Punching His Way Off South Dallas' Mean Streets, Mighty Mo Hooker Aims for Boxing Glory

“I feel like I might throw up,” says Stacey Verbeek, standing pale-faced in the busy locker room of Oakland, California’s Oracle Arena, a camera slung over her shoulder. She’s about to watch the young man who has spent Christmas with her family for the last few years, Maurice Hooker, enter the boxing ring for his second fight since he signed with Jay Z-owned sports management company Roc Nation Sports.

Verbeek is worried he’ll be hurt, though she knows that’s unlikely. Hooker is undefeated. During his last fight, on a similar card at Oracle in March, the 27-year-old North American Boxing Organization (NABO) junior lightweight champion from South Dallas left his opponent crying on the mat in the first round. Colombian boxer Wilfrido Buelvas had started the match by disrespectfully shoving him, so Hooker went right for his liver. Buelvas immediately collapsed and stayed down for five minutes, making it Hooker’s 15th knockout out of 22 professional fights since 2011.

In November, Hooker was the sixth-ranked junior welterweight boxer in the world according to the World Boxing Organization (WBO), a rapid ascent given that he had no promoter. Promoters make or break the careers of pro boxers, often setting up title fights and ensuring an even playing field. But Hooker climbed the ranks solely with the help of his manager, Stacey’s husband, Arnie, and their team. For the Verbeeks, boxing is a passion project separate from their day jobs as wealth managers.

A lifelong love of boxing led them to open Maple Avenue Boxing Gym in ’09, and soon after, they started an outreach program for at-risk youths. That’s how they met Hooker, and the Verbeeks have become like a second set of parents to him, helping him build his career, working to protect him from exploitation and teaching him life skills such as money management that will help him adjust to success.

Their hard work paid off in December when Hooker’s run without a promoter ended. Since he became a Roc Nation athlete, Hooker’s star has continued to rise; he looks to be on his way to a world championship fight within the year. The boxer known as “Mighty Mo” is reserved and polite outside the ring, but inside it he’s an unstoppable force driven by rage and love: He loves hitting people.

Seven fights are on the August 6 card, and the fighters are separated into two locker rooms. About two dozen people are in Hooker’s locker room. Most of the boxers are fidgeting, their people pacing with them and offering pep talks. One theatrical middleweight boxer from Brooklyn, Junior Younan, is taking up a quarter of the large room sparring with his trainer.

He still has a couple of hours to go before he enters the ring, but Hooker is noticeably more stoic. Just like in March, Roc Nation has Hooker fighting directly before Olympic medalist Andre Ward, whose fights are televised on HBO. Hooker responds to the stress and chaos by contorting his lean frame to fit into one of the lockers, where he sits listening to A$AP Ferg on his iPhone through earbuds.

“He’s just messaging his girlfriends,” Verbeek jokes. Hooker says he’s confident, but ready to get the fight over with. As he continues to go undefeated, the attention and pressure are mounting.

This day, Hooker will defend his NABO title against Ty Barnett in a 10-round bout. Like Hooker, the boxer from Washington, D.C., has 15 knockouts on his professional record. Barnett is not an opponent to be taken lightly, even though he’s been defeated before and his chance of taking the NABO belt today has already been squandered because he came in over the 140-pound weight limit for the junior lightweight class, while 5-foot-11 Hooker comfortably met it at 139.6. As a result Barnett was issued a fine, a percentage of which will be added to Hooker’s check at the end of the fight. If Hooker loses, the NABO title will simply be vacant.

Along with the Verbeeks, Hooker’s corner of the locker room is occupied by his two trainers, San Diego-based Vincent Parra and Sultan Ali, with whom Hooker lives in Mesquite. The whole team is wearing matching “Mighty Mo” gear, except for Arnie, who’s dressed to the nines in a sleek light blue sport coat, matching pocket square, black trousers and a Hermes belt.

Hooker looks the part of a Roc Nation athlete in a gold sequin boxing robe and shorts by his sponsor Everlast. The robe has patches for WBO, Roc Nation and Maple Avenue Boxing and says “Mighty Mo Hooker” on the front. The nickname was a savvy marketing move by Verbeek, who wanted to give fans something to yell out, and who throws merch bearing the name into the stands during fights.

About an hour before he’s due to walk out, Parra prepares to wrap Hooker’s hands. Representatives from the California State Athletic Commission and one man from Barnett’s team are there to make sure Parra doesn’t overwrap them or soak the wraps in water to harden them. Hooker is friendly and polite throughout, offering no sign of the anger that propels his performance in the ring.

His wrapping finished, Hooker stands to do a few jumping jacks and watch Younan’s fight on the locker room TV. Verbeek passes out Charms Blow Pops. Hooker always walks out to the ring with one; it’s the closest thing he has to a ritual, and he sucks on a lollipop as Parra massages his neck.

Finally, the commissioners return to tell Hooker and his entourage that it’s time to go. “Take your opponent seriously, Mo,” Verbeek says, his final words to his protégé as their pack enters the hallway in unison.

Arnie Verbeek fell in love with boxing at 3 o’clock one morning in South Holland, where he grew up. His parents were always busy with their work in the restaurant business, and one of the first memories he has of bonding with his father was in ’74, when he called Verbeek downstairs in the middle of one night to watch Muhammad Ali and George Foreman fight.

Verbeek was immediately taken with the sport. “Boxing is the easiest concept to understand,” he says, sitting in his office at the pristine Maple Avenue Boxing Gym. The appeal of boxing is primal; it’s just two men trying to outwit and overcome each other, using only their hands for weapons.

Verbeek went to the local library to look Ali up the next day, where he learned that he was from someplace called Kentucky in the United States. Verbeek’s grandfather, who lived next door and was also an avid boxing fan, hung a heavy bag in the backyard and showed Verbeek how to hit it. Verbeek decided then that he would move to America someday.

While Verbeek has continued to box to stay in shape, he knew from the outset that the fastest ticket to the U.S. would be through education, not fighting. He applied to an MBA program at Arizona State University, where he met Stacey Snyder, who would later become his wife.

Stacey was from Dallas and had also grown up watching Muhammad Ali, although over time she’d stopped following boxing. When she and Verbeek began dating he reignited her interest. “He was like, ‘You’ve gotta watch this. How can you not be watching this?’” she says. “What really hooked me was George Foreman’s comeback at the age of 40.”

Verbeek worked on Wall Street for a short time, but he eventually returned to Dallas. He and Stacey married and began working together at an investment firm started by her late father, Richard W. Snyder. Today the Verbeeks are co-vice presidents of SnyderCapital and live in posh Preston Hollow.

The Verbeeks seem to enjoy an easy rapport. He refers to her as his “right-hand man,” and they found they worked so well as a team that they were inspired to start a second business together in 2009: Maple Avenue Boxing Gym.

The first boxing gym Verbeek had found in Dallas was Home of the Champions, owned by Curtis Cokes, who became the first and last world champion from Dallas when he won the world welterweight title in 1966. After settling here, Verbeek formed a group of boxing enthusiasts who would visit different gyms together, including Home of the Champions, but he began to feel that none were safe places to train.

“I was there [at Home of the Champions] one day and some drug deal went wrong,” he says. “Some guy came in and shot a gun and everyone went down. The only thing I remember is some guy jumping on me and saying, ‘White boy, go down!’ I was like, ‘Oh, shit.’ That was the day I said, ‘Maybe that’s not where I want to work out.’”

So the Verbeeks started Maple Avenue Boxing in the Medical District. Their mission was to reintroduce the concept of old-school boxing to the public.

Soon after opening, Maple Avenue Boxing Gym began to attract the attention of neighborhood kids who wanted to learn how to fight, but the normal $80 monthly fee was beyond all of them. “They didn’t have any money, so I thought, ‘Let’s start a little outreach program,’” Verbeek says. “We didn’t advertise, but in the beginning I was a little too loose-lipped and I had like 120 nonpaying members.”

In addition to working as a trainer at Maple Avenue, Sultan Ali also volunteered at Home of the Champions. In 2008 he brought over a couple of boxers he’d been working with there. One of them had started fighting at 13, when he was brought to a gym by his stepdad because he was getting into fights at school. His family thought he might learn his lesson if he got knocked around a bit, but he beat the hell out of everyone he sparred with.

“I’ve loved boxing ever since then,” Hooker says. When he walked into Maple Avenue Boxing that afternoon, the first thing he did was march up to Verbeek and say, “I wanna be a fighter.”

Mo Hooker was a good amateur. For lightweights, boxing is mostly about speed. But on top of that Hooker had long arms that gave him a reach of 80 inches. Still, when they met, it wasn’t immediately apparent to Verbeek the kind of boxer Hooker would become.

He had seen Hooker fight once before, at an amateur tournament in 2006. Hooker had been disqualified because he became frustrated, took his gloves off and threw them at his opponent. Verbeek says he exchanged four or five words with Hooker that day but Hooker was wild and easily moved to anger, neither characteristics Verbeek admired in boxers. As violent as the sport is, it’s also a game that requires patience and strategy.

“The anger was the only thing I saw in him then,” Verbeek says. “He’s such a nice young man, but when he’s in the ring the anger is bizarre. You see his expression and his face and his eyes change. He looks like a different individual, and he would turn that on and off. It’s not normal for human beings to have both sides unless something really happened.”

Verbeek describes Hooker's upbringing in a neighborhood where police don’t show up unless somebody dies. His mother and brother were hooked on drugs, Verbeek says, and 30 or 40 people sometimes crashed there at night. “‘Every morning when I wake up, somebody is cussing me out,’” he recalls Hooker saying.

One of the worst incidents of Hooker’s childhood took place when he was 12 and his house was robbed while he and his siblings were home. “Three guys ran through the house and held guns to our heads demanding money,” Hooker says. “They made my stepdad get on his knees and kicked him in his head.”

Hooker recounted this story on The Undercard, a reality show for CW33 that followed him and five boxers from Dallas-Fort Worth. It aired its second season in spring 2015.

Initially boxing was more like a form of therapy for Hooker, and it worked. By 2011 he’d fought in over a hundred amateur matches and stopped getting into fights outside of the ring.

“Boxing helped me control my anger and to know when to use it and when not to use it,” Hooker says. “It takes a lot to make me mad. Back in the day, anything made me mad. You step on my shoes, anything. It made me go off.”

Verbeek says all of the best boxers have suffered; there’s a reason not many of them emerge from wealthy backgrounds. “It’s impossible when you’re living in Highland Park,” Verbeek says. “You don’t need it. You don’t want it. It has to come from an authentic place.”

But if he wanted to fight professionally, Hooker would need more than just that pain working for him. Verbeek told him he’d need to begin a proper training regimen and diet. Verbeek said they’d also need to clear up any issues with the law and get his finances in order. Verbeek asked Hooker if he had any warrants out for his arrest. “Thirty-two,” he replied. “I said, ‘32 warrants?! How the hell is that possible? If you get two warrants you get stopped,’” Verbeek says. “And he said, ‘Well in my neighborhood the police don’t stop you.’”

After looking into Hooker’s infractions, Verbeek found they were for what he calls “dumb, youthful stuff,” like driving without insurance and ignoring tickets. He decided they could work together and began developing Hooker more seriously, insisting that he live like an athlete.

For seven to 10 weeks before a fight, Hooker will go to bed at 10 p.m. and adhere to a rigorous training schedule that includes a combination of bag work, running, sparring and preplanned meals. The diet is the only part of his routine that Hooker doesn’t like. “I love hitting the punching bag,” Hooker says. “I love running. I love hitting somebody in the face. I love watching people fall. I love everything about boxing.”

With discipline, Hooker’s talent quickly emerged. He was fast and fearless, sure, but he was also a cerebral and even sneaky fighter. He hits “unbelievably hard,” Verbeek says. So hard that he has to wrap his hands carefully to reduce the chance he’ll break his bones on contact.

Hooker began getting professional fights in 2011, but without a promoter advocating for them, the Verbeeks were still sometimes paying for him to fight. “We would just grab what we could,” Verbeek says of that period. Sometimes other promotions like Golden Boy would invite them to fight on their cards, other times the Verbeeks would set up the fights themselves as Undercard Promotions.

Under that name, the Verbeeks arranged local fight nights at places such as the Texas Theatre in Oak Cliff. Gradually, Hooker began to attract the attention of the WBO, until last summer the organization approached him saying that he could fight for the vacant NABO super lightweight belt. Two thousand people showed up to that fight at Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center, the largest crowd a regional fighter has attracted since the ’80s, Verbeek says. Hooker knocked out Mexican boxer Eduardo Galindo in the sixth round. “It was beautiful because it was at home and he had the chance to show off to all the people who had doubted him,” Verbeek says.

In October, Hooker defended his title for the first time at Madison Square Garden against Ghislain Maduma, a Canadian. Maduma’s promoter challenged them on two weeks’ notice, not realizing Hooker was coming directly out of training camp. “We fooled them a little bit,” he says. “When they asked us finally to fight we had been in the gym six weeks. When you come in without a promoter, everybody looks down on you. You’re not taken seriously.”

Which is not to say they hadn’t received any offers from promoters. A year prior, Hooker had been sparring at a training camp with champion welterweight boxer Ruslan Provodnikov when he gave Provodnikov a black eye. Freddy Roach, trainer to Filipino boxer Manny Pacquiao, the only boxer to win world titles in eight different weight classes, had been looking on and was impressed.

“Goddamn that kid likes to fight,” Verbeek recalls Roach saying. Shortly after leaving the camp they received a call from Banner Promotions, which had signed Provodnikov, but it wasn’t a very big company and Verbeek felt Hooker could do better. At the same time, Verbeek had enough experience with most of the major names to know Hooker didn’t belong there, either. “The more I dealt with these companies, I was shocked,” Verbeek says. “Most of them are unethical, racist, horrible companies.”

The Verbeeks’ care for Hooker manifests itself in several ways. As Hooker gets bigger fights he’s also earning more money, and they’re helping him to manage his winnings. “We’re making a little bit of money now and he’s very close to where he could make some serious money,” Verbeek says.

When he wants something flashy, such as the Louis Vuitton backpack he showed off proudly on one visit to the gym, the Verbeeks tell him to leave those gifts to them. Hooker has bigger responsibilities: his eight children.

The oldest of seven boys and one girl is 5 years old. After the seventh child was born, the Verbeeks helped him arrange a vasectomy. “Finally we told him, ‘We’re going to create a football team, so we need to do something about it,’” Verbeek says. Shortly after the surgery, Hooker was approached by another of his girlfriends — he has never been married — whom he’d impregnated before the procedure.

The Verbeeks helped him take care of his warrants, get current on his child support, pay his taxes for the first time, get a passport and driver’s license and buy a car that’s helping him build credit. Every month they sit down to go over his budget and write checks to cover his bills. Coach Ali, with whom he lives to ensure he has a stable home, is also involved in his estate planning.

“At first it was kinda weird,” Hooker says when asked how he feels about how involved the Verbeeks are in every aspect of his life. “But I’m learning a lot of stuff from them, stuff I didn’t learn when I was a kid. They helped me get my life together and I see the world different now. I’m blessed to have them in my life.”

In some cases their oversight is a matter of life and death. Verbeek says boxing is safer than many people give it credit for — it’s not much more dangerous than football — but the importance promoters place on retaining undefeated fighters can put boxers in risky situations.

To build the reputation of one of their fighters, promoters will often try to match their guy with someone who’s smaller or less prepared. The disadvantaged party is likely to get hit more times each round, and with each loss they are more likely to be put in a similar situation in the future. Boxers who are desperate to keep earning and find these rigged fights are their only opportunities can quickly get into trouble.

“That’s typically when you see people start having speech problems,” Verbeek says. “I’m very worried about that … I’m all for any fair fight where he can hold his own and he’s prepared well. But a lot of those fighters are being sacrificed for commercial purposes.”

A year after the conversation with Banner Promotions, Hooker found a seemingly good home with Roc Nation. One of the staff members at Banner had recently moved there and he’d been talking Hooker up. They called Verbeek wanting to know if Hooker was still unsigned.

Verbeek went to meet with the Roc Nation team in New York. He knew as soon as Hooker signed to a promoter he’d lose the right to veto any fights he was offered, and after all their work to properly position him, they didn’t want to act rashly. “I don’t consider this my job,” Verbeek says. “This is not a profit center. I want to see where he’s going to go and what’s going to happen to him.”

Ultimately they decided it was a good fit in terms of size and vision. The celebrity branding means that Roc Nation is known more widely than some other U.S. promoters. “They have the ability to put world class fights together," Verbeek says. "They bring cachet and TV with them. They bring HBO to the party, they bring Black Entertainment TV to the party."

Hooker graduated from high school but Verbeek believes boxing is his only real shot to provide for his brood financially, and he won’t be able to box safely forever. For boxers of Hooker’s weight class, speed is everything, and that goes fast; they’re typically on their way out at 33.

That’s why the Verbeeks say they’ve been so involved in the management of Hooker’s money. Boxers are often encouraged to spend recklessly because they’re not as hungry when they’re in the green, Verbeek says, and it’s that desperation that makes them fight well:

“Imagine you’re in poverty. And then I lock you up in the gym and I travel you all over America and I don’t tell you anything and after three years I give you a $400,000 check and I walk away. That’s not going to end well and they do it all the time and they do it on purpose.

“When he’s got $400,000 he’s not gonna be in the gym. He’s gonna be in the club and driving cars. The Mike Tyson syndrome is real. They want these guys to burn through it. They want them to be in the news. DirectTV, Top Rank … everybody makes money. And at the very end that person is squeezed out like a lemon.”

When Hooker is training for an important fight, they try to get him out of the city so he’s not distracted by his complicated love life. Leading up to the August 6 fight on Andre Ward’s card in Oakland he spent more than a month in Colorado.

Verbeek is particularly happy to see Hooker fighting on the same card as Ward, because he sees him as a potential role model for Hooker. His team wants Hooker’s reputation to be squeaky clean so he can earn endorsements like the Olympian. “America has something with the Olympics,” he says. “They love it. They’ll put you on the Cheerios box.”

To hear them tell it, Hooker is already doing all right in the dad department. He’s fond of buying his kids Jordans, they say, and he recently rented a van and took five of them to Sea World in San Antonio, with the help of one of their aunts. During the outing he had one of his first experiences being recognized at a Wal-Mart gas station.

“Out of nowhere a guy comes up and says, ‘Are you Mighty Mo?’” Hooker says. “I was paying for gas and I didn’t know he was talking to me. He goes, ‘Are you just going to keep ignoring me?’ I said, ‘Are you talking to me?’ He was so excited. It was a good feeling.”

Mo Hooker grew up on a street off Overton Road in South Oak Cliff. On a drive to visit his mother’s house, Hooker points out three crack houses, then an empty lot where his grandmother’s house used to be. They moved in with her at one point when his mom lost her job. The next people to own it turned it into a crack house too and it subsequently burned down, he says.

Hooker sees someone walking by and instructs Verbeek to pull over. The Verbeeks’ Range Rover comes to a stop next to a mailman making deliveries. The man turns and squints, then he notices a familiar face in the back and lets out an excited yell.

“I thought y’all were looking for some directions,” Reese Washington says, clearly delighted. Hooker has lived on this street off and on since he was a baby and Washington has been delivering his mail for years. He’s a big fan of Hooker and watches all of his fights, which can almost always be streamed online. He complains that they don’t last long enough. “If I’m going to a fight, I want to see a couple rounds.”

Hooker’s mom, Sharita Gail, comes out to greet them when they pull up to her home next. In the living room there’s a nice furniture set, which she says Hooker took off layaway for her birthday. Hooker’s NABO belt sits inside a glass cabinet in the dining room. Pictures of him are all over the house.

Gail, who worked at the post office when Hooker was a kid, calls her son “my baby,” and affectionately tells stories about him as an infant, when he was called “Stank” because he was always running around with a full diaper. When he was older, he would frequently bust holes in the drywall wrestling with his siblings, she says.

Hooker’s father, who died of a stroke a few years ago, was present when he was young, but Hooker was closer to the man Gail married after she and his father split up. “Really just my stepdad was around,” says Hooker, who has one brother and several step-siblings.

Gail passes around scrapbooks filled with tickets from fights and Hooker’s old report cards. Hooker notes that he passed all but one class, clarifying, “I got all 50s and one zero.” Another report shows perfect attendance. Gail says she bribed him to attend with the promise of new shoes.

Gail talks about taking Hooker to feed the homeless at Tent City several times over the last year; babysitting her basketball team of grandkids; and cooking steaks and pies for a family dinner every Sunday. Verbeek shoots Hooker an accusatory look, but he swears he only eats shrimp and salad when he’s there.

Although she mostly avoids discussion of the drugs and violence that Hooker was surrounded by as a child, Gail admits that she suffered with depression when Hooker was growing up and often instructed him, “Do as I say not as I do.”

While Hooker seems to have absorbed this lesson, his brother did not. In high school he was a basketball star and had the opportunity to play at Texas A&M.

“The hood sucked him back in,” Hooker says. “He went to college and it went bad from there. It was hard for him to get out. I saw that happen and it motivated me to stay out of the streets and stay humble.” Hooker now occasionally volunteers at St. Philip’s School and Community Center, where he talks to kids about the dangers of following the wrong path.

Against pretty serious odds, Hooker’s name is on the lips of every boxing fan in Dallas and he seems destined for a world title. His mom certainly thinks so. “He’s gonna do it,” she says. “And why’s he gonna do it? Because he said so.”

The lyrics “Provide jobs for my whole block / I cannot slow down” blare from the speakers as Hooker approaches the ring. They belong to A$AP Ferg’s “I’m On a New Level,” an appropriate choice of walk-in music by Hooker. Oracle Arena is mostly full, even though it’s an hour before the main event.

Ty Barnett’s trainer had antagonized Verbeek earlier, saying, “When you called for this fight you made a big mistake.” But Hooker seems unfazed. In the locker room, as Stacey begged him to take his time, he waved her off with promises that he would knock Barnett out in the first round.

From the moment the Corona boxing babes stride through the ring and the opening bell goes off, Hooker seems likely to deliver on his promise. He calmly steps up to Barnett and lands his first jab at his face.

When his glove makes contact, Barnett’s head snaps back and then returns wearing a look of intense surprise. The crowd responds with “oofs” and cheers. It’s much louder during Hooker’s fight than any of the ones preceding, or even Ward’s later.

After rattling Barnett, Hooker continues to patiently follow up his work, not rushing the fight and managing not to get hit much himself. At one point Barnett takes a knee. He gets back up, but after he continues to stagger badly the referee calls off the fight at two minutes and 17 seconds. It’s another KO for Hooker, who gets to keep his NABO title and his undefeated record.

After his victory, a beaming Hooker leans in for a picture with Stacey. She’s always the one taking the pictures, he says. He never gets any of them together. A receiving line awaits him upon exiting the ring. First it’s a young Mexican kid, his eyes full of adoration. “Hey, Mighty Mo! Great job!” he says. “You next!” Hooker yells back, smiling. Next it’s Bernard Hopkins, who held the title of middleweight champion of the world for 11 years. HBO captures their chat.

As Hooker walks back to the locker room, the paramedics stop him. They sit him down in the hallway to check him for injuries. “Busy night, Doc?” Hooker jokes to the EMT as he shines a light in his pupils. Three of the six fights so far had ended in knockouts.

In the locker room once again, Hooker’s main concern is his check. There’s some debate over whether he’s been paid the correct amount given Barnett’s fine. But the tone is markedly lighter than it had been before the fight. The hard work is over. Heading to the showers, Hooker mentions that his stomach had been bothering him going in. “Did you fart?” someone teases him. “Was it the stench that knocked [Barnett] down?”

After Hooker showers, a white stretch Hummer limo arrives to pick up the team. It’s a surprise for Hooker orchestrated by Verbeek. At midnight it will be Hooker’s 27th birthday. The flashy ride takes the group to an equally swank Oakland restaurant where Hooker is served first: a giant cheeseburger. His diet can ease up for just a few weeks until he starts training for the next fight.

It’s just a matter of time before HBO is showing up to film Mighty Mo’s fights, Verbeek says. And the optimism is reflected around the table. “I knew I had him when he started running,” Hooker says of his bout with Barnett. Then he turns playfully to Stacey: “I told you so.” She reminds him that what actually won him the fight was his patience, just like she’d said.

Although he pretends otherwise, Hooker seems to know that patience is essential if he wants to succeed. He only gets to come up once, and for him it’s about more than fame or glory. “I just want to be successful in life,” he says. “Own my own business. Just do it right for me and my kids. So they don’t have to go through the stuff I went through.” Asked if that means that boxing is just a means to an end for him, he’s quick to respond. “Oh, I still want the belts.” It may be about more than the satisfaction of punching someone in the face, but it’s about that too.