|PHILLY BOXING HISTORY - April 04, 2016|
Eric “Outlaw” Hunter has always been like a storm, steadily brewing and constantly threatening to let loose. At a glance you might not see it. He’s a good looking kid, cool with a folksy, high-pitched voice. He smiles often, but that’s just on the outside. Inside, Hunter has been in turmoil for more than ten years.
It all began when he lost his chance to go to the Olympics in 2004. After a contested decision, he was named an alternate for the Athens games, but if you ask Hunter it was the first robbery of his troubled career. So instead of going for the Gold, Hunter, then 18, turned pro on January 7, 2005.
Ever since that first robbery, it’s been one thing after another. Hunter’s not only been fighting opponents, he’s been battling the system, bad breaks, and as much as anything else, himself, ever since day one.
The moment he turned pro, everyone - in Philadelphia and out - was certain that the West Philly “Outlaw” would become a world champion. All he needed was the opportunity. However, despite a solid record, the USBA title, and flashes of brilliance through the years, Hunter’s career was stuck in the mud for most of the last decade.
Important wins – Andre Wilson, Jerry Belmontes, and Yenifel Vicente – were followed by self-destructive flameouts or stretches of inactivity. Hunter called it a black cloud, and said he just couldn’t escape it.
His reputation as the best fighter in Philadelphia persisted, but his lack of career momentum inspired skeptics to hang new tags on the frustrated fighter. Behind his back, whispers of “underachiever”, “self-destructive” and “head case” began to follow the once “can’t miss” prospect.
Managers, promoters and advisors came and went. Golden opportunities fell to the wayside, but Hunter just kept his head down and all the while, let his anger brew.
Despite unquestionable talent, it appeared the chances of him reaching his potential kept slipping further and further away. Many stopped believing in him, and the haters said he was just another Philadelphia fighter who was going nowhere.
Then suddenly the opportunity he’d waited so long, finally arrived, seemingly out of nowhere.
“This is what I’ve been waiting for, for a long time,” Hunter said. “Sometimes I smile, and sometimes I get real emotional, with just the thought of it.”
On Saturday (April 9th), Eric Hunter, 21-3, 11 KOs, meets IBF featherweight world champion Lee Selby, 22-1, 8 KOs, at London’s O2 Arena. Twelve rounds for the world title and Hunter’s total salvation. Showtime will broadcast this critical moment of truth beginning at 5 PM Eastern time.
Many question whether Hunter can make good with his big opportunity. It seems people have been doubting him for so long, they can’t break the habit. In Philadelphia, haters abound.
“They always say stuff behind my back,” Hunter said. “I hear them. Nobody ever talks trash in front of me. I just want to shut everybody up.”
Failure runs deep in Philly. It’s as if it has tainted the water supply. Many of those who’ve already failed are always ready to recruit new members for the club.
“He’ll never get on that plane,” one local boxing insider told me about Hunter’s upcoming trip to London for the biggest fight of his life. “He’ll find a way to screw it up,” another doubter pronounced with certainty.
Hunter has heard it – or felt it - all. He knows there are just as many people rooting against him as there are rooting for him.
“Yeah, it feels that way,” Hunter said with a laugh. “They supposed to (root against me) though. Even if I do fail, I still made it there. It don’t matter how they look at it. I made it to the world title on my own. Ain’t nobody picking and choosing fights for me. Even when I fought the kid from Golden Boy, Rene Alvarado, I’m sure they wanted me to lose.”
“They” is a big word in the Hunter vocabulary. He’s always talking about “they”. He’s made a lot of enemies during his career – real and imagined – and he knows many want him to fail. But with every slight, his only action has been to let that storm inside him gather force.
At face value, it’s hard not to favor Hunter over Selby. At the very least, he’s got an excellent chance. Hunter is a better boxer than Selby and he’s the harder puncher. He’s still just 29 years old, loaded with ability and hungrier than any fighter on the planet.
Hunter knows that this is his one shot at making it, his one chance to show the world. April 9th means everything to him. In fact, the date with Selby is far more than just a title fight. It is an opportunity for Hunter to soothe that rage inside him. Only boxing offers him a chance to do that, and Hunter is looking to resolve a lifetime of turmoil in this one fight.
“When I’m training, I get emotional,” Hunter said. “Because a lot of people, everybody, even Philadelphia fighters, they count you out. They count you out, even though they know that I have all the capabilities of being great. You know, we in a hateful city.”
It makes sense that Hunter only feels emotion while at work. Boxing is who he is and where he feels authentic.
“It’s the only place I’m comfortable,” Hunter said. “On the outside, I’m nervous. I might step out that door and get shot. We in a rough city. My life ain’t never been easy. I always had to look over my shoulder. When I’m out there it’s dark, all I seen was a black cloud. That’s always what I had over my head, a black cloud. So, I wasn’t ever emotional outside.”
Outside he kept his armor up. He had to be hard and he had to be tough. He didn’t have the luxury of dreaming. However, inside the gym, any gym, and in any ring, he could dream of a better life.
“Here is where I’m emotional,” Hunter said about being in the gym. “Because this is something that could change my whole life, my kid’s life. This is my home. The gym is where I live, ever since I was a little boy, a dirty little boy.”
As he talked, you could feel all that poison festering inside him. The world is an unfair place, and boxing is his only way of coping with it. In boxing, he can believe he is something special, something of value. Nothing else has ever given him that sense of hope.
“In here, they can’t call you dirty,” Hunter said. “They can’t call you dirty in the gym. When you go outside, you got other people that you see that say, ‘Oh, look at that dirty little boy. Why he look like that?’ I couldn’t be judged inside of the ring, because if you judge me inside of the ring, I’ll beat you up. Out there they can judge, and I can’t do nothing. Here, I’m home. I’m happy. I’m at peace.”
While Hunter trained on this day, it was evident that the gym was his home. In addition to his team, trainers Hazma Muhammad, Sloan Harrison and a few others, his family was right there with him. Hunter’s youngest daughter toddled around the gym, her mother chasing her the entire time. A few yards away, Hunter’s oldest child, his son Kadeen, slept solidly on a padded bench, oblivious to the growing importance of the moment and all the emotion his father was feeling.
Hopefully Hunter can convert this emotion into the fuel he needs to transform his life. If he can win this one, everything changes for him.
“I’m not going to say that right now,” Hunter hesitated. “I don’t want to think like that. There’s a chance, there’s a chance. The sport we in, ain’t nothing changes until you see your bank account saying certain type of numbers.”
But he agrees that this fight is more than just a fight.
“This is my life on the line,” Hunter said. “It’s bigger than life.”
That’s a lot of pressure to take into a prizefight. Hunter is infamous for rollercoaster emotions that have often boiled over and hurt him, in and out of the ring. However, Hunter says he knows how to keep it all in perspective.
“I go in there looking at it like a sparring session,” Hunter said. “Even when I was an amateur, I went into the fights like a sparring session. Now I just look at it like a ten or twelve round sparring session. It’s no different from another fight. Two more rounds, nothing different. It’s just a fight with a better reward. My job is to go in and dethrone the champion. Something that you can be proud of and (a belt) you can put in your trophy case.”
Despite being in the sport for so long, Hunter is still looking to gain some real attention for the first time.
“This is my breakout,” Hunter said of the Selby fight. “This is my moment and I’m going to take full advantage of it. I don’t care what he’s doing. I don’t care what he brings. I know what I got to bring to the table.”
In Selby, Hunter will encounter a proud champion fighting with his home nation rooting him on from ringside.
“We all know that fans don’t win fights,” Hunter said. “It’s us fighters that win the fight, not the fans. We also know that the overseas fighters are more protected than the U.S. fighters. They got to be tough to beat me. Maybe Lee Selby can do it. They say he’s the Floyd Mayweather of Wales. They say that. (Laughs) The Floyd Mayweather of Wales. Can you believe it? He don’t got nothing for Eric Hunter. I think he do one thing that’s good, and that’s run. He can move a lot. If he show me different, then he show me different.”
When a fighter goes abroad to challenge for a championship, it’s always a concern. Bad decisions, favoritism and downright abuse often await the visitor.
“I don’t think this fight is going to be like that,” Hunter said. “I already know what I got to do. My job is to beat him. His job is to keep that belt, and I think keeping the belt is harder that fighting for it. I’m thinking he will want to get a knockout because he didn’t look good in his last fight. I think (in) all fights, you should try to score a knockout. That’s what we in the sport for, to knock people out. We fight to get knockouts. Me personally, I fight to try to get a knockout.”
A knockout certainly would send the message Hunter wants to send to the boxing world, and would also help him to avoid any overseas funny business.
“I know for sure that he don’t want to fight me. He’s probably turning over in his damn sleep. He’s the champion and that’s who we have to go through. It’s nothing to get nervous about. I feel good about the fight.”
He’s certainly working hard for it. At the gym, Hunter has been flooring it ever since the first hint of this fight began to surface. The IBF installed Hunter as the mandatory challenger for Selby, after Hunter’s promoter, Greg Cohen, worked behind the scenes to secure that slot for the Philadelphian.
“Let’s be honest,” Hunter said. “I want to keep it all the way 100. Mandatory got me my shot. If I wasn’t the mandatory, nobody be fighting me. I damn near have to fight at middleweight to get a shot at the title. I’d have to fight Golovkin, if I wasn’t the mandatory.”
The opportunity has Hunter motivated like never before.
“I’m doing everything in my power to prepare,” Hunter said. “I’m not worried. I’m not nervous. Just focused on the fight. I’m more focused than any other fight and I have more time. This is the only fight that I had three months to really lock in, be me, and do everything that’s right. What motivates me is that I’m finally getting my shot. That’s what motivates me.”
If Hunter can beat Selby, his name will be added to the exclusive list of Philly fighters who became world champion.
“I don’t think of it like that,” Hunter said. “I’m from Philly, but I’m not a Philly fighter. I tell people all the time, I’m not no Philly fighter. Philly fighters go in there, they get near the top, and then fail. We go in there with heart and balls and no mind. I think we need to get our mind out that box of just being a Philly fighter, and be a world class fighter (instead). So I’m not trying to say that I’m a Philly fighter. I’m from Philly. I got Philly heart, but I’m not a Philly fighter. I’m a world class fighter. I’m just trying to make history.”
Like the label or not, Hunter is poised to join just 30 other Philly fighters who have won world championships.
“I hope to be the 31st,” Hunter said. “I want to be part of that history. I do want to be part of that, but I don’t want to be known for (being) a Philly fighter.”
For Hunter’s legacy, becoming a world champ would be the difference between him being remembered as a legend rather than just a good pro – Philly fighter or not. Champions have a shortcut to the most memorable pages of folklore.
“I did it the hard way,” Hunter said. “I did it my way. Nobody didn’t do it. I did it. At the end of the day, Eric Hunter did it his way. I think a lot of people who know my story want me to win. People who don’t understand my story, don’t really care about whether or not I win. To want me to win, you got to understand the struggle that I come from and everything I had to go through to even get here.”
Hunter still has plenty of people in his corner, but does that even matter to someone who has subsisted so long on anger, hurt and solitude? Perhaps the possibility of happiness and success is the scariest thing out there for a guy like Outlaw. It seems that if he has nothing to rage against, he’s lost. He’s already begun pushing away potential well-wishers and the many fans who he believes don’t truly have his back.
“Maybe I’ll feel different after I have the belt,” Hunter said. “On the night of the fight, maybe I’ll feel different. That’s when I will feel happy. I’ll feel happy after I accomplish something that people thought I couldn’t accomplish, the championship of the world.”
But will that calm the storm? Hunter thrives on turmoil. He finds it around every corner and he finds it within every fan. He’s only at peace inside the ring engaged in the only type of conflict he’s comfortable with.
He’ll find some peace on Saturday in London, maybe twelve rounds worth. But when Hunter finally unleashes the storm that is very likely to bring him everything he’s ever fought for, will it be enough to find him peace in the world among the happy? Knowing Hunter, that seems unlikely. For him, another storm will always be brewing on the horizon.