By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
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.
"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.
"The only problem is that I have to put myself on the line."
But Hamer is no dummy. He may work out at Gleason's, but he's also trying to work Gleason's.
The gym's owner, Bruce Silverglade, says he's seriously considering a business proposal the young boxer approached him with.
"I have people come to me with ideas all the time," he says. "He had a plan and good ambitions. I verified the information in his résumé. He gave a nice presentation."
Hamer wants to persuade Silverglade to re-establish a presence in Manhattan by opening a satellite gym in Harlem. And he's also talked to Silverglade about taking over the entire operation. "We've had discussions about buying the one in Brooklyn," Silverglade confirms. "He wants to open the one in Harlem, but he has ambitions to purchase the whole corporation."
"He's done quite well for himself. Tor is a very talented intellectual, a fine example for my athletes. He was captain-type material. You'd make him the athletic representative on a board of directors," Higgins says. "Because he's such a good guy, I was concerned he wasn't going to take it seriously. This kid was special when I saw him—even when he was green. And I'm not just talking about him as a boxer. Way back when Barack Obama was beginning his race for president, Tor and I would have great discussions about politics, the presidential campaign. . . . What's better for boxing?" Higgins asks. "There is no one saying anything bad about him."
Sure, Hamer's got charisma and quick feet. But if he was such a great amateur, why didn't he go to Beijing? The U.S. amateurs had a miserable Olympics and could have used a winner.
Higgins explains that Hamer has come on quickly in the past year. But when the U.S. Olympic team was put together a year earlier, Hamer didn't enter the tournaments he needed to in order to be chosen. "I think if you ask him, he'll tell you he was in school. We would have boxing tournaments, and when he wasn't fighting, he would be doing homework," Higgins says.
"Tor is very similar to Joe Frazier, but he fights a little quicker and he's better. He hits as hard," Higgins says. (Hamer has actually trained with Frazier in Philadelphia.) "This summer, at the U.S. Championship, in the first round of a semifinal match, Tor knocked out his opponent and knocked his teeth out. Three or four of them. We felt terrible. People were saying Tor was a little too small for the heavyweight, but this opponent was from the Army, and he was wearing a mouthpiece and headgear. I've seen thousands of fights and, sure, I've seen a tooth get punched out. I'm talking teeth! I'd never seen that."
Not surprisingly, Higgins is very optimistic about Hamer's future as a pro. "He needs to build up the right way. Don't fast-track him to where he is overmatched," he says. "I could see in three to four years, he'll be fighting for a world championship. He'll get there. He's not doing this to not be great at it.
"He's a great story for America."
It's October 22, a Wednesday night. The crowd inside B.B. King Blues Club & Grill in Times Square is milling around until the start of the night's event—an eight-fight card presented by DiBella Entertainment's Broadway Boxing series.
Previous events in the series took place in the spacious Hammerstein Ballroom, but the decrease in the demand for boxing means a decrease in venue size.
"Watch this kid, Tor Hamer," DiBella, the promoter, says as he works the room. "I think he's going to be good." Standing at six feet four inches, DiBella is wearing designer jeans, a graphic T-shirt, and a leather blazer. Diamond earrings and a gold chain complete the ensemble. He glad-hands a group of older white men in sweaters and button-down shirts, then bounces over to a contingent of Europeans in colored leather jackets, with their collars turned up and enough product in their hair to compete with an Exxon oil spill. They're here to support a Montenegran fighter who's been training in the Bronx. DiBella then says hello to the Brooklyn constituency (read: the handful of black boxing fans). In the audience at a boxing match, at least, we really all do get along.
Backstage, Hamer is being fussed over by his friend Christopher Johnson, who is beaming with pride. He's a slim white guy in a blazer and a "Team Tor" baseball cap. While Hamer talks to others, Johnson pats him on the back like a proud parent.
"I first met Tor when he was training in Philly with Joe Frazier. We became close friends. He's a normal Joe," Johnson says. "I came all the way from San Francisco for this. I would never have missed this. I'm flying back out in three hours."
It's Hamer's professional debut, and if the venue is modest, there's also the odd color scheme: Part of tonight's proceeds go to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, which is why the ring is pink and the boxers are wearing pink boxing gloves.
When Hamer is announced, his small army of more than 100 friends—the majority of whom are in the $150 ringside VIP seats—stand and yell. It's the biggest response of the entire night.
Hamer's opponent is Joe Rabotte, a lumbering giant who outweighs Hamer by 40 pounds and has come up from South Carolina with a professional record of two wins and three losses. Sight unseen, Hamer had sized him up as a "tomato can" a couple of days earlier: "He's a guy who woke up one day and decided to try boxing. You ever see the first Rocky, where he's fighting in the smoky bar? That is the definition of a tomato can."
The bell rings for the first round, and Hamer charges from his corner, light on his toes. Rabotte has a heavier step. They exchange jabs and body blows. Tor angles his body low and manages to work in the very same slip-jabs his trainer had stressed days before.
Then Hamer unleashes two straight right hands, putting Rabotte on the canvas and into the ropes. Hamer hits him with another vicious right, and the bell rings.
The boxing reporters compare notes, liking what they see. Tor's attacks, they say, are tiring out Rabotte quickly.
At the bell for the second round, Hamer is dancing again. He sends a left hook into Rabotte's torso. Another left hook, a right jab, another left.
Rabotte's down again. And the referee ends the fight.
Hamer wins his first pro fight on a TKO.
His father, Irving, jumps to his feet and takes a bow. Hamer's friends hug and cheer.
Forty-four seconds into the second round of a match that was scheduled to last four rounds, Tor Hamer is now an undefeated professional heavyweight boxer.
A day later, DiBella tells the Voice, "One of the things that is missing is a heavyweight American that people can believe in. Tor isn't well enough known and has only had one pro fight, but I think a year from now, a lot more people are going to know who he is."
DiBella says his plan is to expose Tor in additional four-round fights, eventually getting him up to 10–12 rounders. "That's when you can make money."
A guy like Hamer, he says, can help an industry that's ailing. "Right now, boxing isn't at its high point," he says. DiBella was the former head of programming for HBO Sports before he left to start his own company in 2000. "If you look at ESPN—when I was young, it was paying $50,000 to $60,000 for a show. Now, they pay $20,000 to a promoter for a boxing show. The boxer is getting a $5,000 to $6,000 total purse to split with his people and to put his health at risk. All we need is for one heavyweight in the United States to become a champion, and that will give boxing a big lift."
And DiBella believes Tor has that kind of potential. "Being a college grad, he has a different fan base. He has a different core group than the guys from the 'hood. He has things that can transcend."
Hamer himself, as always, is philosophical. He's ready for the countless jabs he'll have to absorb if he's going to become a household name. But he's already got that plan about taking over Gleason's. And, anyway, money's not really that important: "It's not so much about becoming rich. My ambitions aren't that bold. I just want success," he says.
"And a world title."
See more photos of Tor Hamer in action, taken by photographer Willie Davis.