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August 10, 2018

Meet featherweight boxer Tevin Farmer, Philly's most unlikely world champ

From nearly drowning, to tearing his bicep, to being shot through the hand while protecting his family, Farmer's road to the top has been anything but easy...

Boxing Tevin Farmer
081018_Tevin-Farmer Joe Santoliquito/for PhillyVoice

IBF featherweight champion Tevin Farmer.

CHERRY HILL, N.J. — More than a few days had gone by and still, it seemed, Tevin Farmer had a hard time processing it all. He would look down at the world championship belt sitting on a folding chair to his right in the TKO Fitness Gym in Cherry Hill, N.J., a hemisphere away from his recent life-changing experience, then he would look down at the small mark in the middle of his right hand, then subtly touch the base of his right biceps.

The only thing missing were a pair of wet sneakers.

After three days, in the local gym where everyone believed in him — and hardly anyone outside did — Farmer finally found the gumption to place something well-earned around his waist Monday afternoon.

The newly-minted IBF super featherweight champion from Philadelphia, Pa., got up, grabbed the belt and for the first time wrapped it around himself. The 28-year-old southpaw doesn’t really know why he was so reluctant to put the world championship belt on, but maybe he still needed to be convinced he was among the world’s elite 130-pounders.

What was certain, because he lived through it, was everything it took to get Farmer here.

Boxing is often called the “Theater of the Unexpected,” and its new leading actor certainly defines every morsel of that phrase.

Spanning back from the time Farmer (26-4-1, 5 knockouts) defeated Australian Billy Dib (43-5, 24 KOs) to claim the vacant IBF title, in Dib’s own backyard at Technology Park in Redfern, Australia, on Friday, August 3, Farmer had endured a 16-month train wreck of events that defies belief.

He nearly drowned vacationing in Puerto Rico in March 2017, when heavy wet sneakers pulled him down in an underwater cave. A month later, in what was supposed to be a stay-busy fight against Arturo Santos Reyes at Temple University’s Liacouras Center, he tore his right bicep, which required surgery. The muscle tore from the bone and like a yo-yo rolled up to make a small grotesque mountain in his arm, yet he was still able to win nine rounds of a 10-round fight with one working arm.

Then in July, Farmer was shot through his right hand and told by a doctor that he would never fight again.

But Farmer’s odious run of luck wasn’t through there. Not by a long shot.

Boxing is a brutal, brutal, nasty business. It stinks. It tests your heart and your character. I wasn’t going to let it beat me.

His heart was stomped on when in December 2017 he lost a controversial decision to Japan’s Kenichi Ogawa for the vacant IBF super feather belt in Las Vegas. Many thought Farmer had won. In January 2018, the decision was overturned and ruled a no-decision when the Nevada State Athletic Commission revealed Ogawa tested positive for two forms of androstanediol (synthetic testosterone).

But that didn't change the way Farmer felt on the flight back from Vegas, when he suffered an anxiety attack. His body gripped up so badly that he clutched the arms of his window seat, struggling to breath.

“I expected to beat [Ogawa], and I knew I did, but if 2017 didn’t happen, none of this, the world championship, everything this year wouldn’t have happened,” said Farmer, a Strawberry Mansion High graduate. “I believe everything happens for a reason. That’s why I never complain about what’s gone on in my life, because it sets up for better things, and it depends on how you take it.

“You have to take it the right way. I think it’s one of the things I do well. I try to make things roll off my back. The night I tore by biceps, I was down, for a minute. I got over it. The night the doctor told me I’d never fight again after getting shot, I still came back to the gym. Nothing was going to keep me away from this [world championship belt]. Boxing is a brutal, brutal, nasty business. It stinks. It tests your heart and your character. I wasn’t going to let it beat me.

“Boxing is one of the worst sports. You get one loss, it’s over.”

Especially in this day and age of the “Sweet Science,” where instant world champions are created with less than 10 fights — some, like Vasiliy Lomachenko, are actually deserving of the titles they have. Most others are not.

Then there are fighters like Farmer. 

He came up wearing the “opponent” label, a tough guy who would provide a rising prospect, or “A-side” of a fight, with a good brawl. Though, in the end, fighters like Farmer were expected to lose. And that’s what he did through the first portion of his career — he lost to better, more experienced, more “supported” opponents (i.e. “Seabiscuit”).

In today’s world of boxing, it’s almost unheard of that a world titlist would begin his career with a 4-3-1 record, like Farmer. Most champions are cultivated, and well-heeled. They get TV dates. Farmer rose fighting on club show undercards in Philly before sparse crowds.

Trainer Chino “Bambino” Rivas could barely sit up without leaning in one direction or another, still fatigued on Monday from the Australian trip. Rivas was there when Farmer came back to the gym in an immobilizer, fastening his right arm to his side as he did pad work and hit the speed back with left after suffering the biceps injury and when he was recovering from the gunshot wound.

081018_Tevin-Farmer-BambinoJoe Santoliquito/For PhillyVoice

Tevin Farmer, left, and trainer Chino “Bambino” Rivas.

“There’s no one like him,” Rivas said about Farmer, adding extra emphasis to get his point across, “no one like him. Tevin is a warrior who digs down and refuses to be defined. It was a lot of hard work. I’ve been working with that kid for six years, and people used to tell me ‘Why are you wasting time with Tevin?’

“I would tell them that Tevin is special and I’m going to make him a world champion. He’s the face of 130 pounds today and our chemistry is so great, he never hears anyone but me in the ring. I want Tevin to enjoy this victory. I’m not a trainer blessed with all of the stuff these Russians with 300 amateur fights.

“I take a lot of pride in Tevin and with [former WBA super featherweight titlist] Jason Sosa. They were considered opponents when they were coming up, and not many gave either of them a chance.”

Rivas pointed out that Sosa and Farmer started their pro careers relatively late. Farmer didn’t start boxing until he was 19. Sosa had to go to China to beat Javier Fortuna in Beijing, in June 2016. Then, Team Farmer had to go to Australia to beat Dib.

“When Tevin won, it was very emotional for me,” Rivas said. “They all went out celebrating after Tevin won, and I cried the whole night. I lost my cousin, Oscar Suarez, who trained Naseem Hamed, and I learned a lot from him. The night Tevin won my brother sent me a text of Oscar and my dad, who also passed, talking about me in heaven. That got me.”

Like Farmer got through to famed New York promoter Lou DiBella.

DiBella had used Farmer as a late replacement in October 2012 to fight then-rising star Jose Pedraza — and Farmer delivered. He fought well, testing Pedraza, who will fight for the WBO lightweight title on Aug. 25. But Farmer did was he was expected to do — he lost. Still, DiBella made a mental note just how much of a tough out Farmer was, though nothing more than that.

I swear if the kid didn’t have bad luck, he wouldn’t have any luck at all. He recovers from the biceps, then he gets shot defending his sister and his family... he was a hero, really.

Fast forward a year later and DiBella was sitting in a bar watching a fight on TV, and the undefeated A-side fighter was having a tough time against “the opponent.” The “opponent” wound up winning, to the shock of the announcers and everyone else watching.

The “opponent” happened to be Farmer.

“When they mentioned the kid’s name, ‘Tevin Farmer,’ it rang a bell,” said DiBella, who famously revived the careers of Paulie Malignaggi, Arturo Gatti and Micky Ward, who were believed to be on the scrapheap before DiBella got to them. “I got [Farmer] the last two years, and just when we’re ready to make a move, he busted his biceps up.

“I swear if the kid didn’t have bad luck, he wouldn’t have any luck at all. He recovers from the biceps, then he gets shot defending his sister and his family. That was serious. The first two days after the shooting, the thought was that Tevin would never fight again. The good news came three or four days later. I knew Tevin didn’t get in trouble, because he’s too good of a kid. He was not only a victim, he was a hero, really. Most people didn’t know it, but Tevin’s hand was about 40-percent healthy for the [Ogawa fight].

“Tevin was used as an opponent from his pro debut. In this sport, the prevailing thought is if you lose, you’re done. I’ve never been a believer that the record should be the penultimate thing in judging a fighter, I’ve seen too many undefeated stiffs. The kid has a never-say-die attitude. He’s always smiling and upbeat, and I’ve seen him go through some depressing times. The time he was robbed in Vegas; the time he was shot. It’s the unlikeliest of stories. The kid believes so much in himself that he made me believe in him.”

Now the boxing world believes in Farmer.

DiBella’s goal is to get Farmer a payday. Farmer said he would like his first title defense to be in either Philadelphia or Atlantic City, possibly before the end of the year. Numerous major TV and streaming outlets are interested. There are also some attractive 130-pound challengers in unification fights against WBA champ Gervonta Davis, or WBO champ Masayuki Ito—but only if the money is right, DiBella stressed.

As for Farmer, he’s back in the gym. Rivas had to convince him to take a few days off, but Farmer couldn’t.

“This belt is mine now, and I know what I had to go through to get it, and I’m not giving it up,” Farmer said.

What world champ can say that they almost drowned, tore up their biceps, was shot in the hand and told their careers were over, then robbed by a decision all in one year?

It looks like the Theater of the Unexpected has a new leading man.

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