The bell rang for Charlie Hammond on Monday. It was the last round – the round at the end of a fight where conditioning and will and guts he taught to hundreds of kids over the years in a dingy gym is all that is left.
Courage would separate the winner from the loser, Hammond taught for decades at the Rock Hill Boxing Club. He would say that as his tattooed Marines forearms would throw phantom punches, and his iron jaw would crack a grin.
The game was not boxing, but life. The fee was always the same: Zero.
Hammond trained these almost all-poor and almost all-black youngsters until his health became too poor a couple of years ago, and Hammond moved into a nursing home.
Finally, a few days ago, there were no more gloves and rings and title belts – just hospice. And then Monday, even Charlie Hammond could not answer the bell.
Hammond – as tough a guy as ever opened his heart and his boxing club to those who needed somebody to tell those kids that each of them mattered – died at age 82. A memorial service at the gym will be scheduled at a later date.
“He just loved going to the gym, helping out the kids,” said Hammond’s wife of 54 years, Marjorie Hammond, a boxing judge herself who, in 2008, was elected to the Carolinas Boxing Hall of Fame two years after her husband.
“We called them our kids. Boxing, it is like a family.”
On Saturday, a former world champion from Charlotte named Kelvin Seabrooks went to that hospice and sat by Hammond’s bed. He stayed for hours and cried for the man who “was like a father to me.”
“Charlie Hammond and his wife loved me,” said Seabrooks, a world title holder in 1987 and 1988 in the bantamweight division who works with kids just as Hammond did. “He wanted me to be somebody in life and helped me succeed.
“I loved him. He cared about me. He was a father figure.”
Cedric Mingo of Lancaster is the one local professional champ trained by Hammond. Mingo even moved in with the Hammonds before his 1990 featherweight title fight. Mingo made it a few days ago to see the man he loved like family.
“I lost a friend in Charlie Hammond, a man who believed in me,” said Mingo, who runs his family’s septic tank business. “He and his wife took me into their home for training. He wanted me to be a champion and did all he could to help me.
“He wanted me to succeed in life.”
There is no sign on the door at the Rock Hill Boxing Club. The gym and ring and leather equipment and that smell of work and sweat all sit behind two red-painted doors in what used to be an old custodians’ storage room at the city’s Emmett Scott community center.
One door has a deadbolt, the other a padlock.
There is no sign because those who enter have to be prepared to suffer the humiliation of learning how to be tough through grueling work. Toughness is not for fighting; it is for life.
Inside those doors is where Charlie and Marge Hammond unlocked dreams for hundreds of Rock Hill kids since 1989 – and still do.
The poor and the broke, the troubled and the hungry arrived in that windowless, dingy, sweat-choked room not knowing a thing about boxing – but looking for something to take them away from the streets and troubles outside.
Alonzo Lumpkin of Rock Hill, who fought amateur bouts for years under Hammond’s tutelage, said Hammond taught much more than boxing.
Lumpkin went from the gym to college at Winthrop University, and after graduating started working at Rock Hill’s Williams & Fudge financial company.
“Boxing and the Hammonds steered me toward my future,” Lumpkin said. “Mr. Hammond, he was a good, strong and yes, a tough guy. But at the same time he took me and others under his wing and showed us so much. He believed in me.”
Charlie Hammond – the ex-Marine who somehow survived the brutal Battle of Chosin Reservoir in Korea in 1950 with a Purple Heart for his wounds and feet that almost froze off of his legs, who had started boxing in the Marines in 1946 when he enlisted at age 17 at 116 pounds – trained all of those young kids willing to listen.
He trained them all about perseverance and conditioning and diligence.
Hammond refereed hundreds of bouts around the country, was chief of amateur boxing officials for South Carolina for 28 years and was in charge of gloves at the Atlanta 1996 Olympics. He ran the Come-See-Me bouts in Rock Hill for years.
The Hammonds had four children of their own – the three boys were all decorated amateur boxers before going on to other fields. The Hammonds also found time to own and run a siding and roofing company for more than 30 years.
But even with the champions like Mingo and Seabrooks, it is the boxing club that might be Charlie Hammond’s greatest legacy. His wife, Marjorie – the two were always a team – still opens the doors almost every weeknight.
Hammond’s goal was never to see any kid turn into a puncher or a brute. The club is a nonprofit that has always survived through the generosity of the Hammonds themselves. The money they have spent on these young kids and young adults is uncountable.
Some kids would come and stay days and be scared off by the work regimen. Others stayed years.
And through all those years, those red doors would swing open into that gym full of leather and canvas. The smell would knock back the weak-kneed.
Hammond would take all who dared to enter and stay, offer his knowledge of guts and service learned in a lifetime of Marine Corps toughness and boxing matches, and tell every kid to try to be great.
There is no plaque outside the gym in honor of Hammond, just as there is no sign. Those who know what is inside know who was there to help them. Marge Hammond is still there.
And for so long, Charlie Hammond was there, too.