DIVORCE BY FORCE

Travis Hartman remains devoted

to the love of his life -- boxing;

But a slow recovery from an auto accident

makes the relationship a rocky one

 

By ROSS MARTIN

St. Joseph News-Press

   ST. JOSEPH, Mo. -- Travis Hartman's boxing sanctuary sits off of an alley in the middle of a residential neighborhood.

   The modified tin garage located just off of Union Street houses a full-sized boxing ring and various tools of the trade. The gym contains relics of Hartman's amateur and professional career in the sport, keepsakes from fights at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, N.J., Sparkassen-Arena in Schleswig-Holstein, Germany and the famous Madison Square Garden in New York.

Hartman's biggest fights were on ESPN's family of networks and HBO pay-per-view, including the Atlantic City fight as part of an Oscar de la Hoya Golden Boy Promotion.

   "It's like they always say, it's hard for professional athletes to retire, to leave on their own terms," said Hartman. "For me, to be 26, and have the sport taken away from me, it's hard. I still have the desire. I still have the love."

   For now, the modest Team Hartman Gym provides him with an outlet to stay involved in the sport he loves.

   Hartman, now 27, doesn't train for an upcoming fight. He doesn't participate in sparring sessions. No matter how bad the desire to fight again, Hartman's body won't allow him. The effects of a car accident suffered February 19, 2010 have put a once-promising boxing career indefinitely on hold.

   Hartman's last professional fight came Dec. 2, 2009 -- a loss by TKO against Jesse Vargas at Temple University in the Liacouras Center in Philadelphia.

   The defeat marked the 12th loss in 14 fights for Hartman, a tough stretch of nearly three years. Once a nationally decorated amateur fighter, Hartman's career started its downturn when younger up-and-coming fighters recognized the Missouri native's strong boxing pedigree and signed him for reputation-building bouts.

   Hartman kept hoping he would win one of those marquee fights -- nine of the losses came to undefeated opponents -- to spring himself back into title contention.

   That victory never came and might not due to the car accident.

   “His amateur record and accomplishments speak for themselves," said Hartman's father and long-time coach, Terry Hartman. “We knew nothing about the professional game and learned on the go and we suffered from that. Now that we know more about the pro game we were planning on turning his career around. His desire was back like I have never seen before.”

   Neck and back problems resulted from the two-vehicle crash where another car rear-ended Hartman's vehicle on U.S. Highway 36 between St. Joseph and his home 30 miles away in Osborn, Mo., where his love for boxing sprouted in the tiny town of less than 500 residents.

   The non-mainstream sport became a passion for Hartman when at the age of 6 he started attending a small boxing gym inside of the Cameron YMCA, located just down the road from Osborn.

   "Never took the gloves off since then," Hartman said. "One of those deals you do and just keep doing. Even till I turned pro, I didn't think anything of it. I just did it, loved it."

   Hartman enjoyed the sport but also began to show a flair in the ring that made others take notice.

   Between the ages of 6 and 20, he compiled a 153-16 record in amateur fights. He won the National Silver Gloves twice (1995-96) taking second in 1994 and third in 1997, a competition to find the best fighters between the ages of 10 and 15. He beat fighters like current top three pound-for-pound champion Nonito Donaire on his way to championships in the amateur ranks. He earned the Police Athletic League championship in 1997 to make him a three-time national champion, winning the PAL against current undefeated pro Anthony Dirrell.

   When he was 15, Hartman earned a bronze medal in the Junior Olympics.

   Golden Gloves came next where he won three straight Kansas City titles, the first in 20 years to accomplish that feat thus far.  He lost in the national quarterfinals in his best showing to eventual runner-up John Santiago, now deceased.

   Despite the loss, Hartman earned a No. 5 national ranking from USA Boxing Magazine at the age of 17 and talks of turning professional began to become reality.

   "He was actually an amazing boxer," said Marcos Ramirez, a native of Des Moines, Iowa., a 25-1 professional boxer who fought with Hartman in the amateur ranks and remains a close friend.

   "He was always a good technical fighter and had very good potential to be a world champion."

   The final foray of amateur fighting for Hartman became the Western Olympic Trials at the age 20. He lost in quarterfinals of the competition to Cleotus Pendarvis in Bakersfield, Calif., and turned pro shortly after due in part to frustrations with the politics of the amateur ranks.

Turning pro wouldn't solve all of the problems.

   "That can make you very burnt out, too," said Ramirez, a headliner for ESPN2 on multiple occasions and once a main event for HBO's 'Boxing After Dark.' "Amateurs is politics and there are frustrating things. It only intensifies as a pro."

   Hartman won five of his first six pro fights, four by knockout, with a controversial draw the only blemish in that span.

   With the strong amateur background and good start to his pro career, Julio Caesar Chavez, Jr.'s camp came calling for a main event fight in Hidalgo, Texas. The April 2005 bout pitted two rising stars with a chance to become a title contender.

   Hartman arrived in Texas with a minor sickness and ended up fighting the scheduled 142-pound bout at a shocking low of just 134 pounds, the lowest weigh-in of his career. Chavez lost the first round on the scorecards and was losing the second until the very end of the round when fatigue from the illness set in on Hartman, and his cornerman threw in the towel in the third with Hartman unable to continue.

   Chavez never knocked Hartman down, rather he was forced to a knee, but still lost by TKO.

   "That was really early in my career," Hartman said. "Any major and intelligent boxing people say rising prospects shouldn't fight another kid that's that dangerous within two years of turning professional. It was kind of stupid, but I thought I had good management and promotion. At the time, I felt like I was talented enough and good enough to beat him. I did."

   The loss turned out to be the start of an up-and-down four years for Hartman.

Losing his next two bouts, Hartman continued to garner attention from high-level opponents. However, Hartman also started taking bouts on shorter notice to be a qualified opponent for up-and-comers.

   Losses to Jorge Paez, Jr. on points over four rounds, on theHBO pay-per-view card in Atlantic City and Shamone Alvarez in Madison Square Garden kept Hartman from advancing in the rankings. He shared the ring on undercard bouts of Bernard Hopkins, twice, Arthur Abraham and Hector Camacho, Jr., but the losses started to pile up.

  Hartman became fed up with the sport.

 

 
"A lot of my losses were frustration losses.
 I was taking fights on three or four days notice, and you just don't do that."
-- Travis Hartman
 
 

   "It was more of the professional business part of boxing that beat me down," Hartman said. "A lot of my losses were frustration losses. I was taking fights on three or four days notice, and you just don't do that. They'd offer me a nice chunk of money, and I was frustrated with the professional game."

   From the loss to Alvarez in March 2007 to the defeat against Vargas in December 2009, Hartman won just two fights.

   His record stood at 10-16-1 fighting as mostly a light welterweight with brief showings as a lightweight and welterweight interspersed. With a career in limbo, Jermell Charlo -- currently 14-0 -- came calling for a February 26, 2010 bout to be aired nationally on ESPN2's "Friday Night Fights."

   De la Hoya's Golden Boy promotions again helped set up the bout, lending credibility to Hartman's continued good standing in the business. The upcoming fight helped stir Hartman's love for the sport again, and he became focused on turning his career around.

   "I completely did a 180 on my training and focus after that," he said. "That was my chance. I had the stage. I was ready."

   The opportunity never came.

   Just a week before leaving for Texas to fight Charlo, the accident happened on 36 highway. The severity of the injury didn't immediately show up.

   "It kind of set in," Hartman said. "On the third day, I woke up and my hands and feet were numb."

   Hartman suffered inflammation to his spinal column, early onset of arthritis in his neck and eventually spells of vertigo and continued muscle spasms in his neck.

   Treatments have included extensive batteries of tests, physical therapy, a cervical epidural and a regimen of muscle relaxors and pain killers he still takes today. Hartman tried chiropractors, Tens Units, pharmaceutical creams, heat pads and wearing Lidoderm patches.

   Doctors have limited his mobility, telling him to avoid aerobic exercise, including light jogging or heavy walking.

   And of course, no boxing.

   "I've been fighting for 20 years," Hartman said. "I never thought something outside the ring could hurt me this much."

   The result leaves Hartman unsure if he'll ever fight again, a chance taken away from him by circumstances out of his control.

   For now, Hartman trains other amateur and professional boxers in his modest gym.

   The surroundings are a long way from the bright lights of New York City or the training sessions he had in South Florida with famed pro Mickey Ward and Arturo Gatti. Ward is subject of the recent blockbuster movie "The Fighter” and Hartman earned the right to train with the future hall-of-famers because of the performance he put on in a loss to Alvarez inside the Garden -- the most famous boxing venue in the world.

   Hartman mulls retirement but walking away on the terms of fate proves difficult.

   "I want to fight a couple more times," Hartman said. "I do. I want to fight a couple more times to right a few wrongs. But I'm a smart guy. I don't want to be crippled by the time I'm 35. We'll see."

 

 Ross Martin is an award-winning sports writer who lives in St. Joseph, Mo. He currently serves as sports editor for the St. Joseph News-Press and can be reached at ross.martin@newspressnow.com