The sport of boxing was simple to Mustafa Hamsho. When the bell rang, he would try to punish his opponent until the bell rang again. He would rest for 60 seconds and repeat. To say he boxed is not an adequate description. Hamsho wasn't a boxer, he was a fighter.
It has been 23 years since Hamsho was paid to throw a punch, but he remains Syria's most accomplished athlete. He arrived in New York in 1973 and by the time his 15-year career ended, he accomplished more than he imagined. On Sunday, Hamsho will be inducted into the New York State Boxing Hall of Fame at a ceremony in Howard Beach. Long Islanders Gerry Cooney, Howard Davis Jr. and Gene Moore are also part of the Hall of Fame's class of 2014.
"In my 35 years covering boxing, I don't know that I've ever seen a tougher fighter than Mustafa," said Showtime boxing analyst Steve Farhood, who also enters the Hall of Fame this year. "The punches he took during his first title fight with a pretty good middleweight named Marvin Hagler were brutal, but Hamsho kept attacking. He's a no-brainer for the New York State Boxing Hall of Fame."
While Sunday's recognition is well-deserved, Hamsho would much rather draw attention to his former homeland. His mother, brother and nephews still live in Syria. As the violence of a civil war grinds on, the fighter who feared no one is worried. He spoke to his mother two weeks ago, but hearing her voice only provides a small measure of relief. He does not believe the conflict will end without military intervention from the United States.
"Obama has waited too long" said Hamsho. "The situation just keeps getting worse. If the United States does nothing, thousands of people will keep getting killed. People are dying and no one cares. People are just disappearing."
The Civil War that has gripped Syria began in the spring of 2011. Although casualty numbers vary, it has been widely reported that between 100,000 and 140,000 Syrians have been killed since rebels began a campaign to oust president Bashar al-Assad. The United Nations reports that 9.3 million people in Syria need humanitarian assistance and 2.6 million have fled the country.
At the age of 15, Hamsho was Syria's national junior middleweight champion. The only thing greater than the concussive power in his fists was his ambition. He idolized Muhammad Ali and wanted to come to America to box. With no money to travel, Hamsho took a job as a seaman on a Greek cruise ship. The work was strenuous, but the ride across the Atlantic was free. He tried to jump ship three times but on each occasion authorities returned him to the captain. Finally, in 1973, the ship dry docked in Red Hook and Hamsho lost himself in Brooklyn's Arab community. He never went back to sea.
Hamsho eventually found his way to the old Gramercy Gym in lower Manhattan. It didn't take long for the ferocious young fighter to catch the eye of trainer Paddy Flood, a Runyonesque character once described as "having more angles than a geometry teacher."
Hamsho fought with the abandon of man who owned nothing, but had everything to lose. Each fight was like a life-and-death encounter. Although Hamsho's style was crowd pleasing, Flood feared his name would slow his progress. In order to main-stream his fighter and effectively move him up the ranks, Hamsho fought as Rocky Estafire for his first 10 pro fights and was generally passed off as Italian or Greek.
"At that time, it wasn't uncommon in boxing," said Hamsho, when asked about being forced to change his name. "I just wanted someone to watch me train. Paddy was very nice to me. He looked after me. When I finished training he would buy me a cup of tea. At the time, tea was like 25 or 30 cents. To me, it was a lot of money. Paddy helped me when no one in boxing knew who I was."
It wasn't long before Flood manufactured Hamsho's first break. Bobby Watts was a Philadelphia middleweight contender whose resume included a win over Hagler. Watts was looking for a fight but instructed his manager, "No southpaws." Sensing an opportunity, Flood asked Hamsho to pose for a photograph while in a right-handed boxing stance. Flood sent the photo off to Watts and asked for a fight. There was very little information available on Rocky Estafire and even less on Mustafa Hamsho. Watts accepted the fight. When the bell rang, and the lefthanded Hamsho charged across the ring, Watts was finished.
Some boxers approach their opponent with the precision of a surgeon handling a scalpel. Hamsho's approach was less clinical. His tool of choice was a wrecking ball. He reeled off 27 straights wins and became so good, no one really cared what name was stitched across the back of his robe. His style was the perfect match for Hagler, the middleweight champion of the world.
Hamsho challenged Hagler for the title in 1981 at the Horizon Arena in Rosemont, Ill. In boxing, such a violent affair can be celebrated as something brilliant. Hagler looked like he was trying to drive every punch through Hamsho. It was an attack that Hamsho willingly absorbed. It was finally stopped in the 11th round when Hamsho's cuts were deemed too dangerous. It took 53 stitches to mend his eyebrows. In a report after the fight, Sports Illustrated's Pat Putnam wrote of Hamsho, "it looked as though he would run out of blood before he ran out of heart."
"In the first fight, I let him beat me," said Hamsho. "I wanted to show him how tough I was and I let him hit me with every shot. He saw that I didn't move. If it wasn't for the blood, I would have fought him all day."
A year later, Hamsho dismantled undefeated Bobby Czyz on national television and then pummeled future Hall-of-Famer Wilfred Benitez to earn another shot at Hagler. The rematch took place at Madison Square Garden, and fans waved Syrian flags as Hamsho walked to the ring. It was a nice bit of closure for Rocky Estafire.
Although Hagler won again, this time by third-round knockout, Hamsho's valor further enhanced his status at home. He fought and bled for Syria in the most famous arena in the world and President Hafez al-Assad (Bashar al-Assad's father) formally requested a meeting.
"I met the whole family," said Hamsho. "I met Bashar al-Assad when he was a young boy. I had dinner with the family. We took pictures. Television crews followed us all over."
That was 1984, the last time Hamsho was in Syria.
'Nobody is safe'
In one of Hamsho's last major fights, he lost a 12-round decision to future light heavyweight champion Donny Lalonde at the Felt Forum.
"Mustafa was so tough and rough it was a huge honor and pleasure to fight him," said Lalonde. "Winning of course gave me the confidence I needed for my next fight which turned out to be for the WBC title. I am very thankful to Mustafa for giving me the opportunity. Of the fights I've won, I treasure that as probably my toughest. It was my most physical fight for sure."
While certainly Hamsho's legacy is that of his toughness in the ring. But he will also be remembered for having the misfortune of competing at the same time as Hagler, who is regarded as one of the best middleweights in history.
"The result of those two title fights aside, Hamsho was clearly the next best middleweight in the world at that time," said Farhood. "It's a shame there was only one world champion at 160 pounds in those days because Hamsho was certainly worthy of a championship belt."
In 1989, Hamsho retired from boxing and officially became a U.S. citizen. He's lived in Brooklyn since walking off the cruise ship in 1973. He has seen this country at its best, its worst and its weakest. After the September 11 terrorist attacks, Hamsho and his family were subject to anti-Arab slurs. No one is immune to the insecurities of a nation when it is trapped in fear and searing with hatred, not even someone as tough as Hamsho.
"That was a painful time for all New Yorkers," he said. "I have traveled all around the world and when I come back to New York, I am home. This is my children's home. I have spent more time in New York City than any place in the world."
Home is also the coastal town of Latakia, Syria. The only comfort Hamsho had throughout this civil war was that Latakia was also the hometown of Assad. It was heavily fortified and he knew that his family would be relatively safe. But earlier this week, it was reported for the first time that Syrian rebels advanced into Latakia.
"A lot of Assad's people are there," said Hamsho. "Nobody is safe. There is no rule. I will always love Syria, but now everything has changed. It's very bad. We want a democracy. For more than 40 years, this family has controlled the country. The U.S. has the power to change that."