By Laura Gilbert
Most of us don’t get the chance to rewrite our own history. Then again, most of us aren’t Matt Hamill. “In my contract, I have the right to change it,” he says.
He’s not joking, either. The 33-year-old light-heavyweight is talking about Hamill, a movie based on his life that’s currently in post-production. “I saw the first version, and we had a lot of tweaking to be done.” So Hamill got to re-do his past until it suited him. “The second version is awesome, it blew me away.”
For someone who’s got unlimited do-over power, Hamill – who headlines the TUF Finale on Saturday, June 19 against Keith Jardine -- has done a pretty good job of getting most things right the first time. There’s his oft-repeated story of growing up deaf, learning to speak and read lips, attending college and becoming a three-time NCAA Division III national wrestling champ.
Post-college and working as a bouncer, Hamill broke up a bar fight in a cinematic manner – choking out a college football player and dragging him out of the bar in front of a silent, stunned crowd. Urged to take up MMA, he walked into a gym and met Duff Holmes, who’s been his trainer and manager ever since.
Hamill learned quickly and was cast in season three of The Ultimate Fighter, where his physical prowess made him coach Tito Ortiz’ first choice and an early standout to win – an episode centered around him was named “The Golden Boy.” Meanwhile his relentless good nature and against-the-odds story made him a fan favorite.
"I knew he could be a headliner just because of the fans he has," says Ortiz of Hamill's star potential. "It's awesome to have a community behind you. He's a really tough kid who has put the work together to become a great fighter. I'm proud of him for showing what he could achieve with hard work and dedication."
His career since then has taken him to a 9-2 record, and Hamill now faces Keith Jardine in the co-main event of The Ultimate Fighter Finale at The Palms in Las Vegas. “I’m sure he’s really hungry and wants to win, so we’re both in the same place,” he says.
Though he won’t give specifics of his game plan, Hamill has two main points of focus: “Pressure and aggressiveness.” Jardine’s unorthodox strikes are less of a concern. “I’ve wrestled for 14 years, so I’ve seen a lot of people with awkward striking,” he says.
"Coming back after being injured in his last fight shows how strong he is," says Ortiz. "He's a special person and the way he handles setbacks is amazing. Jardine has his hands full."
Main Event Status
Hamill’s three-fight win streak counters Jardine’s three losses, but as has been the case throughout his professional career, the numbers don’t tell the full story. Neither of Hamill's losses carry much sting: one was to Rich Franklin, a friend of Hamill’s and one of the game's top competitors; the other was a highly controversial decision against Michael Bisping. “I fought my heart out against Bisping and I thought I won that fight,” he says. “But he was more experienced than me and I wasn’t a very well-rounded fighter.”
Each fight, win or lose, pushed him to develop his skills, and the world-class wrestler evolved. “I was a horrible fighter at first, very one-dimensional,” he says. “People thought I couldn’t strike, or couldn’t kick. But I’m a fast learner and I’m like a sponge. I’ve learned how to fight smarter down to when to breathe and how to move.”
Hamill blew through Reese Andy, Tim Boetsch and Mark Munoz – all of them top-notch wrestlers – finishing each fight, shaking off takedowns and demonstrating strikes not expected from a grappler. His highlight-reel head-kick of Munoz at UFC 96 scored him Knockout of the Night.
And then there was Jon Jones, the deus ex machina in the story of unstoppable Matt Hamill.
Though Hamill won the fight on paper, Jones dominated with an implausible flurry of speed, power and elbows – some of them illegal, it turned out. Jones took down Hamill early in the first round, causing a separated shoulder that incapacitated Hamill during the ensuing ground and pound.
“I was really disappointed by that fight – it’s not the kind of fight I wanted to win. But everything happens for a reason. I learned that I made a mistake. I didn’t really expect someone to take me down, no one had taken me down in a long time,” says Hamill.
Hamill remains open to the possibility of a rematch. “I still have unfinished business with him,” he says. “I was fighting with one arm; if I was healthier it would be really different. I’m sure down the road we’ll be matched up. I have a feeling we’ll fight in New York,” he hints – the state, which has pending legislation to regulate MMA, is home to both Hamill and Jones.
Commitment to Causes
Time off to heal gave Hamill time to reflect – and dedicate his time to appearing at deaf-themed events. “MMA expos are calm and mild compared to deaf expos,” promises Holmes. Hamill laughs as he describes Holmes – who’s used to the chaos of cornering Hamill’s arena fights -- overwhelmed by a sea of deaf people, a single bead of sweat trickling down his head.
And though he’s been asked “What’s it like being a deaf UFC fighter?” a million times, Hamill never tires of being the poster boy. "I’m the only deaf fighter in the UFC. People call me nicknames like Matt ‘The Handicap’ Hamill and it doesn’t bother me at all. The more deaf fans I have, the more motivated I am to do well.”
Holmes, who translates for Hamill using both American Sign Language and a shorthand exclusive to old friends, is quick to point out that as inspiring as his story may be, Hamill isn’t flawless. “He’s a horrible driver,” reveals Holmes.
Six months after his fight with Jones, in the same venue at another TUF Finale, the imperfect hero will have the opportunity to show what a win looks like on his terms. “My job is to win,” says Hamill. “Period.” And in doing so, he gets yet another chance to rewrite his history.