"He's a hero to the deaf community, and he takes that really seriously," said Holmes. "But it was kind of like the deaf community didn't put him on that pedestal like they did before when he was carrying that flame for them."
Less than a year since his last UFC fight, and already he was no longer "that guy." Not that he didn't find ways to fill his time. He got married, for one thing. "The Hammer," a film about his early life and college wrestling career at the Rochester Institute of Technology, saw widespread release. He spent a lot of time at home in Utica, N.Y., "basically being Bob Vila around his house," according to Holmes.
"But the kicker really was that I was encouraging him to get back to the gym and give back," Holmes said. "I said, now that it's over for you, come help out. We've got 20 or 30 guys fighting out of [the Mohawk Valley Mixed Martial Arts] gym right now, so get in here and help these guys out. He did and, little by little, he was coming in to coach, and then soon he was coming in to train. We saw that metamorphosis from coach back to fighter."
By January, Hamill had begun talking about returning to the cage. He'd left on good terms with the UFC, so the door was still open. He'd rehabbed his shoulder without surgery, and his body was finally starting to feel good again. He started tugging on Holmes' sleeve, bugging him to call up the UFC and ask about getting him a fight. He'd been retired less than half a year. Holmes told him to wait it out, to see if the fire was still there in a few months "because this is not something you can half-ass."
"The way I look at it is like someone who gets addicted to a drug," Holmes said. "You go to rehab, maybe you walk away after a little while, and that first week you want it back. Two months later, you'll kill someone to get it back. That's kind of what happened to him."
And, of course, there is the issue of money. Hamill insists now that he's not coming back for financial reasons, and according to Holmes he's got savings and investments and is "actually doing pretty well … probably a lot better than most fighters outside the cage."
At the same time, there's no way to talk about a suddenly unretired fighter without talking about money. He goes from earning two or three big paydays a year to seeing money trickle in slowly, like everybody else. Once it took 15 minutes to make more than $50,000. Now it takes a year. Hamill doesn't need the money, according to Holmes, but with a baby on the way this spring, it sure would be nice.
More importantly, according to Hamill, was the feeling he got from being in the gym again. Working with young fighters who had that fire in their eyes reminded him of when he'd been the same way, back when his training partners on "The Ultimate Fighter" reality show competition had to practically beg him to take it easy in practice.
"To walk into the gym and see 20 guys who aren't making a penny just going for it and kicking ass every day, that's got to make you think about things," said Holmes.
One of the things it made Hamill think about was whether he'd quit too soon. Had he jumped into retirement when really all he needed was a prolonged vacation, he wondered. Did that make him a quitter?
"Walking away without getting to where I wanted to be, I feel like I let my grandfather down," Hamill said. "... I'm finally healthy and hungry, and I got that way by taking a little break from MMA and working with the rest of the team at Mohawk Valley. Working with those guys really inspired me to want to come back. I know at 35, if I'm going to do it I've got to come back now."
But that begs the question, where exactly does he want to be? Where can he be, as a fighter in his mid-30s who's already retired once? His original return bout was supposed to be against UFC newcomer Roger Hollett, but after an injury forced Hollett from the bout he was replaced with Vladimir Matyushenko, a fellow wrestler who is six years Hamill's senior and, with 15 years of MMA experience, a true journeyman's journeyman.
It's not the kind of fight that vaults you into a title shot, and even if it did, Hamill doesn't consider his disqualification win over light heavyweight champion Jon Jones to be anything but a loss. Hamill and Holmes estimate that he could have anywhere between five and 10 fights left in him, if he stays healthy – and, according to Holmes, now that Hamill has finally learned that there's such a thing as going too hard in practice, and that hanging sheet rock between practice sessions probably isn't such a great idea, that's a possibility.
But it's hard to tell exactly what Hamill's aiming for when he says that he hasn't yet gotten to where he wants to be.
"I don't know if he necessarily means winning the belt, but I think he means more being happy with what he did," said Holmes.
"It's not about money for me," said Hamill. "It's about the sport."