When Sean Hemphill steps into the ring this Friday night in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, it’s the biggest fight of his young pro career as he takes on fellow unbeaten David Stevens on Showtime’s ShoBox series.
But there may be something missing for the Louisiana native, who is used to a different kind of fighting on a Friday night.
“It's a wild show,” laughs Hemphill when asked about Mike Tata’s Friday Night Fights series in New Orleans, where he made his bones as an amateur, trying to keep up with his fists to entertain fans who had other pulls for their attention over the course of the evening.
“It's definitely a little bit more than boxing going on,” he continues. “But it's actually great for entertainment. So in between the boxing fights, they might have a performance with a chick swallowing a sword or something like that, or spitting fire throughout the crowd. Or they might have a rap performance or burlesque dancing going on. It gets wild and crazy, I swear. But it makes the show.”
The local fights kept Hemphill busy when he wasn’t on the road doing tournaments, and forced him to stay focused on the task at hand without running out into the crowd from the locker room to see some fire spitting or sword swallowing.
For the most part.
“I might take a stool and look out the window to see what's going on and be like, ‘Oh my God, look at this.”
Ah, boxing. But the Wild Wild West aspect of the sport didn’t prompt Hemphill to turn to more sedate pursuits. He was all-in. And in a way, he was just carrying on the family business, as his father Stephen was a two-time world champion in kickboxing who did some boxing in the U.S. Army, where he sparred with Ray Mercer. But when it came to his son’s ultimate combat sports goals, they were all in the sweet science after a little dabbling in kickboxing and sanshou. And dad was cool with that.
Yet as a chase for a place on the 2020 U.S. Olympic team turned into a desire to enter the pro ranks in 2019, it was a brand new world for Hemphill to get used to.
Enter Adam Glenn, whose family is royalty in the business thanks to his dad, Jimmy, the late trainer, cutman and manager whose bar in midtown NYC, Jimmy’s Corner, has been a must-visit destination for the boxing public for decades. Adam, a Harvard-educated lawyer, grew up in the boxing business, so it wasn’t a surprise when he entered it - not as a lawyer, but a manager, and one day, he got a call from Tata, a longtime family friend, about Hemphill.
“I even remember from back then, he (Tata) called me and my dad, and he said, ‘There's a kid down here who can really, really fight. He's been on my shows and there’s something special about this kid.’ We brought him up to New York to spar with one of our fighters up here, and from minute one, I think the talent was just obvious. You could see he had potential.”
That’s the beauty of the prospect. It’s like spring training in baseball; optimism reigns and everybody has championship potential. But who has that special something that separates good fighters from the elite, or champions from stars? Glenn believes Hemphill has the whole package, in and out of the ring.
“He's a very slick, classy boxer,” said Glenn. “But, for me, a lot of it is also just character and personality and the person they are. And Shawn's a great person. I think we clicked right away because we have very similar relationships with our dads with that growing up in the sport. And I just thought he was a great young man then and a great man now. Obviously, if he didn't have the boxing talent, me and him would just be friends. We wouldn't be manager and fighter. But he puts it all together and I think he understands this. He's humble, he works really, really hard, and I've never had to chase him to do what he needs to do.”
In response, all the 27-year-old has done is win, compiling a 14-0 record with eight knockouts. It’s put him in the perfect spot to be tested and showcased against a fellow prospect on ShoBox, and in the 11-0 Stevens, he’ll get both this Friday. It’s a big deal, and he knows it.
“Actually, right now I'm looking at it just as another fight, even though I know how big this one is,” Hemphill said. “I know what it could do for my career, so I'm definitely focused and locked in and ready to do it. But I'm just taking it like a regular fight. This is what I do, this is what I've been training for, this is what I've been working for. So it feels pretty normal to me at this point. I'm just happy, I'm healthy and ready to go.”
He’s calm in the line of fire before the most important moment of his career. It may also be the same kind of moment for Glenn, who sounds cool and collected on fight week as he readies to take the next step to the big stage. Dad would be proud, even if he took a little convincing when his son decided to enter this grimiest of businesses.
“My dad always directed me away from boxing when I was a little kid and I think that’s because he understood what a tough sport it is and what a tough business it is,” Adam recalled. “So when I was a kid, he'd bring me to the gym and I would train and I would work out. But he would always say, ‘You're not going to be a fighter.’ I think my dad wanted different things for me. He didn't get to go to school. So I did and I could go do these other things that he didn't get to do. He wanted me to go to school as long as I could, until there was no more school to go to. And then when I was a lawyer, he was really happy with that. But my dad also always encouraged me to do whatever I really loved doing. And I think he realized that I just loved boxing independent of him and that's what I wanted to do. There was a quick minute when I stopped being a lawyer and I started running the bar and I started managing fighters and my dad was like, ‘You got a good job. You're making good money. Why are you doing this?’ I just told him the truth. I was like, ‘You took me on the road too much when I was a kid.’ It gets in your system and you love it.”
Now he’s on the road again, this time with his own fighter, and it’s a responsibility he takes seriously. That dedication is appreciated by Hemphill, whose circle includes his dad, Glenn and trainer Buddy McGirt. All respected figures in the game who aren’t going to steer him wrong. In this world, that kind of experience and integrity is invaluable. And it also leaves Hemphill to focus on life inside the ropes as he makes his way up the super middleweight ladder.
“It's a big relief,” said Hemphill. “It's nice knowing that you have a team that you can actually trust and they're behind you a hundred percent of the way. It makes it easier for me to focus on the fight, the task at hand. My mind is clear, and all I got to do is focus on what I need to do, as opposed to worrying about ‘Are they doing something over here? Are they doing these things behind my back?’ I'm not really questioning too much of the circumstances, so I could just focus on my job, which is getting in the ring and doing my best.”
That’s all Glenn wants from his fighter, one he thinks can go as far as he wants to in the coming years.
“I believe he can go all the way,” said Glenn. “I always have. And I think from even very early on when we were talking about his career when he was an amateur, we believed that. Sean has all the talent and all the tools to take boxing to the limit. And he works hard enough to do that. I'm not taking anything away from Stevens because I think he's a talented kid and a good fighter, but Sean can dictate this fight. He can dominate this fight with the talent that he has. It's up to him to go out and do it.”
Even without sword swallowing and burlesque shows between fights? Is Hemphill a little disappointed that won’t be happening at the Wind Creek Events Center?
“A little bit,” Hemphill laughs. “If they did, I’d feel right at home with all that type of crazy stuff. But nah, I'm just excited for the opportunity and to be able to display my skills and my talent and all my hard work that I put in up until this point. So yeah, I'm just happy to be here and ready to seize the moment.”
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