Maurice Hooker Has Traveled a Long Way to Come Back Home

Published on Yahoo Sports

On Saturday night, Maurice Hooker, for the first time as a world champion, returns home to fight. He’ll face the undefeated Jose Ramirez to unify the WBO and WBC super lightweight titles. For the first time as a world champion, he’ll fight in front of friends and family at the University of Texas in Arlington, not far from Dallas’ South Oak Cliff neighborhood where Hooker grew up.

This is, in many ways, his homecoming. But for Hooker, that road back home has been anything but easy.

Even at its best, boxing is a hard and lonely sport. It taxes all who fight for a living. But relatively speaking, some have it easier than others. A few begin their careers fighting for powerful promoters. They earn enough money to focus solely on boxing. Because they’re carefully matched, their development is slow and meticulously crafted. They have seemingly every advantage a boxer could have.

Then there are others.

These are the boxers who are often considered simply opponents. They are sparring partners. They fight in untelevised matches far away from home with only a few weeks’ notice. They risk their lives for short money. Hooker was one of these boxers.

“[Boxing] is a tough, dangerous sport,” Arnie Verbeek explained. “You make a little bit of money. You’re better off selling cars or doing something else.” Verbeek is Hooker’s manager, but talk to him for even a little while and you soon realize their relationship is more than that. “He became like my son,” Verbeek said of Hooker.

And so, when Hooker walked into Verbeek’s Dallas gym — Maple Avenue Boxing Gym — and said he wanted to box professionally, his eventual manager matched him tough.

“I said, we’re going to find it out early and if it doesn’t work, we’re going to do something else,” Verbeek recalled. “And that’s because I love the kid and I don’t want to fool him. So, we went through hell … I didn’t care. We’d take any fight.”

And as Hooker fought in nightclubs and hotel ballrooms, he kept winning. He seemingly always liked to fight. From his days in South Oak Cliff, which remains a tough neighborhood — “a lot of drug dealing, fighting, stealing” is how he describes it — Hooker fought. He did it so often, in fact, that’s how he began boxing.

“I was getting in a lot of trouble in the streets, a lot of fighting,” Hooker remembered. “So, my [step]dad took me to the gym to actually get beat up.”

Perhaps, Hooker’s anger stemmed from the time he and his family got robbed inside their home a couple of years before he went into that boxing gym. He had a gun put to his head. He saw his siblings also get guns put to theirs. His stepfather was made to kneel before getting kicked in the head.

“I had to go to counseling for that stuff,” Hooker says. “Kind of messed me up a little bit as a kid.”

But on the day Hooker went to the gym the first time, with his stepfather hoping he’d get beat, the opposite happened. “I beat a couple of guys up,” Hooker said in a matter-of-fact tone, “and I fell in love with it.”

And so Hooker fought. He fought as an amateur even though his style wasn’t entirely suited for the non-professional ranks. He fought and sparred countless rounds inside Verbeek’s gym against boxers like Errol Spence Jr., Alex Saucedo, and Rob Brant. He fought anywhere and anybody and for each of his first few fights he received $500. A few days after those fights, Verbeek would give Hooker another $500 just to keep him afloat.

“It never was about the money,” Hooker said, “it was about my dream. To believe in myself.”

Watch Hooker fight and one of the first things you notice are his natural attributes. He is 5-foot-11 with a heavyweight’s reach. But during his early years Hooker’s style negated his natural advantages. “He was an inside fighter when I got him,” Hooker’s trainer, Vince Parra explained. “He’s got an 80-inch reach, so I taught him how to fight long. Taught him that he was born with the power.”

Eager to maximize Hooker’s talents and natural advantages, Verbeek sought Parra as a trainer. Parra’s passion and intelligence impressed him. The three of them began working together in 2013 — they’ve since added a fourth member to their small group, Eddie Loco. They all have the same philosophy: The only way one learns how to fight is by fighting. And as Parra attempted to reconfigure Hooker’s style of fighting, he knew the only way to know if he could adapt was to put him in peril.

“I immediately took him to spar with elite fighters,” Parra said. “I took him to the Wild Card Gym [in Los Angeles] and I had him spar Ray Beltran. And then from there, he went with Miguel Cotto. And then from there he went with Ruslan Provodnikov. And he had bad days. … And you put him through deep water. You can see if he can swim and then you know if you have something to work with. … From that, we kept going.”

And as they kept progressing, fighting to make their name known, a few boxers that had hired Hooker as a sparring partner told him they’d rather not train with him anymore.

“I don’t drop names,” Parra said, “we’ve been with a lot of famous guys. But I can tell you at least two of the world champions he’s almost taken out. And we were asked to leave camp. I’ll just leave it at that.”

Hooker has fought his way from boxing obscurity to become a world champion. He’s fought his way from the tough streets of South Oak Cliff to training in idyllic San Diego. When he’s away from home, months at a time, he misses his kids.

“It gets harder,” Hooker, father of eight children, explains, “because my kids are growing up now. Now they know that daddy gone. I’m missing birthdays, graduations, field trips, father-and-daughter dance and all that. … It’s getting harder. But they know I’m doing it for a good reason, to make them have a better life.”

It’s this motivation that makes being away, more bearable. With that distance, he can focus on fighting. And it’s that fighting that’s now brought him back home.

Home. Where nothing has ever been easy for Hooker. Where nothing was ever handed to him. And where today, about halfway between the neighborhood he grew up in and Verbeek’s gym, there is a mural of Hooker. “Maurice Mighty Mo Hooker,” it reads, next to his picture.

“It’s amazing,” Hooker said of the mural. “It means everything.”

Home. Where Dallas is suffering through the highest homicide rates the city has had in decades. Where Hooker speaks to children at elementary schools and community centers. And in between the children asking how much money he makes and them swearing their father can beat him up, Hooker gives them advice.

He tells them jail and prison are real. That money comes and goes. He tells them they don’t have to throw their life away for little or nothing. Hooker tells them about his life, about his home, and where he came from. He tells them that they too can fight — if not literally then figuratively — to make something of themselves.

“I try to explain to all the young kids, just stay focused,” Hooker said. “Believe in yourself no matter what. Whatever you’re going through, believe in yourself.”

Home. Maurice Hooker returns home as a champion.