Hamill confident ahead of UFC 88 clash with Franklin

Matt Hamill, above, will have his hands full with cage veteran Rich Franklin, but he's used to being the underdog. AP Photo/Mike Groll

Saturday's UFC 88 card, labeled "breakthrough" by the suits at Zuffa, could apply to "The Ultimate Fighter" Season 2 alumnus Rashad Evans, who would give his career a nitro-boost if he beats MMA icon Chuck Liddell.

The word "breakthrough" could also fit Rousimar Palhares, the Brazilian with nine fights under his belt, who meets former Pride titlist Dan Henderson.

But the fighter whose career -- his life, even -- would perhaps change the most with a win Saturday is light heavyweight Matt Hamill, another "Ultimate Fighter" alum who grapples with the vastly more experienced former UFC middleweight champ Rich Franklin.

The 31-year-old Hamill was born deaf in both ears, but that didn't deter him from impressing the UFC immensely with his effort on the third season of "TUF." He won a prelim fight but couldn't fight in the semifinal because of injuries, which included a severe concussion.

Hamill, an Ohio native who now lives in Utica, N.Y., was a three-time NCAA Division III National Champion in wrestling at the Rochester (N.Y.) Institute of Technology. He also snagged a silver medal in Greco-Roman wrestling and a gold medal in freestyle wrestling from the 2001 Summer Deaflympics in Rome.

A tussle with an unruly patron at a tavern paved the way for his entrance into the major league of MMA. Hamill was working as a bouncer at a local Utica bar when someone with connections to the UFC saw Hamill handle a fight with confidence and swiftness.

"The ball was rolling from there," he told ESPN.com in an e-mail.

During his "TUF" season, Tito Ortiz picked Hamill to be on his squad; the coach was blatantly enamored by the deaf athlete's ability. Hamill's talent and his refusal to allow his disability to hold him back was inspiring.

Nothing Hamill has experienced so far can prepare him for what Franklin brings to the cage, however. Franklin is a skilled striker who is moving up to 2005 after falling twice to Anderson Silva.

Can Hamill close the experience gap?

"It will without a doubt be a tough fight," he said. "However, I've always loved a challenge and I'm known for not backing down. I just want to show what I can do."

The UFC allows Hamill to have an American Sign Language interpreter work with his trainers during the bout. When the bell sounds, the ref touches Hamill to let him know when a round begins and ends.

For Franklin's part, succumbing to the lethal blows of Silva is no glaring blemish on his legacy. But Travis Lutter had Franklin in trouble with an armbar in their UFC 83 clash in April. Franklin ultimately prevailed, but questions were raised: Might he be close to the finish line career-wise -- and ripe for the picking?

If he is, he isn't letting on. And he isn't about to underestimate Hamill, either.

"[Hamill] is definitely a formidable opponent at 205," the more seasoned vet said. "Ultimately, he'll rely on wrestling, but he might believe he can stand up with me."

"I wouldn't say Rich is past his prime," Hamill said. "He is an excellent, well-rounded fighter who has only gotten better over time. This will certainly be my toughest fight to date."

Hamill, who is engaged to be married next year and has a daughter from his first marriage, is used to actually gaining an edge in some instances because he is hearing impaired.

"I am always underestimated because of my deafness," he said. "I don't mind because it's always fun proving people wrong. I am always seen as an underdog and that is okay with me. It makes any win that much sweeter."

Hamill is a respectable striker himself, so this match figures to feature an ebb and flow in momentum. A win over Franklin would send another message, clarion clear in any language: The deaf fighter doesn't need to hear to be effective.

Hamill's skill set, his fists, feet and a firm foundation in wrestling, communicate the message to all.

Michael Woods, the managing editor of TheSweetScience.com, has written for ESPN The Magazine, GQ and The New York Observer.