By Thomas Hauser
Craig Hamilton is a Jesse Ventura look-alike. Strong, barrel-chested,
fifty three years old, with a clean-shaven head and deep booming voice.
He's also one of the most knowledgeable and honest men in a business
not known for candor. He's a boxing memorabilia dealer.
Hamilton was born and raised on Long Island. His parents worked for
Grumman Aircraft. His sister was the second policewoman in the history
of Suffolk County. Hamilton has taught high school history; worked as
a laborer for the Long Island Lighting Company; was an investigator for
the Suffolk County Department of Social Services; loaded and unloaded
trucks; put in time as a claims adjuster for an insurance company; and
been a partner in a real estate venture that purchased land for
subdivision and the construction of new homes. He's now one of the
world's foremost experts on boxing memorabilia.
Hamilton's interest in boxing began when he was young. His uncle,
Frankie Ryan, was a welterweight who peaked in the 1920s and beat some
highly regarded fighters, including Jimmy Duffy and Phil "KO" Kaplan.
Ryan was also a heavy drinker who lived the fast life. After retiring
from boxing, he was working for the New York Herald when a ream of
paper fell on him and crushed his chest. A subsequent stroke left him
bedridden for life.
"I visited my uncle as often as I could," Hamilton remembers. "He
me of the great days of boxing and how he rode the rails from town to
town. He claimed to have met Jack Dempsey when Dempsey was doing the
same thing. My uncle was the person responsible for my taking up
collecting. It started with his stuff; a few photos and a press
release. Then I got into saving newspaper write-ups of fights, photos
of different fighters, and boxing cards. Things mushroomed from there."
Hamilton now has what he considers to be one of the world's two best
collections of boxing memorabilia. Stanley Weston, who owned Ring
Magazine and died in 2002, amassed the other. "Weston had a fabulous
collection of fight-worn gloves," Hamilton acknowledges. "Auctioned
off side-by-side, I'd say that our collections would bring in
comparable dollars. Put them together and you'd have Nirvanah."
The strength of Hamilton's collection is in its diversity. He owns
championship belts and trophies that belonged to James Jeffries, Jack
Dempsey, Benny Leonard, Willie Pep, Joe Louis, Archie Moore, Sugar Ray
Robinson, Sandy Saddler, Rocky Marciano, and Muhammad Ali. He also has
robes, trunks, and gloves worn by Ali, Emile Griffith, Salvador
Sanchez, Alexis Arguello, Sugar Ray Leonard, and Roberto Duran. The
"paper" items in his collection include on-site posters for Clay-Liston
I, Ali-Foreman, and Ali Frazier I, II and III.
Hamilton has also assembled a library of two thousand books on boxing
with titles that date to the sixteenth century.
"I've been collecting boxing books since I was a kid," he acknowledges.
"Some of the favorites from my collection are Pancratia by William
Oxberry and Boxiana by Pierce Egan, which is a boxed set in the
original boards. I wouldn't claim that I have the best boxing library
in the world, since I don't know what other collectors have. But it's
a serious collection with a lot of rare titles, many of them in very
fine condition. Boxing, in my opinion, has the finest written history
of any sport, and I value my books above all of my other possessions."
In 1993, Hamilton founded JO Sports. Initially, the company was a
vehicle for his own collecting. He bought as he chose, kept what he
wanted, and sold off the rest. Now JO Sports is his primary business
and occupies roughly seventy percent of his working time. He's also
frequently retained by Sotheby's, Christie's, and other auction houses
to document and authenticate boxing memorabilia prior to auction.
The past two decades have seen an explosion in the sports memorabilia
market. In the late 1970s, a buyer who chose wisely might have been
able to purchase a letter written by Jake Killrain for five or ten
dollars. Now, that same letter sells for $3,000. The most valuable
fighter's signature today is that of Marvin Hart, who reigned briefly
as heavyweight champion in 1905. Once, Hart's signature was of minimal
value. Now, because of its scarcity, a well-documented Hart signature
in good condition can be sold for up to $10,000.
Hamilton himself purchased the belt that Sugar Ray Robinson was awarded
by Ring Magazine when he beat Tommy Bell for his first world title.
"It's probably the most significant piece I have," he notes. "I
it from Ray's widow, Millie, for $35,000. My guess is that it's now
worth about $100,000, although Joe Louis's Ring Magazine belt is more
"James Corbett's gloves from his fight against John L. Sullivan sold
for $60,000," Hamilton continues. "Ali's gloves from his first fight
against Henry Cooper sold at auction for a bit more when the commission
was added. That's the highest price for a pair of gloves that I'm
aware of, although the right Ali gloves would go higher. Ali's trunks
from the first Frazier fight brought a record $100,000, and his robe
from Zaire was auctioned off for $160,000."
As for "paper" products; the most valuable fight poster that Hamilton
is aware of is the on-site poster for Louis-Schmeling II. Depending on
condition, it sells for $15,000 to $25,000. An uncut ticket for John
L. Sullivan versus Jake Killrain goes for about $10,000. "Uncut
tickets for Clay-Liston I are up there with Sullivan-Killrain,"
Hamilton explains. "But the problem with paper is, you never know what
might show up. With a robe or a trophy, there's only one. But someone
could be rummaging through a file cabinet and stumble across a whole
stack of Clay-Liston tickets tomorrow."
And to prove his point, Hamilton recounts acquiring four on-site
programs for John L. Sullivan versus James Corbett. "Guys who had
collected fight programs for years didn't even know that a
Sullivan-Corbett program existed until I found them," he says. Then he
adds, "No Sullivan-Corbett poster is known to exist, but I have to
think that there were some."
Meanwhile, Hamilton observes, "There's a whole new group of collectors
today who have very little knowledge of boxing history and very little
interest in it. They care about Muhammad Ali and no one else. When a
good Jack Dempsey or Joe Louis item is available, two or three people
might bid on it. With Ali, it's ten or twenty. Mike Tyson has a good
fan base. No other active fighter sells at numbers close to Tyson, but
his base isn't nearly as deep as Ali's."
Hamilton considers the championship belt presented to Cassius Clay by
Ring Magazine for defeating Sonny Liston in 1964 to be the Holy Grail
for boxing collectors. He has seen photographs of it, but doesn't know
of anyone who claims knowledge of its whereabouts. "Many people think
that Bundini [a member of Ali's entourage] sold it," he elaborates.
"But no one really knows. I'd value the belt at a minimum of $250,000
and wouldn't be surprised if it brought a million dollars or more at
auction. It would be an incredible find."
Hamilton's enthusiasm for collecting remains strong; although in recent
years, it has diminished slightly as the result of a problem that
plagues the entire sports collectibles industry.
"There's a ton of phony merchandise out there," he acknowledges.
of it is bad autographs. Ebay is the area of prime offense. It's the
cesspool of sports collectibles. The listings on Ebay simply aren't
screened sufficiently, so it's a true place for the buyer to beware.
The bad material on Ebay flows like a rancid tide, and I've never seen
it worse than it is today. A real Rocky Marciano autographed photo is
worth eight hundred to a thousand dollars, but you see them on Ebay all
the time for a hundred dollars. Marciano died in 1969. Buy one on
Ebay, take it out of the frame, and it might be printed on paper that
was manufactured in the 1990s."
"But it's not just Ebay," Hamilton continues. "A major auction
had an auction in 2003 that included a pair of boxing gloves that Joe
Frazier supposedly wore for sparring while he was training for the
first Ali fight. The first Ali-Frazier fight was in 1971. I know for
a fact that the gloves were made after 1981 because of the design of
the Everlast label on them. There was another glove in the same
auction that Frazier supposedly wore in his fight against Jimmy Ellis.
But if you look at photos of that fight, the glove is the wrong color.
I hate stuff like that"
In retrospect, it was inevitable that Hamilton's love of boxing would
lead him to become more directly involved with the sweet science.
Thus, in addition to collecting, he has served in the past as a
management advisor for heavyweights Michael Grant and Gerald Nobles.
"Michael was my first fighter," Hamilton recounts. "I came to
in 1994 through Don Turner, who was his trainer at the time. Don
wanted me to get involved but I didn't know enough about managing, so I
took Michael to Bill Cayton. Bill, Steve Lott, and I formed a
partnership. And although there came a time when we went separate
ways, almost everything I know about managing I learned during the
three years that Michael was with Bill, Steve, and myself. Say what
you will about Bill Cayton; he knew how to manage a fighter.
Everything he did was in the best interest of the fighter, and that's
true of Steve too. Every time we had an issue, their approach was to
ask the question, 'What's in the best interest of the fighter?' There
might be disagreements as to the answer. But if you answer that
question as honestly as you can, you'll make the right decision far
more often than not."
Hamilton guided Grant to a multi-fight HBO contract and a
multi-million-dollar payday against Lennox Lewis. He stayed with him
through the transition from Don Turner to Teddy Atlas as the fighter's
trainer and losses against Lewis, Jameel McCline, and Dominick Guinn.
They parted ways in February 2004 because of what Hamilton felt was
Michael's lack of gratitude and, more significantly, the lack of a
serious commitment to boxing. Grant hasn't fought since, but the
people who saw Hamilton do his job up close express their admiration
"Craig is the absolute best," says Turner. "He's a stand-up
knows boxing and always, always, does what he thinks is best for the
fighter. He's one of the finest people I've ever met in or out of
Atlas, who replaced Turner in late 2000, is equally complimentary. "I
have a resistance to getting close to people," Atlas acknowledges, "and
particularly to people in boxing. You give and you get involved and
you trust; and then usually you're disappointed. But after Michael
lost to Jameel McCline, I saw what Craig was about. I got to know him
under the worst kind of disappointment and pressure. And under those
difficult circumstances, Craig was a quality guy. He didn't panic. He
didn't go looking for someone else to blame. He didn't just protect
himself, run for cover, and leave his fighter out there alone. He kept
his optimism but, at the same time, he was realistic and understanding.
So I have a lot of respect for Craig. I like to see how people react
when they're under fire and things are tough; not when they're on top
of the world. And when things were tough, Craig faced up to what had
happened and did what had to be done."
Meanwhile, Jim Thomas, who is still Grant's attorney, says simply,
"Craig is one of those guys who restores your faith in the belief that
there are some good people in the business of boxing."