By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
"They offered me a suitcase."
With his academic plans on hold and a three-year contract under his belt, Hamer prepares for his debut on a bigger stage. But he's no Rocky Balboa—at least en it comes to pre-dawn decation.
"I hate getting up in the morning," Hamer says. "Most fighters are up for a three-mile run at 6 a.m. Then they train and spar. I wake up at 11 most days. And I've always worked out in the evening, since my days in high school. Karate, basketball, fencing practice—all of that was after school."
After his parents' divorce, Hamer spent his early childhood with his mother in a Baltimore suburb, where they were the only African-American family in a white neighborhood. At 13, he moved back to New York to live with his father.
"I came to New York and went to the Day School [now the Trevor Day School] and then a charter school, which was more diverse, but I already had my social network," he says.
"I've always had more white friends than black," he adds. "I'm used to it, being the center of attention. I'm either one of a few or the only African-American in my circle. I'm used to people saying, 'Who's the black kid?' "
As a teenager, Hamer had run-ins with the law twice, and both times, it made the news—at the time, his father was a high-ranked city official.
"The Daily News called him a thug," remembers Hamer's father, Irving, who is now the deputy superintendent of schools in Memphis. "Since I was a controversial figure, Tor drew more attention."
Irving received a master's degree and a doctorate from Harvard and began teaching in the late 1960s. He served as the New York Urban League's director of education, and then as a deputy commissioner in the city's Education Department. In 1998, he was appointed to the city's Board of Education—a body that was later disbanded when Mayor Bloomberg took control of the city's schools.
While he was on the board, however, Irving ran into controversy several times. He pushed for technological progress, advocating for students to have access to laptops and the Internet, but he caught flak when it was reported that he had a financial interest in a testing company seeking a contract with city schools. Irving subsequently left his position with the testing company.
In January 2001, Tor was charged with misdemeanor assault after he injured a man in a subway-station fistfight. A few months after the arrest, Irving and his colleagues were preparing to elect a board president, which would decide the philosophical direction of the board. Irving was expected, in a close vote, to side with a member who held similar views. Instead, he surprisingly cast what turned out to be the deciding vote for Ninfa Segarra, a woman who supported school vouchers and was diametrically opposed to Irving's own philosophies. Trying to make sense of the vote, several newspapers uncovered the fact that, on the day of Tor's arrest in January, Segarra had called someone she knew in the police department to help Irving get information about his son.
Irving told the Times that although he was grateful for Segarra's gesture, "I want to state emphatically that I did not trade my vote for assistance on my son's behalf."
"They made it seem like I was parenting a thug. He got arrested twice," Irving says. "They weren't crimes. It was more mischief."
Tor's two arrests were both results of fistfights. Besides the subway beating, the other happened after Tor says he was called a racial slur. "What I learned from those experiences is that I have an energy inside of me that needs to be expressed," he says. "Now, that energy is in a controlled environment, and I don't feel aggressive anymore. In boxing, you have to have something driving you besides money."
Before he put on gloves, Tor had long thrived at sports that let him express his aggression. He won 16 national championships in four different categories of martial arts and was also a competitive fencer.
"Tor was notorious—I think that should be his nickname," says Adam Cohen, a friend who met him through private-school friends and who now handles his publicity. "He has a name around the private-high-school world in Manhattan. He was an intimidating character. He was training in kickboxing—who does that in private school in Manhattan?"
It was only in college that Tor took up boxing. "My dad was completely against it. He told me I was a dilettante, and I should stick to school and work out," Tor says.
"Tor Hamer is the product of a mother and father who are well-educated. Boxing seemed to be counterintuitive. He has options," says Irving, who adds that he was surprised at how quickly Tor's success mounted. But for Tor, it felt like a natural fit.
"Individualized sports suited me much better. That translated to my persona. I'm an only child. 'Selfish' comes to mind, but not so much in a way that prevents me from interacting with people in a beneficial manner," he explains. "I've traveled. Opened doors. And I feel proud of myself. No kid wants to say, 'I want to be a real estate manager when I grow up.' I want to be the strongest man in the world. I get to kick ass for a living.