Inside the Cage With Matt Hamill
Written by Anthony Mowl
There’s an unplowed dirt road that leads to 30 acres tucked away in upstate New York, just a snowmobile ride away from Canada. We’re deep in the country, miles away from cities and shopping centers in Utica, a place that Ultimate Fighting Championship fighter Matt “The Hammer” Hamill calls home. They call him The Hammer because that’s what his fist feels like when he’s punching. But he hits more like the pickup truck that sits in the driveway of his house. Like the 4×4 he drives, Matt is built tough and will take on anything, anywhere.
We’re here to see Matt train for the biggest fight of his life so far, and he’s quick to point out the “so far.” He has a bigger fight in mind, one for the UFC Light Heavyweight Belt, and this is just another stop on that road. A 300-pound tire sits outside his house, on top of the hill where he flips the tire up and down. The forest that lines his property has climbing ropes, and the thin mountain air he runs in is great for conditioning. There’s a new building just a few paces away from his house with his own private gym and a steel black cage. The mat on the cage has Matt Hamill’s name on it, as if there were any doubt that the cage belongs to him. “This is my crib,” he says proudly, not talking about his house, but the cage he is standing in.
Matt has fought ten brutal fights inside the UFC Octagon and has won eight of them. He started out as a wrestler and has since turned into a well-rounded fighter who will take you on the mat or standing up. He has earned the respect of UFC President Dana White, and millions of fans around the world. The local post office in Utica doesn’t deliver mail to his house anymore, because there are too many bags of fan mail for the mailman to handle. Fan favorite or not, in every fight he has come into, Matt has always been the underdog. Being the favorite or the underdog doesn’t matter to Matt, because either way, he’s showing up to fight.
On Memorial weekend, Matt is fighting Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, one of the baddest, most unmerciful fighters in the UFC, ranked #3 in the world. Matt has a team of four who work around the clock to get Matt ready for the fight. His head trainer Duff Holmes oversees a strength and conditioning coach, boxing coach, and a Jujitsu coach. Matt invites other UFC fighters to his crib to train with, and regularly fights fighters longer, faster, and more experienced than him. But you’d be hard-pressed to find anybody better than him, and this is why Matt’s team thinks that anything short of winning the belt would be a disappointment. The current Light Heavyweight titleholder is Jon Jones, who Matt has already fought and won. But Matt won on a technicality when Jon Jones threw down illegal 12-to-6 elbows after Matt dislocated his shoulder during the fight. “We have unfinished business,” Matt says, shaking his head, “and we have to fight again.” But Matt’s not focused on Jones right now, not with Rampage Jackson coming up.
Strength and conditioning coach Dave Kingwater who can bench press over 600 pounds himself says that Matt’s the strongest person he’s ever trained. Kingwater came aboard Matt’s team when Matt walked in his chiropractor’s studio looking for treatment after getting hurt during a fight. Kingwater immediately noticed two things; that Matt was incredibly driven, and that he was overtraining. Overtraining was probably why he was getting hurt, and Kingwater began designing a program that was different than regular weight training; functional-specific strengthening over short bursts that would give him the strength and flexibility to quite frankly, kick anyone’s butt in the Octagon. Rampage is well known for his striking power, and hits as hard as anybody on the planet. But this is Matt “The Hammer” we’re talking about here, and he’ll hit you just as hard. “Once he picks you up and takes you to the mat, you can’t stop [Hamill].”
If you believed what you read in the UFC blogs and articles, you’d think that this was going to be a one-sided fight, and that Rampage was going to destroy Matt. But the team wanted this fight, and says they have nothing to fear from Jackson. Duff Holmes tells me that fighting Jackson was a strategic decision. “Rampage is a one-dimensional fighter. He’s a striker, and all he does is hit. Matt will take him down and it won’t even be a fight.” If you went to Las Vegas to place a bet on the fight, you’ll find Jackson’s the odds-on favorite. But Hamill doesn’t believe that, and he’s even hungrier than he is confident.”All of the hard work Matt’s put in is for this, a shot at fighting for the belt. He’s so close, and he can taste it.”
Today Matt is working with boxing coach Tim Green at the Mohawk Valley Mixed Martial Arts gym, another gym that Matt owns and where he trains publicly. Matt splits his time between this gym and the one at home. He fights other fighters in private at home and develops his strategy there. Here at the MVMMA, he works on rounding out his other skills that will help him in the Octagon. Matt shows up before a group of kick boxers who train there, and leaves long after they do. These amateur kick boxers are fighting soon, and Matt is helping them train for their fight. All the fighters wear foam head and face guards, while Matt wears no protective gear. Still, two of the kick boxers get bloody noses while the only thing Matt gets is a good workout. After everyone leaves, Matt continues on with a one-on-one workout with Tim Green. Matt’s standup game has improved tremendously, and “he can stand with anybody now,” says Green. When I ask him if he’s proud that Matt has been favoring his standup game lately instead of taking fighters to the mat, he just shrugs his shoulders and nods his head sideways. “Matt’s just going with the flow of the fight. If you want to fight him on the mat, he’ll take you down. If you want to take him on standing up, he’s ready for that. Matt doesn’t really have a preference. He’s just in it to win it.”
Matt’s been touring the country lately, promoting the new movie about his life, “Hamill.” The movie has won awards at several film festivals in Hollywood, Miami, and most recently Cleveland. Being on the road hasn’t affected his training at all, because they pack up the mats and bring them to wherever they go. They move furniture out of the way in hotels, and have full-on training sessions no matter where they stay. Matt can’t afford to let the movie or the fame take away from the ultimate reason for his fame; winning fights. He puts in his hours every day in a strictly regimented workout program that builds up in intensity steadily until a few weeks before the fight when Matt will have a “hell week” of training. Then after hell week, he will begin resting his body and focusing on dropping from his 225 pound frame down to his fighting weight of 205.
Duff Holmes says Matt has progressed unbelievably as a fighter, and the fact that he’s so athletic has helped him develop new skills quickly. But others still question whether Matt deserves this fight, whether Matt is a top-tier fighter. Holmes dismisses these people, and says to look at what Matt’s accomplished in the ring. “He’s 8-2. He beat a former world champion. Look at Rampage, who has lost many more times than Matt, how can you still say Matt doesn’t deserve this fight?” Duff thinks back to how Matt’s evolved as a fighter over the last five years, and how he has had to make adjustments for his deafness. The first few fights, there was an interpreter in the ring interpreting what Duff was saying to Matt in between rounds. “But there is a natural delay with the interpreter, and there’s no way any interpreter can relay the intensity that I have when I’m yelling during the fight,” Duff says. “So we took out the interpreter, and I learned how to sign. Now, when I’m yelling at Matt directly, he picks up on my intensity.” Then Duff starts laughing. Matt’s too nice of a guy, and he’s always smiling. Duff tells a story about the time they were flying to a fight together, and Matt decides to help an old man off the plane. “He walks slowly with the old guy; picking up what he thought was the old man’s bag. It turned out to be the pilot’s bag, and Matt couldn’t hear the pilot yelling after him as they walked out of the terminal.” There are many stories like this, stories where Matt is helping somebody out. You wouldn’t think that he fights for a living.
“I used to have to work to bring out the intensity in Matt, to have to help him reach deep down and find some anger. But now, Matt’s in tune with himself and when he’s like this…” Duff looks over to Matt as he spars and finishes his thought. “Matt’s unstoppable.”
Matt’s never been angry, and he isn’t driven by negative forces; his shortcomings, or by those who say he isn’t good enough. Matt’s driven with the desire to win, and the will to push himself as far as possible.
Matt’s also motivated by his role model status in the Deaf community, and he wants to prove that a Deaf person can be the best athlete in a professional sport, any sport. “I belong in the top tier of fighters,” Matt says during a break from his training, sweat dripping off his face. He doesn’t struggle to catch his breath, because he’s in the best shape of his life. “Other fighters might think that I’m green, but I’m ready and when I show up, I’m going to fight.” He has always preferred to let his fighting do the talking for him. But this time, Matt has something else to add.
“I’m going to show up, and I’m going to win.”