the muscular young black man asks, sounding as if he could be discussing a business deal.
And in a way, he is. The fight he's preparing for will be his first professional bout after an amateur career of 34 wins and one loss.
The six-foot-two-inch 25-year-old weighs 225 pounds. He's a two-time New York Golden Gloves winner and an Empire State Games champion, and this past summer, he avenged his sole defeat to become the National Golden Gloves champion. Despite turning pro, Hamer will close out 2008 as the country's number one ranked amateur super-heavyweight.
It's an impressive résumé. But it's Hamer's other tale-of-the-tape that has sport's insiders marveling at him: He has a Harvard-educated father and a Villanova-educated mother, and a Penn State degree himself, and was brought up partly in Harlem but also in suburban Baltimore and upscale Manhattan at largely white private and charter schools.
"What the fuck is he fighting for?" the Voice overheard a veteran boxing reporter ask when he was informed of Hamer's pedigree.
It's not hard to get an answer to that question. Hamer is happy to discourse on that subject, as well as just about any other. He's talkative. He's charming. And when he fights, a small army shows up to support him—and this black fighter's entourage is mostly made up of white friends, some of whom he met in private school and college.
Hamer knows that he's an unusual man to enter the ring. But as long as he keeps winning, he may be putting together one of the most remarkable runs at boxing supremacy in memory—one that boxing itself, and the heavyweight division in particular, couldn't need more.
"Throw. Fake. Fake again. Bang! Bang! Yes, that's it!"
As Hamer spars at Gleason's, sweat dripping from his face and torso, his trainer, Shawn Razor, keeps shouting encouragement. A former boxer himself, Razor notes that the practice session is being watched closely by others at the gym: "Lots of people are anticipating this fight," he says. "So many people in here want to be like him. I don't mean to brag, but he's the best thing here."
Razor has been training Hamer since he walked into Gleason's Gym two years ago. "He has It," Razor says about his pupil. "Everything about him. His character. Penn State. His smile. He can fight. There is no American heavyweight with the charisma and mindset of Tor."
As Hamer works out, it's plain to see that he's quick and strong. But if there's one general concern about him, it's his size. For a heavyweight, he's not very tall. In recent years, America has given up its storied dominance of the heavyweight division to Eastern European giants: The Ukrainian Klitschko brothers stand at six feet six inches and six feet seven inches. Wladimir, the younger, holds the IBF, WBO, and IBO heavyweight titles; Vitali is the WBC heavyweight champion.
"Size isn't everything," says Razor. But he admits that it's the question he gets the most about his student. " 'He's too small to be a heavyweight,' they say. 'He's going to get killed,' " Razor says he hears all the time.
So far, the skeptics have been proved wrong. Hamer is quick to point out that his only loss as an amateur was actually a tie—the victory was awarded to Lenroy Thompson on a complex computerized tie-breaking formula. Hamer avenged the loss by beating Thompson a few months later.
If he came close to a perfect amateur record, however, turning pro is another matter. It took some soul-searching, but Hamer decided to hold off on his plans to enter a graduate program in urban planning at least until next fall. For now, he's going to keep going where his fists take him.
Fighting professionally isn't something he really set out to do, Hamer admits. But you don't get to be the country's top-ranked amateur and not turn pro, he says. After winning the National Golden Gloves tournament in May, he was approached by the sport's three biggest promoters—Oscar De La Hoya's Golden Boy Promotions, Don King Productions, and DiBella Entertainment. He decided to go with DiBella, which is based in New York and specializes in heavyweights. "I said I would never go pro without a suitcase full of money," he says.