Tevin Farmer cherishes chance at winning his first world title

Junior lightweight contender Tevin Farmer, left, is one of the best defensive fighters in the sport. Steve Luciano/AP

Editor's note: This story was originally published in December, 2017. Farmer lost the bout against Kenichi Ogawa, but Ogawa failed a prefight drug test and was stripped of the title.

One of Tevin Farmer's trainers, Nicholas Rosario, uses both thumbs to dig into the center of his right hand. He's attempting to massage the stiffened muscles in Farmer's palm. The junior lightweight contender wiggles his fingers. It opens to a dark, penny-sized circle in the center of his hand. That's where Farmer was shot during a family affair in the summer. He pronates his hand, turning his palm face down and there it is. The bullet traveled through his wrist and out.

Rosario begins to wrap Farmer's hands for a light sparring session. Asked if Farmer will be ready for a chance at a vacant 130-pound title just five months after being shot, he unnervingly replies, "Mobility is at 70 percent. But come fight night it will be where it needs to be."

Rosario pads Farmer's knuckles. Farmer makes a fist and the training sessions get underway.

It took Farmer nearly four weeks to close his hand. The voluntary action of making a fist is overlooked by most average people but it's paramount for boxers. Your hands are your weapons. At this point, Farmer's mind is signaling an involuntary action for his hands to cooperate. It's all mental.

The bullet shot clean through his hand. No surgeries required, but it caused a number of fractures. The doctor sat down with Farmer and told him he'll never box again. Tevin's rebuttal did not require a verbal response. His return would be one of mental strength. If he could tell his mind to come back where he left off, he would.

Farmer was attending his niece's birthday party on July 30 when a scuffle broke out. Farmer took on the role as peacemaker and attempted to unarm the individual. Farmer was shot in the hand. His brother was glazed in the head by a bullet.

"I could have not boxed again," he said. "Mentally, I'm in a different place. If I think about something, it's going to happen. If I think it's going to get better, it will. If I say I'll punch again, I will."

Three months earlier he tore his right bicep in a fight against Arturo Santos Reyes. Farmer went nine rounds to win by unanimous decision with just one arm.

On Saturday, Farmer will return from two unexpected incidents vying for the biggest opportunity in his boxing career: A chance at his first belt against Japanese star Kenichi Ogawa (22-1 17 KOs).

Returning from almost having his hand shot off is one thing. Reinventing himself is another.

His career in boxing started unfashionably and was unsellable. A late bloomer, he picked up boxing when he turned 19 by coincidence. Basketball and football just so happened to be out of season. Farmer followed his brother to a local boxing gym, and within two years he jumped to the pro level.

One of Farmer's defensive coaches, Reginald Lloyd, explained, "boxing was never on his radar. Tevin was always an athlete. He did boxing out of fun."

Farmer clearly did not take the sport seriously because the blemishes showed. He lost his professional boxing debut to Oscar Santana by TKO in 2011. Twenty months later, Farmer's record was 7-4-1. His fourth and last loss against Jose Pedraza in 2012 was a turning point.

"When I lost to Pedraza I was sitting at home at the edge of my bed. I thought, should I take this serious? I had a conversation with a family friend, Mark Cipparone. I called him up. We meet. And he started helping me. He got into boxing because of me. He helped me make hard decisions. He made me into a businessman. That's when I started to make changes."

Farmer was in school for nursing. That career was sidelined to take boxing seriously.

"I left my coach and changed my whole team. I came over to New Jersey. Started doing things the way I was supposed to."

Farmer brought together four men: Head trainer Raul "Chino" Rivas, Rosario, Lloyd and Rashiem Jefferson. Another trainer, Anthony Rodriguez, was added to help for this camp. Farmer didn't want just one trainer. It wasn't enough knowledge for him to grow into the boxer he wanted to become. He wanted a team of specialists in defense, power, speed, etc. Knowledge is power. And he's a sponge. So, if he could learn everything each trainer brought to the table, in his mind, he's unstoppable.

In a post-Floyd Mayweather era, protecting an undefeated record or "your 0" is crucial for climbing up the ranks to a possible huge payout. Mayweather padded his billion-dollar career behind his untouched, unrivaled record of 50-0. It became a new standard of boxing elitism. The modern boxing industry did not fare well for a kid from North Philadelphia who had four losses in the first two years.

"Growing up I was always a good kid. Of course, I grew up in the hood. I did some things but I was never in any deep situations. I was a good kid hanging in the hood with some savages. I'm a street guy. But, I'm not a reckless person. Philly is a jungle. You really got to be a part of the wolf pack to make it. Especially north Philly. It's a danger zone." Tevin Farmer

Rodriguez, a rising boxing trainer in Philly, thinks "the only reason it is important to be undefeated is because that's how they promote the sport."

Farmer agrees.

"In this era, it was very difficult overcoming those losses because that's what TV wants," Farmer said. "TV wants undefeated records. So, when you have losses it's just ... It was only difficult, because I can fight my ass off. If you are a bum and you have losses, you can get on TV all day. But it was very difficult for me because I can fight. Fighters don't want to lose to someone with losses on their record. I'll beat an undefeated fighter."

On paper, Farmer was an easy target.

"Everyone wanted to fight Tevin. Everybody wants to protect their '0".' Reginald said. "If you have a '0' that person might be considered the best. But who has he fought? Back than the best fought the best. Muhammad Ali fought Joe Frazier and George Foreman. Or look at Sugar Ray Leonard, [Marvin] Hagler, [Thomas] Hearns. They fought the best. It's not those days anymore. You didn't get $750,000 for fighting a guy who's 2-26."

If your record cannot sell your brand, and no one wants to fight you. How do you get to the top?

"A lot of fighters who have '0s,' sometime their managers and promoters pay their way to the top," Lloyd said. "Tevin fought his way to the top. Nobody gave Tev nothing."

The Philly tattoos on each shoulder point to Farmer's identity.

"Philly supports Philly," Farmer said. "Philly loves me. That's something you have to build. You can't just be a great fighter here. Philadelphia has a lot of talent. You can't just be good anything in this city. You have to be great all around. You got to be a great athlete. Great human being. And that's what I am."

Lloyd puts in perspective of what the neighborhood used to be like:

"Growing up I was always a good kid. Of course, I grew up in the hood. I did some things but I was never in any deep situations. I was a good kid hanging in the hood with some savages. I'm a street guy. But, I'm not a reckless person. Philly is a jungle. You really got to be a part of the wolf pack to make it. Especially north Philly. It's a danger zone."

That's why the shooting came as a surprise. It was uncharacteristic for Farmer to be in an altercation. He is the pride of Philadelphia, a positive influence in a neighborhood where making it to 27 years old was a blessing its own.

"If it makes sense financially, I'll beat [Davis]. If not, he has to wait to be a mandatory. Like I said, they made me wait, I want to be petty, I want to make them wait. They offer me good money, I'll beat him." Tevin Farmer on a possible fight against Gervonta Davis

Meanwhile, on the same day as the shooting and 100 miles north at Brooklyn's Barclays Center, thousands packed into the arena for a 135-pound showdown between Adrien Broner and Mikey Garcia. Before the main event, former junior lightweight titlist Gervonta Davis held a news conference. At the time, Davis was in control of one of the belts. He was ramping up as the co-main event between Mayweather and Conor McGregor in August. Davis was taken under Mayweather's wing as his protégé.

Davis and Farmer have long butted heads on social media. It quickly grew into a spectacle. They've criticized each other's ethics and hurled insults. Davis points to the lack of tickets Famer sells at his fights. Farmer explains that he doesn't have Mayweather's name to sell his tickets. It drew excitement within the boxing community. It became a platform for boxing fans to instigate. So, when Davis and Farmer met face to face during Vasiliy Loamchenko's victory over Jason Sosa in April, the cameras were circling them like sharks. They exchanged verbal jabs. Davis leaned on Tevin's four loses. Farmer simply put it, let's fight. A fight between them didn't get any closer.

At the tail end of Davis' conference in Brooklyn, a reporter stood up.

"There's a big elephant in this room somewhere ... Philly ... Tevin Farmer."

Davis chuckled and brushed off that reporter. Another media member followed with a similarly phrased question, "[Farmer] is someone that everyone has been asking for for some time now. When will it happen?"

Davis's manager, Leonard Ellerbe, stepped in. "In boxing, things don't always happen when some of us want it to happen. Everything is about timing. Whether Tevin Farmer is a part of that, we'll see."

After the conference, the news hit the Barclays Center that Farmer hads been shot. Lou DiBella, Farmer's promoter, released a statement the next day saying that Tevin was OK. By that time, the story was tied to a picture of Farmer handcuffed to a hospital bed.

"They locked me up for a little while." Farmer said. "They [the police] said I was the shooter."

Davis's immediate reaction in New York was, "he probably can't even box again." Many people at the time thought the same. Even Farmer calls it a blessing.

Farmer was cleared of any involvement. However, his name has been tainted by the original allegations of the shooting. But so has his record. At the end of the day, he lived up to the nickname of the "American Idol." He owes his caring nature to his family. Then there's his 12 brothers and sisters. Farmer's plan is to have them all in attendance Saturday night at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas should they announce "And the new ... ."

"They love being around each other. And they support him 100 percent," Lloyd said. "They don't look at Tev as the cash cow. They all love each other genuinely."

His sisters sold tickets and merchandise before Farmer took boxing serious. Farmer talks to his mother every day. After he was shot and arrested on his birthday, his mother threw him a surprise party a few weeks later.

"Back when I played football she used to walk me every day to football practice, Farmer said. "Every day to school. It would be three miles away. She did it just to be there for me."

None of the boxers, mixed martial artist or trainers can see outside. The only windows at the front of the gym are fogged. On this damp, cool day in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, the glass is a barrier for the sticky, sweaty heat from inside. Coincidentally, Philly rapper Meek Mill Meek is blasting through the speakers, fueling a claustrophobic energy inside the gym. Dead center, with the octagon in one corner, the boxing ring in another, facing the mirrors is one of the most exciting defensive fighters in the game right now. Everyone is drawn to Farmer.

"He's got great energy," Rodriguez said. "He tries to keep everyone together here. He's the heart of the gym."

Farmer is a jokester by nature. He'll pop up next to his trainers, fellow fighters and rattles their cages or get under their skin. Yet, they're also plotting their own friendly revenge. It's all love.

Farmer can get serious, too. Before every fight, he shaves his head. It gives him a different persona. A man that is about to go to war. Nothing holding him back.

Three trainers line up to do pads. This is his signature exercise. Over 140,000 followers on Instagram double-tab during a live video when they see him do defensive drills.

The synchronized movement between him and his trainers in real time is actually unreal. At a certain point, you have to abandon your senses. Ideally your eyes. Because it is no longer visual.

From Farmer's perspective, it's natural.

"I don't go to the gym and do defensive drills. I can't remember the last time I did a defensive drill. Never. Sure, I do pad work, moving your head and all of that but I've never done a defensive drill with a ball being throw at you and all that stuff."

Farmer has only five knockouts in 25 fights. It's his defense that's making his brand marketable. Farmer's breakout performance was a points victory against Ivan Redkach at Barclays Center during the undercard of Carl Frampton vs. Leo Santa Cruz in July, 2016. Redkach had lost only one fight at the time and had won 15 of 19 by stoppage. Farmer was the B-side and critics believed there was a good chance of him getting knockout. He was coming up in weight and was clearly the smaller fighter that night.

"His defense has always been good. His movement is slick." Jefferson said.

"I'm doing it without trying. I'm just cruising," said Farmer. "I haven't really been in any tough fights. No one has actually made me break my skills out. The stuff they see is just me."

Farmer realized quickly that boxing doesn't have a retirement plan. Yet, it's a sport with the biggest medical implications. That's why he started flipping houses (the art of purchasing real estate, make improvements and selling it for a profit.)

"Boxing is not forever. Boxing can be gone tomorrow. It's not about having 3-4 million in the account. It's to get the big lump sum and to be able to create residual income to last your whole life. Flipping houses is fun. I like the before or after. You can see one thing and the next it's like, damn that's decent. The first house we flipped, the fireplace wall was terrible. It was all brick and dirty. It was the transformation."

Farmer is himself a flipped house. He is the transformation. The before and after is clear. The act of investing in himself. The mentality and dedication to reinvent himself into an elite boxer. And sticking with the process until an opportunity arises.

It's ironic how this all played out. Farmer's great uncle on his mother's side was the first African-American lightweight champion of the world, Joe Gans. They look exactly alike. Farmer entered boxing not knowing anything about his uncle but somehow subconsciously channeled his makeup as a fighter. Farmer's last loss was against Pedraza five years ago. Pedraza went on to win a belt. Davis took the title from Pedraza to become the youngest world champion since Ali, then lost the belt before his fight against Francisco Fonseca in August after missing weight the day before. He went on to win the fight, but wasn't allowed to regain the belt.

Davis will be asking Farmer for a title shot if Farmer beats Ogawa on Saturday.

"If it makes sense financially, I'll beat [Davis]," said Farmer. "If not, he has to wait to be a mandatory. Like I said, they made me wait, I want to be petty, I want to make them wait. They offer me good money, I'll beat him."

The tables have turned.