Matt Hamill can’t hear his corner during a fight. Although he can read lips from across the room as easily as you or I might read a large-print book, his eyes are never anything but focused on what’s in front of him.
He can’t hear his walk-out music or the crowd reacting to what he does.
Unless you’re deaf, it’s impossible to know exactly what it’s like to fight in trapped-cathedral quiet, alone with something as impalpable as thought.
But that’s what Hamill does, and that’s why he remains one of mixed martial arts’ most compelling figures. As he prepares to headline UFC 130 against former champion Quinton Jackson in Las Vegas on Saturday in what he hopes will be the fight to catapult him into the UFC’s upper echelon of light heavyweights in his title quest, he isn’t losing sight of how he got here.
More pointedly, Hamill remembers the person who inspired him to such heights — his grandfather, Stanley McCoy.
“Growing up, in my childhood, communication was the hardest thing,” says Hamill, 34. “I went to special education. That means I was with people in wheelchairs, kids who were mentally retarded. I would see a lot of people make fun of them, so I stood up for them, and I got in a lot of fights. My mom was trying to get a better program for me — she didn’t know what to do with me, and she didn’t put me in a deaf school. She was trying to find someone who was comfortable and could communicate with deaf people.
With the support of his family, Hamill attended a regular education program and was encouraged to mingle and “fit in” to the best of his ability.
“My grandfather wanted me to go mainstream, to hang out with hearing people,” Hamill says. “That was the tough part. I didn’t have an interpreter. After class, I’d have to get notes [from classmates]. It was tough. I didn’t learn signing until I was in high school. But I’m a fast learner.”
McCoy, who died in 2002, taught Hamill to “speak” in sign language and forced him to adjust to life not as a deaf kid among normal children but as a normal kid among normal children.
One way to integrate among normal kids was to compete in sports and, with a father who was a known power lifter and a stepdad whom he never called anything but “Coach,” wrestling became Hamill’s calling from the time he was 6.
By now you’ve probably heard of the “Hamill” movie coming out in the fall memorializing his improbable wrestling days at Purdue and later the Rochester Institute of Technology, where he was a three-time Division III national champion. He got his nickname “The Hammer” when he submitted a guy from Cornell in 1998, and the hammer sign has become a sort of tomahawk chop for the deaf community that supports him — win or lose. The movie also delves into the terror he felt as a deaf child in a Loveland, Ohio, public school, being bullied and picked on relentlessly throughout his life. Yet that tells only the half of it.
“My grandfather is the main character,” Hamill says. “He’s the one that gave me all the pointers, gave me all the direction. Without my grandfather, I wouldn’t be fighting. I wouldn’t have been in the Olympics. I’ve been really blessed to have him in my spirit.
“It got me in tears a little bit when I saw it. He’s the one that pushed me all my life. It’s never been easy, through childhood, thinking of who I am. By the time I got older, I knew who I am and I am happy with whom I am. Being born deaf, thinking I might have a good gift. Maybe I’d rather not hear.”
Yet before “Hamill” hits theaters this fall, the Hammer’s story might already be in need of a sequel covering his improbable run in the UFC, where he’s won three in a row. Just after the height of his wrestling days during the Olympic trials and his run at RIT, he took to MMA. He used wrestling as a “passion” more than a base and quickly built around it.
“MMA happened because I was a bouncer at a bar and there was a big fight, and I threw a guy out and he came up to me and said, ‘Hey Hamill, why not join the UFC?'” Hamill says. “I was thinking of making money, so I said, ‘Oh, OK.’ So looking back, wrestling records are really important. They looked at my background. I went on the reality show [“The Ultimate Fighter 3″], and it was very hard. They all made fun of me. They underestimated me. They didn’t know how good my wrestling was. Wrestling really helps train for MMA.”
It’s Hamill’s lot at this point, that he should be underestimated and overlooked despite having gone 9-2 in the UFC (10-2 overall). Vegas oddsmakers have installed him as a 3-to-1 underdog this weekend against the more popular Jackson, who is coming off a narrow decision victory over Lyoto Machida. Hamill knows that he’s not on most people’s top 10 list in the division despite his recent wins over Keith Jardine and onetime coach Tito Ortiz, and it motivates him. He doesn’t mind wearing whatever asterisk you place on him, whether it’s because he’s deaf or a “boring wrestler,” or because of the beating he took against Jon Jones. And he’ll be the first to tell you that he lost the Jones fight (in which Jones was disqualified for illegal elbows).
Yet as an optimist, he’ll also tell you he has designs on a rematch. He is a fast learner, after all.
“We’re both from New York,” he says. “I am hoping we’ll have a title fight in Madison Square Garden. When I fought him, he won that fight. I had a Stage 2 separated shoulder. No other fighter has ever taken me down. It was like a wake-up call. The next time I would do better.”
But Hamill is very happy with things as they are, too. He lives in upstate New York, in the rolling hills of Utica, to be near his daughter. His longtime friend, head coach and manager Duff Holmes has trained with him since his stint on “The Ultimate Fighter 3,” and they train at Mohawk Valley MMA in town. Hamill has a 4,000-square-foot training facility on his property with lots of weights, bags and a cage, and he trains at home when he wants seclusion. There’s a 74-year-old man named Victor who helps out around the premises. He’s a deaf mute with a long, white beard and tight, white braid whom Hamill likes having around. “He’s a former Hell’s Angel, 1951,” he says, as though such things are rote.
That’s the other thing about Hamill — he is a hero in the deaf community because he stands for its people. Every time he enters the cage, he becomes a unifying figure of perseverance for thousands of people across the globe.
“I’m more like a bastion in the deaf community around the world,” he says. “I travel for promotional opportunities and speak in front of 8,000 people. They call it Deaf Nation. Now I am getting more deaf fans. I’m getting 3,000 emails every week. My Facebook’s blowing up, and I can’t keep up — and different languages, Russian, Swedish, Portuguese. The deaf community is very important to me.”
Speaking of languages, it’s another one of Hamill’s hobbies. He is learning to read his Brazilian jiu-jitsu coach Bruno Tostes’ lips in Portuguese. From 30 feet away.
“It’s a curveball,” Tostes says. But Hamill’s primary language is signing, and when he does it on television, in the cage, right after his arm has been raised, he knows that it’s a deeply personal shared experience.
“It’s very special because there’s not a lot of handicapped people going through this. The UFC has the only deaf fighter in the world,” Hamill says. “When they see it, it’s like, ‘Hamill’s fighting next week!’ Everybody stops, they put a big flag on it, a big bonfire, all over the world. That’s like an amazing energy. When I walk out into the ring, I see the deaf community, and they give me a hammer sign. That gets me more motivated.”
It’s a marvel that Hamill has had the kind of success he’s had without hearing. Yet it’s a triumph that he learned not to listen to his critics at a young age. For that, he can thank his grandfather, whom he’ll honor Saturday night by simply stepping in the cage.