You wouldn't expect a movie about the early life of a UFC star to be an eye-opening look at overcoming handicaps and social awkwardness. But the movie "The Hammer," which opens this weekend to a limited national release, fits that bill.
Most UFC fans are aware of Matt Hamill, who was introduced on the third season of "The Ultimate Fighter" in 2006. Hamill quickly became known as the fighter who was born deaf and garnered a strong fan following in the process.
Hamill compiled a 10-3 professional MMA record, with wins over big-named fighters like Tito Ortiz, Keith Jardine and Mark Munoz, before announcing his retirement after his May 28 decision loss to Quinton "Rampage" Jackson.
Russell Harvard, who is also deaf, was very convincing in playing a shy, sensitive Hamill growing up as the only deaf person in his high school while gaining success on the wrestling mat.
The movie opens in about 100 theaters nationally over the next few weeks, most starting on Friday. The release came after "The Hammer" received a boatload of awards at various film festivals. It won the AFI Film Festival's Breakthrough Audience Award, the Cleveland Film Festival's American Independent award and was named the most popular film at festivals in Newport Beach, Calif., Miami and Maui. It received an award at all eight film festivals it was screened.
The film is not an MMA movie, although his UFC career was acknowledged at the beginning and end. It's more about his growing up in Ohio, overcoming bullying and taunts as a child, social rejection in high school, and disappointments when first attending college. The movie then examines his quest to win a national collegiate wrestling championship. The climax of the movie was the 1997 NCAA Division III nationals, where Hamill, while wrestling for the Rochester Institute of Technology, became the first deaf wrestler to capture a national collegiate championship. He followed by up winning the tournament in 1998 at 190 pounds, and 1999 at 197 pounds before winning a gold medal in freestyle wrestling at the 2001 Deaf Olympics.
UFC star Rich Franklin introduced Hamill to MMA in 2004 after the latter failed to make the U.S. Olympic team. Franklin, who has done some acting, had a minor role in the movie playing the wrestling coach at Purdue, where Hamill was first offered a full ride out of high school. Hamill lost his scholarship over not making grades, and had a sub-.500 record on the mat.
He returned home to work as an auto mechanic before his family in Loveland, Ohio, took out a second mortgage on their home to fund him in attending RIT, where he walked on to the wrestling team.
"The movie portrayed not only did he have to deal with being deaf, but deal with people in his family not accepting that he had a handicap, which made it even more difficult," Franklin said. "That's why he didn't experience a lot of success at Purdue. He was in a new atmosphere where people weren't as accepting and forgiving, and had to keep up with college courses. I couldn't imagine keeping up with that being deaf, and trying to wrestle for a coach who doesn't understand your handicap."
The movie opens with Hamill as a baby, and his grandfather's refusal to accept there was any handicap, telling the doctor that he does not believe his grandson is deaf and dumb. The doctor said, after testing, that his grandson is actually profoundly intelligent, and completely deaf.
As a fighter, Franklin noted he can see just how difficult being deaf would be as far as being successful in the sport.
"Coming from a fighter's perspective, it's a big handicap if you can't hear your corner," he said. "In my fight with Vitor Belfort, and there were more problems with me losing the fight than this, but I couldn't hear my corner and got hurt with a punch. I was so used to hearing my corner. There are certain things fans wouldn't understand in a fight, like if you have a game plan such as at the two-minute mark, maybe the game plan is to switch from pressing for takedowns to doing stand-up.
From a fighter's perspective, to have to go through a fight with no advice from my corner would be unfathomable. This is something I'm not sure you can capture in a film. I don't know if you can do it justice."
Hamill's grandfather [played by Raymond J Barry], a former wrestler, refused to send him to a special-needs school and insisted that he grow up like anyone else. Thus, Hamill had no real interaction with the deaf community until attending RIT.
Even then, among the deaf community, he had to adapt to a new world in college. He was used to lip reading and speaking, the latter of which considered bad manners within the deaf community at times. He was not proficient in sign language, the accepted method of communication. It was in college where he met his first wife, a deaf activist [played by Shoshannah Stern].
Franklin, who was a high-school teacher before MMA took off as a sport, said he only had minor problems dealing with Hamill's handicap when they trained together.
"When I was teaching, I had two deaf students. One thing I had to learn is that often I would start a sentence, then turn my back to write something on the board, while still talking. Because they were reading lips, they would miss half of the sentence. Even then I still didn't understand how difficult it was for them."
But he didn't have significant issues communicating with Hamill.
"With Matt it was easy," he said. "By the time Matt graduated college, he was capable of reading lips really well. The two of us working out together, it wasn't an issue as long as I was looking at him while I was talking to him. People have the tendency to talk slower when talking to someone deaf. That actually makes it more difficult for them because they're trained to read lips if you speak at a normal speed. There is a natural inclination when you first start talking to someone hearing impaired, it's almost as if you're talking to someone in a foreign country with a strong accent."
Franklin met Hamill because his boxing coach married into Hamill's family and brought him up when Franklin was looking for a high-level wrestler to help him with his own wrestling game.
"I had never wrestled with anyone of that caliber before in my life," he recalled about their early workouts. "I had never felt someone that strong and with that technical ability. That was definitely a rude awakening to my confidence in my wrestling ability. Since then I've worked with wrestlers of the same caliber and higher caliber. He's phenomenally strong and so fast and efficient in his motion. One time we were wrestling and he shot in a double and before I even reacted he had my three feet in the air, horizontal, before I could even think about sprawling."
Franklin told Hamill that when he was done with his wrestling career, he should consider a career in MMA.
While Hamill was not always popular among his fellow fighters, fans found him easy to get behind, with his breakthrough fight really being a 2007 decision loss to Michael Bisping. The bout remains one of the most debatable decisions in UFC history.
The fight was the co-main event at UFC 75 in London and was the most viewed UFC live event in history, so it is right near the top of the list of the most watched MMA fights ever on U.S. television.
While there have been plenty of bad decisions over the years, the combination of the large audience, Hamill's handicap, being an American going to England with the idea the judges gave the U.K. fighter the decision all played into an uproar that no decision in history has received. In fact, Bisping's current role as one of the most hated fighters to American fans dates to his being awarded what many felt was a hometown decision. The funny thing is that loss made Hamill more of a star that he would have been actually winning the fight.
LAS VEGAS – After a knee injury forced Georges St. Pierre off the card, Saturday night’s UFC 137 looked to be just another night in the almost weekly run of UFC bouts. But instead, it was a night of historical significance as two all-time greats announced their retirements.
The retirement of Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic, the Croatian star was the most popular foreign fighter during the heyday of Japan’s PRIDE Fighting Championships, was not a surprise.
After Filipovic had lost to Brendan Schaub last year, UFC president Dana White said it would be his last fight in the UFC. But as has been the case in the past when White has asked legends to step down, they invariably ask for one chance to leave with their head held high. Unfortunately, it also almost never happens that way, and Filipovic was stopped at 1:30 of the third round by Roy Nelson, his sixth loss in 10 UFC bouts.
The announced retirement of B.J. Penn, one of only two men in UFC history to have held titles in two different weight classes (lightweight and welterweight), came after he took one of the worst beatings of his career against Nick Diaz. This one was largely unexpected.
While most accept that Filipovic' career really is over, Penn could be the typical fighter who announces his retirement after a disappointing encounter, only to reconsider later.
“Hats off to Nick Diaz, he’s the man,” said Penn (16-8-2) in the Octagon, moments after losing a 29-28, 29-27 and 29-28 decision to Diaz, a loss that would seem to put an end to Penn’s quest for a third match with longtime rival St. Pierre. “It’s probably the last time you’ll ever see me in here. I want to perform at the top level. This is the end. You know what, I’ve got another daughter on the way, I don’t want to go home looking like this.”
Penn’s face was busted up, particularly his left eye, and he had to be hospitalized after the fight.
Penn, 32, has been considered right at the top of the list of the most complete and most talented fighters in the sport since even before his first fight in 2001. Some would say, judging by his record, that he underachieved considering his insider rep from day one, even with two world titles.
Saturday’s fight was unfortunately typical of many of Penn’s fights. Once called the best one-round fighter in the world, both meant as a credit to his all-around skill and a knock on his conditioning, Penn once again tired in the second round after a solid first round and was taken apart.
But if this really is his last fight, Penn went out in style. Exhausted, fighting an opponent who was connecting with pinpoint accuracy, he fought back and landed several hard shots in the third round, but he simply couldn’t match the volume of his opponent nor move fast enough to get out of the way of the blows. In the end, while he clearly lost the fight, he also was half of one of the year’s best bouts.
“In the 10 years that we’ve all seen B.J. Penn perform, we’ve never seen B.J. busted up like this,” White said after the fight. “Even when he was getting smashed by Matt Hughes and Georges St. Pierre, he doesn’t bleed and he doesn’t get busted up. Nick Diaz is the real deal. But what a warrior B.J. was to stand in front of him. I honestly didn’t think B.J. was going to answer the bell for the third round as exhausted as he was. And there were moments in the third round he was firing back.”
Filipovic (27-10-2, 1 no contest) looked like the “Cro Cop” of old only twice before the nearly packed house of 10,313 fans, who paid a gate of $3.9 million. The first was during his trademark ring entrance, to the sounds of Duran Duran’s “Wild Boys,” where at 235 pounds, he looked as strong as in his PRIDE days. But once the fight started, it also was clear that while he could carry the size of his youth, he was much slower at 37.
[ Related: Why Penn-Diaz fight was a classic ]
The other time was his highlight on the night, an early second-round barrage of rapid punches. The sequence actually started after Roy Nelson had landed a right that put the former member of the Croatian parliament down. Filipovic got up and threw everything he had at Nelson, and while many of the blows were blocked, the ferocious assault likely would have finished most heavyweights. Nelson covered up and was left with a bloody nose, but he regained his bearings and nearly finished Filipovic at the end of the round, when Nelson was punching Filipovic's defenseless head on the ground while holding him in a crucifix position.
“When I hit Mirko [and knocked him down early in the second round], I was thinking, ‘This is my time,’ said Nelson (17-6), who after the win half-jokingly challenged the winner of the Nov. 12 Cain Velasquez-Junior Dos Santos heavyweight title match. “I was trying to capitalize on him in the second round and I wanted to make him pay, and I walked into a left hand. It put me on the defensive, and he kept on coming until I got my head straight. Then I got the takedown and got the crucifix and whatnot.”
Nelson, who looked less rotund than usual having dropped about 20 pounds, knocked Filipovic down early in the third round and landed punch after punch from behind him on the ground until the fight was stopped.
“Cro Cop has been a good guy since the day we signed him,” said White. “The guy’s a guy a warrior, a legend, has done tons of good things in the sport. I know he’s disappointed with his run in the UFC. I’m 42; at 38 [actually 37] to still be fighter, fighting younger, faster, more explosive guys … He came out and said, ‘I’m going to give you guys a fight; it won’t be a boring fight like with Frank Mir.’ He said he wants to retire. We’ll see how that plays out."
Filipovic’s two careers, the one hugely successful in Japan, and the disappointing one in the U.S., epitomized two different eras and styles of the sport. Like Hatsu Hioki (25-4-2), Japan’s top featherweight found out when he struggled earlier in the show against mid-level featherweight George Roop (12-9-1), winning a decision that easily could have gone the other way, they are two different worlds. It’s not only a matter of tougher competition but different rules and mentalities, between sport and spectacle.
Filipovic came to the UFC in 2007, after winning the PRIDE World Grand Prix tournament in 2006 with four straight one-round finishes from his arsenal of hard punches and kicks.
But when he was signed to a lucrative contract to leave Japan, it was after surgery on his left ankle, which he shattered delivering a knockout kick to Wanderlei Silva. His left high kick was his go-to blow, and he never was the same as a fighter without it. As Filipovic aged, his ability to withstand hard punches from the bigger heavyweights on the U.S. scene failed him.
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- Matt Hamill
- Rich Franklin