Almost drowned, torn biceps, shot and robbed, in the end, Tevin Farmer just wouldn’t be denied
Cherry Hill, N.J. — Each time Tevin Farmer would approach the metal case in the morning dawn, it came with a Christmas Eve, child-like wonderment, almost as if trying to convince himself what ensued a half-a-world away actually happened. Amid answering the myriad congratulatory phone calls and text messages, showing off his new hardware on FaceTime, the newly minted IBF junior lightweight champion from Philadelphia did manage to get a few winks of sleep this weekend.
Then it would occur again at two in the morning, then at three, and then at around 4:30, the compulsion to get up out of bed, tip-toe toward the source of his energy, gently open the silver case and gaze down at the red championship belt, openly saying to himself, “I’m really a world champion, I’m really a world champion, I’m really a world champion.”
You have to fully encompass what’s happened to the 28-year-old southpaw in a 16-month span to appreciate Farmer’s journey. In March of 2017, he nearly drowned vacationing in Puerto Rico, then one month later tore his right biceps, which required surgery, winning nine rounds of a 10-round fight with one arm. Then in July, he was shot through his right hand and told by a doctor that he would never fight again.
That all came before he had his boxing soul shredded in December 2017, when he lost a controversial decision to Kenichi Ogawa for the vacant IBF junior lightweight belt in Las Vegas, a fight many thought Farmer had won, only to have the decision ruled a no-contest when Ogawa tested positive for androstanediol.
Then came Friday, and everything that had transpired Farmer (26-4-1, 5 knockouts) used to erupt in a near-shutout performance over Australian Billy Dib (43-5, 24 KOs) to claim the vacant IBF title, in Dib’s backyard, at Technology Park in Redfern, Australia.
If there is a boxing version of “Seabiscuit”, Farmer is it. He didn’t start boxing until the relatively late age of 19, and when he did turn pro, he was used as an opponent, not expected to win, but to make the A-side look good. He was 7-4-1 over his first 12 fights.
“I’ve had a lot of things go against me ever since I started,” said Farmer, sitting in the TKO Fitness gym on Monday afternoon in Cherry Hill, N.J., showing off his title belt to his training buddies. “With everything I’ve been through, I was able to overcome it and this [looking at the championship belt] makes it all worthwhile. I tore my biceps on April 29 , had surgery the following weeks, and only a few months later, I was shot in the right hand on July 29.
“I don’t want to get into the gun shot. It was at a family party, and it’s something I don’t like speaking about that much. But yeah, you can say I’ve been through a lot. I’m the type of guy who doesn’t take ‘No’ for an answer. I never, ever thought my career would be over after all of the stuff that’s happened to me. I wondered what I had to do to come back.
“But I knew I would come back—after the biceps injury and then being shot. I have to get ‘2017’ tatted to me, because it’s a year I’ll never forget. It’s probably the worst year of my life. None of this would have happened if I didn’t go through everything that went on in 2017. It’s why I don’t believe in giving up. Life changes constantly.”
Farmer should know.
In a 10-round, stay-busy fight on April 29, 2017 against Arturo Santos Reyes at Temple University’s Liacouras Center in Philadelphia, Farmer suffered a grotesque injury where his right biceps tore from the bone and rolled up into his arm. Still, Farmer continued to fight. He bulled through a unanimous victory and had surgery to correct the biceps the following week.
In the meantime, he kept going over to the TKO Gym, hitting the heavy bag with his left arm, while his right arm was fastened to his side by an immobilizer. Then in July 2017 came a family party, where an argument ensued. According to Lou DiBella, Farmer’s promoter, the father of Farmer’s niece left the party following an altercation, then returned with some friends. One was carrying a gun. During an attempt to disarm him, Farmer was shot in his hand, while Farmer’s brother was grazed in the head.
“I remember seeing Tevin in the hospital and asking the doctor how long it will be before Tevin could get back into the ring, and the doctor turned to me and said, ‘His career is done, it’s a really, really bad injury,’” said Chino “Bambino” Rivas, Farmer’s trainer whose eyes were still at half-mast recovering from the Australia trip. “After the doctor said that, Tevin looked at me, and he doesn’t get emotional, but his eyes got a little bit watery.
“I told Tevin don’t listen to him. Five months later, we were fighting Ogawa for the [vacant] IBF belt. He came here every day working with his left hand, doing pad work, hitting the bag. Tevin is a warrior who digs down. He makes my job easier because I can push him and he responds very well, never questioning anything. Yeah, Tevin is like Seabiscuit. He’s this small guy who was put in to lose early in his career and he proved you can have some losses in this sport and still be a champion.”
Rivas has been working with Farmer for six years. When they first got together, Rivas would get asked, “Why are you wasting time with Tevin?”
“I thought Tevin was special and I promised his family that good things were going to happen,” Rivas said. “He has this great focus. When he’s in the ring, he doesn’t hear anyone. He locks in with me. I take a lot of pride in Tevin and with [former WBA ‘regular’ junior lightweight titlist] Jason Sosa. They were considered opponents when they were coming up, and not many gave either of them a chance.
“They both started late. They didn’t have hardly any amateur background. They weren’t blessed like these Russian fighters with 300 amateur fights and Olympic-style backgrounds. Here we are. We had to go to China for Jason [who beat Javier Fortuna in Beijing, in June 2016]. Then we had to go to Australia to beat Dib. When Tevin won, it was very emotional for me. They all went out celebrated 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. My brother sent me a text of Oscar and my dad, who also passed, talking about me in heaven after Tevin won.
“Between all of the love for Tevin and that message, I had a chance to celebrate.”
In March 2017, Farmer almost drowned. He jumped into a river with sneakers into an underwater cave area. The rocks were too slippery to hold on to, and Farmer’s wet sneakers were heavy and pulling him under the water. The future champ yelled for Rivas and Nick Rosario, Rivas’ second. Rivas grabbed Farmer’s waterproof iPhone 7, using the light from the phone to track down Farmer in pitch-black darkness.
“It was an amazing experience, I want to do it again, but without the sneakers next time,” said Farmer, laughing.
“Without that phone, I wouldn’t have found him and he would have drowned, and I would have drowned, because I wasn’t leaving without him and I had no idea where to go,” Rivas said. “I couldn’t see anything. The cave was deep. That was a little scary. That was the first thing that happened to Tevin in 2017—or almost happened to him. If 2017 didn’t happen, Tevin wouldn’t have had the year he had this year.”
DiBella goes back six years with Farmer. The popular New York promoter brought Farmer in on a week’s notice to fight budding star Jose Pedraza. Farmer, who was 7-3-1 at the time, gave Pedraza a fight before being stopped in the eighth round of a scheduled eight-rounder. But DiBella made a mental note that if someone had gotten Farmer when he first started boxing, where could he be?
DiBella, who’s had a habit of reviving the dormant careers of Paulie Malignaggi, Arturo Gatti and Micky Ward, saw something in the Philly southpaw.
“Tevin was used as an opponent from his pro debut,” DiBella said. “I remember about a year after the Pedraza fight, I was sitting in a bar watching one of [Oscar] De La Hoya’s prospects and this guy giving the undefeated prospect hell. When they mentioned the kid’s name, ‘Tevin Farmer,’ it rang a bell. I got him the last two years, and just when we’re ready to make a move, he busted his biceps up.
“He recovered from that and he got shot in the hand 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].”
What made DiBella believe in Farmer … “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,” he said. “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. The kid believes so much in himself that he made me believe in him.
“Undeniably, the boxing talent is there. He didn’t have an amateur career. How many guys go 7-4-1 and go on and win a world title? Forget about the shooting, the near-drowning, the exploded biceps, and the robbery. It’s the unlikeliest of stories.”
DiBella’s goal is to take care of Farmer and get him a big payday. Farmer’s first title defense could be in either Philadelphia or Atlantic City sometime in November or December. Eddie Hearn’s streaming online DAZN and ESPN are both interested in Farmer. There’s also some great matchups ahead, like possibly a showdown with 23-year-old WBA junior lightweight champ Gervonta Davis, or WBO titleholder Masayuki Ito in another unification fight—if the money is right.
“This kid has never made any money, I feel it’s my responsibility to help him come up with a game plan to make some money,” DiBella said of Farmer. “Tevin has an infectious personality, and he’s the kind of kid who you love to root for. He’s the biggest personification of the underdog that I’ve seen in boxing in a long time.
“His underdog story is right up there. He was 7-3-1 who everyone told me was better than his record.”
After he lost to Pedraza, Farmer told DiBella, “You’re going to see me again sometime.”
Now the boxing world is paying attention.
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