Published November 4, 2011
The Hammer's Story
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Deaf. Defiant. Determined
Dan Alsheimer

Walking out of the tunnel, he moves to the front of the thunderous crowd. Despite his deafness, he knows that everyone is cheering for him. As he nears the octagon, he turns his back and faces the crowd, trying to take in the chaos around him. In an instant, flashbacks of his life start to play. It is the story of Matt Hamill, former RIT wrestler and UFC fighter as told by “The Hammer,” the movie made about his life.

As a deaf athlete, Matt Hamill is identified in the deaf community as someone who has disproved the misconception that deaf people can’t play sports. Through his amazing wrestling skills, he became one of RIT’s most popular athletes, earning three Division III national championships. His success at the collegiate level eventually propelled him into fame as one of Mixed Martial Arts’ most well known fighters.

Boasting an 11-4 record in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, Hamill is an inspiring success story. Before he rose to stardom in the UFC, he worked as a bouncer at a bar called Casa Bella’s in Utica, NY. It wasn’t until he knocked out two fighters in the UFC’s King of the Cage promotion in Southern California that he started to get some recognition. In 2006, Hamill auditioned for the Spike reality show “Ultimate Fighter 3.” Among the 2,000 fighters that tried out, Hamill was the first that was chosen.

There, Hamill was approached by Los Angeles-based filmmaker Eben Kostbar, who expressed interest in making a movie about him. Kostbar heard about Hamill while working on “Ultimate Fighter,” and found his story of overcoming deafness inspiring. Hamill accepted Kostbar’s offer, and a four-year journey to bring the film to the big screen began.

At first Kostbar was worried that Hollywood wouldn’t be on board with the idea of making a film about a deaf wrestler. He explained that it hadn’t been done before, so people were “nervous about financing the film,” wanting instead to stick with what they knew would sell. He also mentioned the fact that they cast deaf actors for the deaf roles was a challenge as well, simply because he didn’t know how audiences would react. The lead actors portraying Hamill (Russell Harvard) and his then-wife Kristi Hamill (Shoshannah Stern) are both graduates of Gallaudet University, a school founded to educate the deaf and hard of hearing. In the end, it took nearly three years to work out the story and to get it fully financed before filming could start.

When filming began in 2009, the film’s crew came to Rochester and various scenes were shot on the RIT campus. While back at RIT, Hamill was pleased to see the support from people who heard that they were filming there. “It was great, we had deaf students that would come to watch our national championship scene. In LA, you ask some people to be extras or background people and they’re like, no way, but at RIT everyone was excited.”

One of the people in Hamill’s life that also plays a big role in the film is his former RIT wrestling coach, Ron Gross (played by Joseph McKelheer). Gross recruited Hamill out of high school and still maintains a good relationship with the former wrestler. He said that when he met him, he knew Hamill was more than an average Division III wrestler. Gross reached out to him anyway, in case things didn’t work out at his current school, Division I Purdue University. They didn’t: Hamill struggled with his classes and was even encouraged by his wrestling coach to switch into a different, easier major. Hamill’s mother subsequently contacted Gross looking for an opportunity for Hamill to continue studying Electrical Engineering while still wrestling at RIT.

Speaking over the phone, Gross explained that the relationship he had with Hamill was in some ways like his grandfather’s. “I think what Hamill wanted from me is kind of how his grandfather is portrayed in the movie. His grandpa had this tough love about him and I think that’s what I offered to Matt. People tended to treat him special because of his disability,” said Gross.

With this tough love from his grandfather and his coach, arguably two of the most influential characters in his life, Hamill learned to keep a good head on his shoulders. Gross continued, “I’d really hold him accountable to the highest standards and he really responded well to that. He doesn’t like or want to be coddled; he respects authority and the people that hold him accountable.”

Hamill has since retired from fighting, officially announcing his plans August of this year. According to Kostbar, Hamill has been enjoying life since retiring from fighting in the UFC. Keeping busy at the gym, Hamill has been training and coaching many up-and-coming fighters and wrestlers. He’s also opened a sports bar in Utica called The Cage, which opened October 29.

Kostbar added that Hamill hasn’t ruled out the possibility of coming back, but was quick to note the injuries he suffered in his wrestling career. “A lot of people aren’t aware that he got kind of nicked up and injured in some of his fights and he wanted to give his body a rest, get some surgeries and maybe come back if his body felt good enough for it,” he said.

Gross, who left RIT’s wrestling program in 1998 after four seasons as head coach, has returned to the wrestling staff as an associate head coach for the 2011 season. He had Hamill come to one of the RIT wrestling practices, and he talked with him about the possibility of coming back. “We talked about it, I think we might see him in the octagon again. He fell in love with the sport after collegiate wrestling. I think he wants to do it if his body will allow him.”

Deaf. Defiant. Determined. More than just the movie tagline, these are the qualities that everyone who talks about Matt Hamill express about him. Hamill showed the Deaf and hearing worlds what he could achieve, and set the bar high. He was not only a champion; he was someone who overcame his struggles and set an example for others. He’s a fighter, a family man, and a firm believer that deaf people can do anything.

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