Boxing legend ‘Hurricane Hamas’ has roots in Happy Valley

Despite his boxing talent, Hamas eventually became an opponent of the sport. “I didn’t like (boxing) and never intended to take it up, but was drafted when Penn State ran short of heavyweights.”
Despite his boxing talent, Hamas eventually became an opponent of the sport. “I didn’t like (boxing) and never intended to take it up, but was drafted when Penn State ran short of heavyweights.”

They called him Hurricane, or the Passaic Pounder.

When Steven Vincent Hamas, 28 years old, 6-foot-1, weighing in at 190 pounds, climbed through the ropes and into the ring in Hamburg, Germany, on March 10, 1935, some were calling him the top contender for boxing’s heavyweight crown.

Hamas, a Penn State graduate, had compiled a record of 35-3-2, with 27 of those wins coming via knockout. The man in the corner across from him, former heavyweight champion Max Schmeling, had already contributed to Hamas’ win column. Hamas beat Schmeling on points the year before, in February 1934, in Philadelphia. A second victory over the German would almost guarantee a shot at heavyweight champion Max Baer.

But it was not to be for the former collegiate champ. Old newspaper accounts describe a terrible lacing in which Schmeling pummeled Hamas for most of the fight and knocked him to the canvas multiple times. Old footage of the fight on YouTube shows the bout in its entirety. By the ninth round, the referee stops the fight and raises Schmeling’s arm in victory.

The two men embrace briefly and touch heads, a sign of respect. Hamas’ trainer wraps a towel around his head before the grainy footage cuts to black. It was the first and only time in his professional career Hamas would not finish a fight.

Newspaper photos depict Schmeling, surrounded by handlers, including his Jewish manager Joe Jacobs, with his arm raised again, this time giving the Nazi salute. Less than a year later, Schmeling would knock out another American, Joe Louis, at Yankee Stadium, handing the legendary fighter his first of only three career losses. Louis returned the favor in 1938. Then heavyweight champion, he hospitalized Schmeling after a brutal one-round pounding of a symbolic bout that foreshadowed the fight between America and Nazi Germany that would become all too real for millions of people in a few short years.

While Schmeling would eventually get another crack at the title, the chance would never come for his opponent on March 10, 1935.

In, fact, Hurricane Hamas would never fight again.

The first bell

Ten years before that fateful trip to Germany, Hamas made another trip, this time from his native Passaic, N.J., to State College to begin studies at Penn State, then known as Penn State College.

He would join a familiar face there. His older brother, Mike, was already on campus and was captain of the basketball team. Steve would join him on the hardwood during winters in Happy Valley. Hamas also played football and would become a starter at fullback during his sophomore year.

He had never laced up a pair of gloves before arriving in central Pennsylvania. That would soon change.

Boxing, then arguably the most popular sport in the nation, was an NCAA-sanctioned varsity sport in those days. Penn State’s team was coached by International Boxing Hall of Famer Leo Houck. The colorful Houck, spurred by a lack of heavyweights on the team, asked Hamas to try out a few days before the collegiate tournament. Hamas obliged and won the title.

It was an opportune time to take up the Sweet Science at Penn State, university sports historian Lou Prato said.

A portion of Prato’s latest book, “100 Things Penn State Fans Should Know And Do Before They Die,” is devoted to Hamas. The years after Hamas came to the university saw administrators choose to de-emphasize athletics and do away with scholarships, Prato said, causing a decline in interest in the other sports Hamas played.

“Meanwhile, boxing became the No. 1 sport at Penn State and particularly, it became the No. 1 indoor sport,” Prato said.

Old photos show a then-new and modern Rec Hall filled to capacity for boxing meets. The fans had a lot to cheer for. Hamas was individual collegiate heavyweight champion again in 1929, and Houck’s squad was perennial contenders for national championships.

His athletic interests weren’t limited to boxing, basketball and football. To this day, Hamas is the only Penn Stater to earn 12 varsity letters during a tenure at the university, and was the first of two men to earn five letters in one year. During his senior year, Hamas lettered in football, basketball, boxing, track and lacrosse. Only Rowan “Tubby” Crawford would repeat that feat in the early 1940s.

Turning pro

Hamas graduated from Penn State in 1929 with a pre-med degree and he returned to New Jersey. He was assistant football coach at his old high school while playing one season of professional football for the Orange (N.J.) Tornadoes during the 1929 season before finally deciding to return to the ring as a professional.

Hamas had hoped to become a surgeon and planned to fight long enough to earn money for medical school. He would never fulfill his dream of becoming a doctor: he was soon married with two children and stayed in the fight game to support his family.

As he had in college, Hamas had immediate success as a professional fighter. He won his first 29 fights and would eventually notch victories over the legendary Tommy Loughran, a Hall of Famer and former light heavyweight champion, before beating Schmeling in Philadelphia in 1934.

The last bell

Hamas’ victory over Schmeling catapulted the collegian to become a top contender to fight Baer for the championship. Shortly afterward, Hamas graced the cover of The Bible of Boxing, The Ring magazine, which ran an article heralding Hamas as a possible match for the champion. He defeated another top contender, Art Lasky, months later and rumors began circulating that a title fight against Baer was in the works.

Instead, Baer balked. Schmeling’s manager offered Charley Harvey, Hamas’ trainer, a hefty purse to travel to Germany for a rematch, which the old manager accepted.

It was a fight that should have been postponed. Both Hamas and Harvey recounted after the bout that Hamas suffered an injury to his left arm while training in Germany, was unable to spar in the weeks before the fight and led to the disastrous, lopsided outcome.

“I was doing all right for two rounds until I felt something pop in my left shoulder,” Hamas said years later. “That means I couldn’t use my left hook, my best punch.”

Hamas offered another explanation to another sports writer in later years.

“I have no alibi. He just knocked hell out of me,” Hamas said.

As for Baer, he would eventually fight and lose to James J. Braddock, of “Cinderella Man” fame, about three months after Hamas’ last match.

After the last bell

The Schmeling fight took a heavy physical toll on Hamas.

He said he was unable to remember much of the match after the second round. He was hospitalized with nerve and eye damage afterward. Parts of his body were numb for weeks. That was enough to cause Hamas to not only hang up the gloves for good, but advocate for the change, even the abolition, of boxing in later years.

While Hamas cited other reasons for boxing reform, like corruption, it was the risk of severe injury and death that caused his call for boxing’s elimination. After more than 20 years, the Schmeling fight still weighed on him.

“The referee can’t always tell how bad a man is hurt. Neither can a doctor,” Hamas said in a wire story that ran in The Philadelphia Inquirer in April 1957. “A man can take a brutal beating in the ring and perhaps be injured for life. It almost happened to me in my second fight with Max Schmeling and it scared me so much that I quit boxing for good.”

NCAA officials must have agreed. They dropped the collegiate boxing championships in 1960. Penn State dropped the sport earlier in the 1950s. Today, boxing at Penn State is still alive and well as a club sport.

Hamas worked several jobs after boxing. He served in the Army Air Forces during World War II, served in the European Theatre and rose to the rank of major. His duties included developing physical fitness and training programs for airmen. He authored a booklet called Stratosphere Stamina that was distributed throughout the service for that purpose.

After the war, Prato said Hamas worked as a copper salesman. Obituaries, as well as Prato’s book, fill in the blanks of the rest of his life. He retired from the New Jersey Department of Motor Vehicles in 1974 and died shortly afterward at the age of 67.

While Hamas always acknowledged the opportunities the sport provided him, he repeatedly told sports writers after his retirement that he never actually enjoyed boxing.

“I didn’t like it and never intended to take it up, but was drafted when Penn State ran short of heavyweights,” Hamas was quoted as saying in a 1954 article in the Centre Daily Times.