Nico Hernandez’s Greatest Gift

By Brian D'Ambrosio on March 20, 2017
Nico Hernandez’s Greatest Gift
“You either do it or you don’t. Boxing is not a hobby. You don’t participate in boxing.”

It was in his initial beating Nico realized that when a boxer is alive he is alive as no one else is alive, not even another boxer…

Nico Hernandez realized early on that boxing would not be his doom and not be his enemy. Next to birth and family it would be his greatest gift. 

Around age nine, he pledged to work and drudge at it to his utmost ability.

His father, Lewis Hernandez , tried to shoo him away, emphasizing that boxing essentially meant war, rebellion, and physical unrest, and for the unluckiest ones dread, dire times, and dead ends. But Nico insisted.

“Nico kind of begged to let me let him fight,” said Lewis Hernandez, a truck mechanic in Wichita, Kansas, who later became his coach. “Back then we would put the neighborhood kids in the front yard with socks on their hands as gloves. I told Nico that this is something that you don’t want. He kept saying, ‘I want to.’ He approached me and I blew him off a couple of times. Finally, I said, okay, take him and throw him in there with whomever, and he got beat. Red-faced. Nose bleeding.

“But he still wanted to fight. I tried talking to the boy in a hard voice and I wanted to discourage him. But how many nine-year-olds are like that? Soon, Uncle Pat was running him four miles a day at 6 a.m. at age nine. I’d get off of work and at lunchtime go do a boxing workout (at Northside 316 Boxing Club) and he started fighting.”

It was in his initial beating Nico realized that when a boxer is alive he is alive as no one else is alive, not even another boxer. He was hungry to retry. He remembered how his uncle, Michael Hernandez, fought professionally at 135. His dad helped train his uncle. Dad would have no choice. 

“I was nine,” recalled Nico Hernandez, “I was playing basketball and soccer, too, and I told my dad I wanted to box. The first time was being in the gym facing three different people and I got beat a little. My eyes were watery. I remember that. He asked me if I still wanted to do it. I just fell in love with the sport. My earliest memories are training in the front yard, training in a neighbor’s garage, and training inside my house.”

Nico decided then that he neither walked with the multitudes nor cheered with them. Boxing would be the passageway to a free, responsible life. His own life.

“One of the things that kept me in the sport, was that when I played basketball and soccer, when we lost if I thought it was my teammates’ faults, I’d get to blame them. The only person I get to blame in boxing is myself, and that has kept me in it, too. I won my first 25 fights and kept sticking it out and kept fighting.”

From the start, Lewis emphasized to his son that he would need full commitment to a personal anguish of sorts, that in order to get nearer to the beauty, success, grace, and meaning of boxing that he had to sacrifice everything.

“I told Nico that if he wanted to box that there is no in between,” said Lewis. “You either do it or you don’t. Boxing is not a hobby. You don’t participate in boxing. You have to fight and be in 100 percent because you don’t want to get hurt. If you are not in shape, that is very dangerous. But the disappointments, and the ups and downs, they will make you a tougher person.”

Lewis worked 60 hours a week repairing trucks, but he also trained with Nico, who, after a winning streak of 25 amateur bouts, claimed a light flyweight bronze medal for the United States at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics.

“You’ve got to be doing it (boxing) day in and day out and sometimes you are not wanting to,” said Lewis. “Adults, parents, we need motivation, and he needs to motivate himself also. It is what he has to do and, at the end of the day, I can set a standard and set a ground, but he has to push himself. We work something like Heinz 57 — we don’t have one particular style. Nico is truly blessed with natural abilities and that makes him so much easier to teach.”

After becoming the first American light flyweight to medal in the Olympics since Michael Carbajal, Nico was honored in Wichita with a city-wide parade. He will make his professional debut against Patrick Gutierrez (0-2), Las Vegas, on March 25 (CBS Sports Net, 9 p.m. ET) in a scheduled six-round flyweight bout headlining a Knockout Night Boxing-promoted card at the Kansas Star Casino in Mulvane, Kansas.

“Our struggles, that motivations me,” said Nico. “I’m fighting for my family. We did not have a lot of money and just not being able to pay bills, using water on the stove to take a bath, that kind of stuff. My mom and my dad and my brothers (and a younger sister), I want to be able to provide for them. I want to make them a better life than what I had growing up. And I don’t like to lose. That’s motivation for me to keep working hard and keep doing what I do.”

Nico said that he also clutches the memory of friend Tony Losey deep in his soul. A tough kid with a predilection for trouble, Losey rose to USA Boxing’s No. 3 ranking among welterweights. He was training for an Olympic qualifier and working as a subcontractor at a steel fabricator when a 12,000-pound tank fell and killed him in September 2014.

“Tony was like a brother to me,” said Nico. “My dad trained him and we shared the same room. The way kids look up to me now, that’s how I looked up to him. We said that we were going to go to the Olympics together and we would turn pro together at the same time. It motivates me to carry on my dream, carry on both of our dreams.”

Nico said that while the anxiety of performing well in front of the hometown crowd adds a sprinkle of pressure, he will not be thwarted from his game plan, which is to firmly establish his footwork, control the terrain and pace, and refine the mechanics of his defense.

“I’m not going in with a focus on stopping him,” said Nico. “I’m not going for the big shot. I want to fight my fight and box. We’ll see: if the time comes and I hurt him, I’ll jump all over him.”

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