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Hamill's life captured on film in The Hammer

Matt Hamill (Photo/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)


Name a sports movie.

OK, that was too easy. There are thousands, from Breaking Away to Bull Durham to The Blind Side, Rocky to Rudy to Remember the Titans.

Now, how about a fictional film featuring amateur wrestling.

There may be a dozen examples; arguably the most widely known is the mid-1980s classic Vision Quest.

Now for the $64,000 question: Name a movie about an actual amateur wrestler.

You may be wracking your brain, running through a list of mat legends. A biopic on Dan Gable? Dan Hodge? Cael Sanderson? Nope, nope, nope. (There is a movie in the works titled Foxcatcher, about the murder of Dave Schultz ... but that's not due in theaters until sometime in 2013.)

One real-life, real wrestler whose life has been captured on film is Matt Hamill, a deaf former amateur wrestler and MMA fighter. Hamill is the subject of the movie The Hammer, which was released to theaters last fall, and is now available on DVD.

Meet Matt Hamill

Born in October 1976 in Loveland, Ohio -- a suburb of Cincinnati -- Matthew S. Hamill was introduced to wrestling as a kid by his stepfather, John Rich, who was head wrestling coach at Loveland High School. While in high school, Hamill benefitted from additional training at Jeff Jordan's wrestling camps ... and from the late Doug Blubaugh's Top of the World camps in Bloomington, Indiana. (Hamill and Blubaugh remained lifelong friends until the 1960 Olympic gold medalist was killed in a motorcycle accident in 2011.)

Matt Hamill competed for one year at Purdue University, then transferred to Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), where he won three straight NCAA Division III wrestling titles -- at 167 pounds in 1997, 190 in 1998, and 197 in 1999. He was undefeated his senior year, and compiled an impressive overall record of 89-3. Hamill graduated from RIT's National Technology Institute for the Deaf with a degree in electromechanical technology in 1999. In 2007, he was welcomed into the RIT Athletics Hall of Fame.

In addition to his folkstyle wrestling accomplishments, Hamill also participated in both freestyle and Greco-Roman. While still in college, Hamill earned gold medals in both international wrestling styles at the 1997 Deaflympics in Copenhagen, Denmark. Four years later, at the 2001 Deaflympics in Rome, the Ohio native earned a silver in Greco, and a gold in freestyle.

Hamill launched his MMA (mixed martial arts) career as a contestant on the third season of The Ultimate Fighter TV series in 2006. After three wins, Hamill made a successful debut in the Ultimate Fighting Championships at UFC 98 in March 2007, and was a major draw in the UFC for four-and-a-half years, retiring from the Octagon in August 2011 with an overall MMA record of 10-4.

The 411 on "The Hammer"

The movie The Hammer -- originally to be called Hamill -- was the brainchild of Joseph McKelheer and Eben Kostbar, writers and producers of the film. Kostbar, a former wrestler himself, had become aware of Matt Hamill's story while watching The Ultimate Fighter; the two met a couple years later, and started talking about putting Hamill's story on film.

Originally Kostbar was slated to play Hamill. However, some in the deaf community protested the idea of a non-deaf actor portraying a deaf athlete, and the role went to Russell Harvard, a 30-year-old deaf actor who, among other roles, played opposite Daniel Day-Lewis in the Paul Thomas Anderson film There Will Be Blood. (In The Hammer, Kostbar plays Rochester Institute of Technology's assistant wrestling coach; McKelheer portrays RIT head coach Ron Gross.)

In a fall 2011 interview with the MMA website Heavy.com, Kostbar addressed the issue of casting for the role of Matt Hamill by saying, "Obviously, actors portray different people and you can kind of get by, but what I learned is that what's different about the deaf community is that it's a real culture, there is a real language -- American Sign Language. You can learn it, but somebody that has lived in that culture their entire life like Russell has can really make sure that the role is played with integrity and authenticity."

"As a hearing filmmaker, we had a lot of deaf people involved with the film, but I'm not naive enough to think I know everything there is about their culture by researching it for a few years," Kostbar continued. "At the end of the day, I wanted to tell a story that was really entertaining and for this film to be successful, but I also hopefully wanted to make a difference and shed some light on their culture."

The movie was filmed in the Rochester, N.Y. area, including on the RIT campus, in the fall of 2009.

The Hammer was presented at a number of film festivals around the country, winning a number of awards, including the American Independent Film Award at the Cleveland Film Festival, and Best American Independent Film honors at the Philly Cinefest in Philadelphia. The Hammer was released to theaters in October 2011, and was made available on DVD on Jan. 30, 2012.

Matt Hamill's reel life

The Hammer manages to follow certain conventions of the classic feel-good sports film, and, conversely, blows others away.

The basic story of an athlete overcoming incredible odds to find success in sport -- and in life beyond the playing field -- is one that has served many, many sports films. Two Cinderella sports classics: Rocky, the Oscar-winning 1976 film that tells the fictional story of a struggling boxer in Philadelphia who gets a shot at the title ... and Rudy, the 1993 biopic based on the true-life story of Daniel "Rudy" Ruettiger, who, despite his small size, played football for the University of Notre Dame.

The Hammer incorporates many of the proven components of sports films such as Rocky and Rudy, in telling the story of Matt Hamill the athlete, while providing plenty of additional biographical elements beyond the wrestling mat to give the audience a sense of feeling they really know the protagonist ... and understand his struggles.

The movie opens with Hamill as an infant, undergoing hearing tests ... then quickly moves on to show a young boy struggling in elementary school, not just in regards to learning in the classroom as a deaf student in a hearing world, but also in gaining acceptance in the rough-and-tumble world of recess. However, he finds success right from the start in wrestling, which opens new opportunities during his school days in Loveland. Yet, he continues to struggle with fitting into high school life outside the sports world; scenes involving his prom are heartbreaking.

Matt Hamill is played by Russell Harvard
The portrait of Matt Hamill up through high school fits many of the conventions of the warm-and-fuzzy sports movie -- including its deliberate pacing, and beautiful photography. (In fact, the movie portrays Loveland, Ohio as a Norman Rockwell-esque rural paradise; in actuality, it's a typical upper-middle-class suburban community.) However, the movie picks up the pace as Hamill heads off to college, first to Purdue, then to Rochester Institute of Technology.

Much of the movie will feel very comfortable and familiar to anyone who's watched movies about athletes overcoming odds. However, The Hammer manages to leave Cinderella-story convention behind in ways that will draw the viewer deeper into this compelling story.

One way The Hammer breaks with convention is in its inventive presentation of Matt Hamill dealing with his deafness. In numerous scenes, the movie contrasts the hearing world -- what everyone else is experiencing at normal volume -- with his perspective, which features muddied sound. When Hamill is spoken to, there are subtitles (as in a foreign-language movie) of what the other person is saying (verbally or in sign language) ... or, more accurately, what Hamill thinks they are saying, complete with gaps for the words that are missing from the wrestler's understanding.

The movie also deals with issues that confront the deaf every day ... starting from the opening minutes of the film, where Matt Hamill's mother (played by Susan Gibney), who, after listening to the audiologist, is considering sending him to a school for the deaf, while his grandfather (Raymond J. Barry) thinks he should "mainstreamed" to take advantage of educational opportunities in the "hearing world." Growing up as he did in the hearing world, Hamill did not consider himself to be handicapped. He learned to read lips, and had very rudimentary knowledge of American Sign Language (ASL). His limitations are expressed in a scene at Purdue; Hamill enters a lecture hall late, unable to see the professor's lips as he his facing away from the students, scribbling on the wall-mounted whiteboard. Seeing Hamill, the instructor points out that there is an interpreter at the front of the auditorium to translate the lecture into ASL, but Hamill is unable to keep up with her rapid-fire replay of the prof's lecture. The frustration on actor Russell Harvard's face speaks volumes without saying a word.

InterMat readers will want to know about the combat scenes. For those who are expecting an MMA movie with hard-hitting action, this isn't it ... instead, focusing on Hamill's life up through his first year at RIT. The Hammer uses a UFC fight as a framing device, opening and concluding with a ready-to-rumble Matt Hamill entering the Octagon, experiencing the crowd reaction as a deaf athlete. MMA fans will smile when seeing Rich Franklin -- who, like Hamill, is a product of the Cincinnati area -- as the head wrestling coach at Purdue. (Franklin scored a TKO over Hamill at UFC 88 in September 2008.)

As for wrestling fans, the movie is NOT a non-stop mat fest, either. That said, there are multiple scenes of wrestling room action at various stages of Hamill's wrestling career, starting as a youngster, and including both Purdue and RIT. The movie concludes with the 1997 NCAA Division III championships, showing quick-cut edited versions of matches featuring Hamill and his RIT roommate/teammate Jay (played by the scene-stealing Michael Anthony Spady, himself an RIT grad). Intercut with these RIT-focused scenes are those of matches with the movie's Goliath, an intimidating defending two-time champ named Jason Sloan from Frampton (played by Gabe Stolt, who has fought in MMA competition).

True to sports-movie convention, the stage is set for a Hamill-Sloan finals; that has been telegraphed more than once in the movie, almost to the point where the viewer might expect Sloan to confront Hamill in the washroom by saying "You can't hold your mud!" a la Vision Quest. (Think Sloan = Shute.) The match for the 167-pound title between Hamill and Sloan is well-filmed and exciting ... and incorporates just about every possible nail-biting element that could be in a college wrestling match, and then some (including the disqualification of one of the coaches).

It's all fun ... and all fiction. In the actual 167-pound title match at the 1997 NCAAs, the real Matt Hamill shut out Jason Dell of Gettysburg, 7-0, to win the first of three national mat titles, becoming the first deaf wrestler to win an NCAA championship. But that lopsided outcome probably wouldn't have made for a thrilling finish to The Hammer, a movie that should appeal to anyone who has cheered classic overcoming-the-odds sports movies ... even if they don't know a takedown from a touchdown.

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