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Benitez has always been a brilliant defensive fighter, sometimes at the expense of his offense. D'Amato delicately suggested a few changes that would improve Benitez' attack while taking nothing away from his defense. Benitez would listen intently and nod but....
"See, I know this fellow, Hamsho. He's an aggressive guy," D'Amato said. "He keeps coming, almost on a straight line. Now he can absorb the punches because he sees them coming. Now Benitez can punch a lot harder than people think. But he doesn't punch; he just comes out to outbox opponents with his smarts. I talked to him about moving side to side and punching. With Hamsho coming on a straight line, Benitez can move to the side and hit with maximum power and not be afraid of being hit, because Hamsho won't be in a position to hit him."
During training, Benitez showed no inclination to adopt D'Amato's suggestion. Instead he tried to refine a defense that was already perfect. Meanwhile, Hamsho, a 29-year-old native of Latakia, Syria, practiced doing what he does best: hitting other people. He recounts with great pride his prowess as a street brawler in Syria. "I fight so much that every day I need a new shirt, and every day they throw me out of school," he says. "I live in a tough neighborhood and sometimes it was hell. You fought to survive. You fought because you are bored. You were young, and you had nothing else to do."
Hamsho was thrown out of school in the fifth grade and went to work for his father in a grocery store. As an amateur boxer he won 31 fights, lost one. In 1969 he was the Syrian junior middleweight amateur champion. Then he went to work as a seaman. In 1974 he jumped ship in Providence and headed for New York City, where he hooked up with Flood at the Gramercy Gym on 14th Street.
"I noticed him because he was always trying to help somebody," says Hamsho, who now lives in Bayonne, N.J. "In the beginning he gave me hope. He kept me alive; he carried me. He saw something in me. It was my anger. In the gym I'd fight anybody who'd stand in front of me. Even heavyweights. I always had guts. He always told me to be a boxer, that I didn't have to beat up everybody I fought."
In his early professional career, before he got his green card as a resident alien in 1978, Hamsho fought under the names of Rocky Estafire, Mike Estaire and Mike Estafire. He lost his first pro fight in 1975, and then fought 34 times without a defeat until meeting Hagler in 1981.
"I've got no excuses for the Hagler fight," Hamsho says. "I was too cocky. I didn't respect the guy. I wasn't worried about his punching. I didn't listen to anybody. I caught every punch he threw. Now I listen to people."
When Flood died, of a cerebral hemorrhage, Hamsho was devastated. On Father's Day, he went to Flood's grave. "He was like a father to me," Hamsho said. "I'm not fighting Benitez to get another fight at Hagler. I'm fighting for me and for Paddy. I'm fighting because I want to prove I'm Number One, not by politics but because of my ability." For the final week of training, Certo brought in Al Salvani, a 73-year-old cornerman from California, for his skill as a cut man and for his counsel. Salvani went right to work. First he told Hamsho to forget about Benitez' head. "His head will feint you crazy," said Salvani. "Ignore it. All I want you to hit is anywhere between his collarbones and his belt buckle. And I want your punches short and all from underneath. Dig. They're the most damaging punches. And he thinks you are going to come straight at him. Don't. Move side to side. Annoy him. You don't go straight at nobody. Never."
After a week, Salvani shook his head as he watched Hamsho work. "He's a marvel," Salvani said. "You tell him something once and he does it like he's been doing it all his life. Before, all he wanted to do was work, work. work. You couldn't stop him. Now he listens to me. He says, 'Whatever you tell me, I do.' I think he respects me."
Hamsho introduced himself to Benitez very quickly. In the opening seconds he rushed across the ring, drove Benitez into the ropes with a forearm chop to the throat and then slammed a straight left to the face. Benitez' eyes opened wide. No one had ever treated him so roughly. Then Hamsho, a southpaw, went to work on Benitez' body. By the second round Benitez was flinching as Hamsho slammed shot after shot at the Salvani target zone.