I always wondered about the cheering, about missing the adulation, about not hearing others praise you through thunderous noise, about tens of thousands standing and clapping and supporting your skill.
I always wondered if the deaf athlete missed that.
“No,” Matt Hamill said. “I have never regretted not hearing it. If they wave their hands for me, that’s the applause I hear. There is just no sound to it.”
He is the subject of an upcoming movie about his early life and wrestling career, an independent film about how a fighter born deaf in Ohio grew up to win three NCAA Division III titles at the Rochester Institute of Technology.
The movie has already won several awards at film festivals around the country. Hamill inspires people.
That is his incentive to compete in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, to enter the octagon tonight to take on Quinton “Rampage” Jackson in a UFC 130 main event at the MGM Grand.
Hamill views the opportunity as a semifinal to a light heavyweight tournament that will eventually lead to fighting champion Jon Jones. The two met in December 2009, and Hamill won by disqualification when Jones delivered an illegal elbow.
But he didn’t really win.
He was getting pummeled.
“Jon Jones beat me, no question,” the 34-year-old Hamill said. “Hopefully, that gave me a wake-up call for (the next time).
“But first things first. Let me focus on Rampage and go from there.”
Hamill said there was a method to the strategy of calling out Jackson, of saying he would break Rampage’s will. It was the only way he saw Jackson taking seriously a fight against an opponent ranked 17th in the world.
“Anyone in the UFC deserves to be here,” Jackson said. “He’s tough. That’s all I know about him, that he deserves to be here. But some people also deserve to get their ass whipped. Anyone who gets in the cage with me deserves that. Basically, that’s my game plan: whip his ass. I get paid to whip ass.”
Jackson might have lacked early motivation for tonight’s fight, but Hamill never has. He has too big an audience following his every takedown.
He receives nearly 3,000 emails weekly from around the world, from the planet’s deaf community influenced by his story and success.
But there is more to it this time.
Doug Blubaugh, one of wrestling’s premier ambassadors who won a gold medal at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, died in a motorcycle accident May 16. He was 76.
He was also the main reason for Hamill’s talent. He was the fighter’s friend, mentor, master coach since Hamill first attended a camp of Blubaugh’s in the fifth grade.
He was the one who communicated with Hamill through one word: again.
Hamill wouldn’t use the correct technique.
He would not follow the game plan.
He would go easier than Blubaugh wanted.
He wasn’t perfect.
“No question, I will be thinking of him a lot (tonight),” Hamill said. “He taught me everything. He was like a father to me. I never stop thinking about him. He was the one who never wanted me to give up, to always go beyond what (others) thought I could. He was the best communicator for a coach I ever knew.”
Communication. It’s an interesting concept. You almost wonder if being deaf has helped Hamill reach this point, guided him to a 10-2 record in mixed martial arts, including 9-2 in the UFC, with wins against the likes of Tito Ortiz and Keith Jardine.
Hamill thinks so.
Here’s why: Hamill is so versed in his camp’s game plan before entering the octagon, so sure of how he will approach a specific opponent, so convinced of how best to beat another, he can be completely focused on the task without his surroundings distracting him.
By the cheering, the noise, the constant instructions being barked from another’s corner.
“I think it’s an advantage,” Hamill said. “I can get (instructions) between rounds. We talk so much about the fight before it, I know exactly what I’m going to do when I’m in it.”
He is here tonight because Thiago Silva failed a drug test at UFC 125 and Jackson needed someone to fight. That, combined with how the fight against Jones ended, has some questioning Hamill’s ability to climb the light heavyweight ladder.
That doubt might mean something to Hamill.
If not for those 3,000 emails each week.
“I give the deaf community hope,” he said. “For this, I want to go as far as I can go in the sport. That’s all the motivation I need.”
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 3 to 5 p.m. Monday and Thursday on “Monsters of the Midday,” Fox Sports Radio 920 AM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.