Last summer in Las Vegas, Joe Hipp had a chance to make boxing history as the first native American to challenge for the heavyweight title.
But Hipp, a member of the Blackfeet tribe, entered the ring with a layer of flab around his waistband and performed listlessly before being stopped on cuts by World Boxing Association champion Bruce Seldon in the 10th round.
"Forget being an Indian," said heavyweight Sam Hampton, the full-blooded Choctaw who fights Tony Frazier in the eight-round co-feature at Martin's West tomorrow night. "If I were getting $100,000, at least I'd show up in shape and fight my heart out. That's all I know how to do."
Pride in performance has always mattered to Hampton, whether he is working as his regular job as a pipe fitter in his adopted hometown of Virginia Beach, or training diligently to improve his growing reputation as an up-and-coming heavyweight.
He became known locally three years ago for his impromptu fight and knockout of then Orioles slugger Glenn Davis in a Virginia bar where Hampton was moonlighting as a bouncer.
"That's an incident I'd like to forget," he said. "I'm really a homebody who minds his own business. But when you see a sign that says, 'Beware of Dog!' you leave the dog alone."
Hampton has since legitimized his boxing career by compiling a 12-2-2 record with 10 knockouts. And his aggressive style and punching power has made him a crowd favorite.
After stopping Ken Myers in his most recent appearance here last November, Hampton had to fight his way through a mob of well-wishers.
Hampton also has attracted new financial backers from New York and Baltimore's legendary trainer, Mack Lewis, has been enlisted to improve his defense and balance and smooth some of his rough edges. It is all heady stuff for the 26-year-old native of Talihana, Okla., who never aspired to become a professional boxer.
"When I was 19 and starting college, a friend encouraged me to enter a 'Toughman' tournament in Tulsa," he said. "The first guy I fought weighed 320 pounds, but I stopped him in 20 seconds."
Three more victories and he was sporting a championship belt. But it was only his inability to gain a football scholarship that turned him to boxing.
"Coming out of high school, I was rated the third-best fullback in Oklahoma, " said Hampton, whose 6-foot, 240-pound frame is solid muscle. "I played a year at a junior college and had schools like Arkansas interested in me, but they all wanted me to start as a walk-on."
He elected to sit out a year at Northeastern Oklahoma, but when money from his Indian scholarship fund evaporated, Hampton set his college ambitions aside.
"I've always been kind of self-reliant," said Hampton, a service brat who followed his father, a Naval officer, to assignments in Hawaii and California. "When my father got transferred to Norfolk, I was 13, and I stayed in Oklahoma with my older brothers and sisters."
When he turned 19, his father persuaded him to move to Norfolk, where he began working as a pipe fitter. After finishing his job, he would work out at a boxing gym in Portsmouth, Va. After
boxing a few rounds with Hampton, Virginia attorney John Tripp was convinced his sparring partner had pro potential.
Hampton won his first three matches before losing to Lynwood Jones.
"The promoter pulled a last-minute switch on Sam," said Tripp, now his manager. "Jones had served as one of Larry Holmes' sparring partners and had too much experience."
Hampton's only other setback was in December of 1994, when he was stopped in two rounds by Ray Anis in Lenyards, Conn. But that loss also came with an explanation.
"I was in Ireland coaching a Navy team," said Hampton's full-time trainer, Mark Albright. "We got George Benton to work with Sam that night. Benton is a great trainer, but doesn't know how Sam fights. Anis caught him early, and when Sam went into a protective crouch, Benton thought he was really hurt and stopped it."
Hampton has since reeled off quick knockouts against obscure competition. But after watching him dispatch Juan Quintana in Scranton last October, Lewis said, "The way he attacks the body and finishes his man, he reminds me of a young Rocky Marciano."
Hampton is fighting almost monthly and making steady progress.
"By the end of 1996, Sam Hampton will be a heavyweight to be reckoned with," predicted Albright. "He'll be like a lightning bolt from nowhere."
Where: Martin's West, Woodlawn
When: Tomorrow, first preliminary bout, 7:30
Featured bout: Sam Hampton (12-2-2), Virginia Beach, vs. Tony Frazier, Washington, heavyweights, eight rounds
Co-feature: Ed Griffin, Baltimore, vs. Ray Goddard, Washington, jr. welterweights, eight rounds
Tickets: $40, $30, $20. Call (410) 528-1932.