First Families of Hilton Head Island: The Cohens


"Boxing," Sugar Ray Leonard wrote, "is the ultimate challenge. There is nothing that compares to testing yourself like the way you do in the ring."

“The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses—behind the lines, in the gym and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights. — Muhammad Ali

Pictured above: Marlin, James, Samson, Dion, Michael, Thomasseena, Terry and Pamela Cohen.

Just because you see the shell of a building overtaken by weeds and natural decline from years of disuse doesn’t mean that it isn’t worthy of respect, or rooted in a proud tradition. Driving down Hilton Head Island’s Spanish Wells Road, there are the remains of a cinder block building that are probably ignored by most passers-by. However, its meaning is not lost to a generation of native islanders who remember the excitement and pride that the building generated in the past.

If you look closely, a faded sign on the front reads “Hilton Head Island Sporting Club.” If the cinder block walls could talk, they would tell about the island’s only boxing club and its storied past. This is a past that gave birth to the impressive professional careers of several local boxers, which became the intergenerational boxing dynasty of the Cohen family.

The Cohen family leaves a legacy that was not simply about boxing; it’s also about character and self-discipline. These men stood out as boxers because of their physical strength, agility and speed. Moreover, their endurance came from their well-known “granite” jaws, which were able to withstand strong punches. But it’s not enough to be able to take a punch; you have to have an iron fist that allows you to deliver one in return. The Cohen men’s elegant footwork made their fights a sight to see as they “danced” around the ring.

All of the Cohen brothers trained as professional boxers. Their father, Thomas Cohen, was a professional boxer himself, and he trained his boys to be strong and ready to take a good punch. Thomas was a man of many talents. Seemingly, he was able to do it all.

“Dad was a jack of all trades. He farmed, he fished, he carved wood, he boxed and he built boats as well as some of the houses on Hilton Head Island,” said Terry Cohen Johnson. “He also fished every day, bringing in boat loads of oysters for the family.” On top of everything else that Thomas did, he was also the local policeman on the island, responsible for keeping watch on Singleton Beach.  

In 1974, Thomas and his son Michael built the gym from the ground up in.  They didn’t know it then, but the gym would become a magnet for young neighborhood boys who wanted to learn boxing skills and become part of the amateur boxing team.

“There weren’t a lot of sports on the island at the time,” says Michael “The Hammer” Cohen. The gym was much more than a building. According to Michael, his father “built the gym to give the kids something to do and be involved in.”

Thomas was a role model for those around him. He believed in hard work and discipline, which he instilled in his sons. “If you had an attitude, Daddy would make you work it out in the ring,” says son Sampson Cohen. “At 4 o’clock, it was time to go the gym and train, every day. We trained all week for a Saturday fight. You fought ’cause Daddy made you fight.” 

Boxing was much more than a sport; as a family business, everyone had a part to play. Terry took payments at the door and ran the concession stand as people came in to watch the weekend’s fight.  At one point, Thomas and Michael were training about 105 boxers.

“Saturday nights at the gym were packed with close to 80 or more people,” said Sampson.  Fighting bouts were booked from Hilton Head Island to Savannah, Augusta, Columbia and Florence.

A professional boxer since 1957, Thomas started boxing in the Army, winning the Fifth Army and Seventh Army Championships. Once he became a professional heavyweight, Thomas was ranked No. 3 in the world. In his career, he had a total of 23 knockouts and 36 wins out of 37 professional fights.

Recognized as the Southeast Heavyweight Champion, his career brought him friendships with some of the top boxers in his day. Among his friends were Muhammad Ali, Leon Spinks, Sugar Ray Leonard, Joe Frazier and Rocky Marciano. When they came to visit, they all spent time in the gym to stay in shape. “Leon Spinks came to the gym after his fight with Ali,” says Michael. Back in the day, jazz trumpeter Miles Davis also stopped by to work out in the gym. 

All of the Cohen sons had learned to fight by the time they were 11 years old. Michael was recognized for his tremendous punching power and ultimately was ranked No. 9 in the world as a heavyweight.  With 52 fights under his belt, he had 30 wins and 29 knockouts.  The force of “The Hammer’s” punch was so powerful that some fighters would back out of bouts before fight time. It has been said that even Mike Tyson backed out of a scheduled fight because of the powerful punch of “The Hammer.”

Sampson, known as “The Mighty Sampson” and “The Cowboy,” began his professional career at 27 and was considered to be a heavyweight known for “a good punch, jab and movement.” In his career, he had 35 bouts, 17 wins and 9 knockouts. “The Cowboy” fought his way to the top at Caesar’s Palace, where he was on the bill with other great fighters like of Oscar De La Hoya and Julio Cesar Chavez. 

The gym burned down in 2003. Since then, boxing on the island has become more of a distant memory and the source of great stories. The family has taken a few punches in their day, but like all good fighters, when you’re on the ropes, you duck, weave, get out of the corner and recover. They say that they want to bring the gym back one day. And they just might; the children of Thomas Cohen would never go down for the count before the bell rings.