Ox Tale: Florentino Fernandez

By Mike Casey on October 7, 2015
Ox Tale: Florentino Fernandez
The great battle of Ogden against Gene Fullmer was probably Florentino’s finest hour.

Hit or be hit was the Fernandez way and you didn’t want to bet your house on the outcome of any of his fights…

Boy oh boy, he could hit! And what excitement he gave us during his turbulent 16-year professional career. Florentino (The Ox) Fernandez, the tall, strong and rangy clouter from Cuba, inhabited a middleweight division of formidable talent and still managed to shine out like a lighthouse. It was all thunder and lightning with the electrifying Fernandez, all ups and downs.

Over the course of 67 fights, Florentino fought some memorable duels with the top talent of a glittering era, locking horns with Paddy DeMarco, Jose Gonzalez, Rocky Rivero, Joe DeNucci, Randy Sandy, Jose Torres, Rubin (Hurricane) Carter, Joey Giambra, Dick Tiger, Gene Fullmer, Rory Calhoun, Emile Griffith and Ralph Dupas.

Win or lose, Fernandez guaranteed us hard-hitting entertainment and uncertainty. He won sensationally and he lost sensationally, as his rollercoaster record amply illustrates. Florentino knocked out 43 opponents in his 50 wins, suffered 10 knockout or stoppage losses in his 16 defeats and fought a sole draw at the tail end of his career against one Joe Aska at Coconut Grove in Florida.

Imprinted indelibly on my mind is a famous photograph of Fernandez draped across the ropes and being menaced by a snarling Rubin Carter at Madison Square Garden in 1962. Rubin, who was red hot at that time, took just one minute and nine seconds to knock out Florentino in a much anticipated battle of punchers. A year later, Carter would similarly blitz welterweight champion Emile Griffith in the opening round of a non-title match in Pittsburgh.

Hit or be hit was the Fernandez way and you didn’t want to bet your house on the outcome of any of his fights. Beginning his career in 1956 with a third round knockout over Pastor Burke in Havana, Fernandez was initially a model of explosive consistency as he quickly rolled his way to a 21-0 record in Cuba, scoring 19 knockouts. The cauldron of the American circuit beckoned and the tall banger with the rakish, matinee moustache quickly grabbed the attention of the boxing public.

In his American debut at Madison Square Garden in June 1959, Fernandez stopped Stefan Redl in the seventh round, but in his next two fights Florentino would quickly discover the toughness of operating in the top tier. Mexico’s teak-tough and seemingly eternal contender, Gaspar Ortega, who clocked up 176 fights before finally retiring in 1965, taught Florentino a few tricks in their back-to-back battles in Miami Beach and New York. Fernandez knocked Ortega down twice in a unanimous points win in their first meeting, but had to work hard to grind out a split decision in the return.

Speaking before the Ortega fights, the 23-year old Fernandez came across as a personable and confident man. His commanding jab, terrific left hook and whipping right hand had been well noticed by ring observers, but his calm attitude was equally impressive. Captain Bernard L. Barker, one of Florentino’s seconds, said of the young prospect: “Floro is cool in the ring because we have him fight that way. Otherwise he’d cast caution aside, tear at his foe like a savage and attempt to annihilate him. But vicious as he is in the ring, outside of it he’s quite the opposite. Gentle, polite, well behaved, but every inch of him a fighter.”

Fernandez enjoyed batting balls as well as other people and was a keen left-field baseball player. But boxing was his chosen path and many of his opponents in future years must have felt as though they’d been cracked over the head by a Louisville Slugger.

Higinio Ruiz, Fernandez’s manager, said: “Floro entered the amateurs at 17. I handled him from that time on. He scored 15 victories, losing one decision which he later reversed. Among his amateur victims is Luis Manuel Rodriguez, welterweight champion of Cuba. Now Luis and Floro are good friends, though both realize that they are rivals and some day may fight for the world title of their division.”

Funnily enough, Fernandez and Rodriguez never did meet professionally in the ring, although the incredible Rodriguez seemed to fight just about everybody else in a sterling 120-fight career that saw him crowned world welterweight champion in March 1963 when he unanimously outpointed Emile Griffith at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. It was the first of a trilogy between the two men, with Griffith regaining the title in their second meeting and then retaining it in their third, each time by a split decision.

Roof

All was going well for Fernandez after his two fights with Gaspar Ortega, but then the roof fell in. Like so many big punchers throughout history, there was a fragility about the young Cuban that was suddenly exposed. A trip to Caracas to fight Rocky Kalingo turned sour when Florentino was stopped in the first round. He made amends a month later, knocking out Kalingo in the second round in Havana, but thereafter Fernandez’s form was always erratic although consistently exciting.

Moving up in class, Florentino outpointed the clever Ralph Dupas, dropped a decision to the fast rising Emile Griffith and then registered three impressive victories over Phil Moyer, Rory Calhoun and Marcel Pigou. All three fights were staged at Madison Square Garden and gave Fernandez great exposure. He stopped Moyer in five rounds, Calhoun in eight and bombed out Pigou in the second.

The reward for Fernandez was a shot at NBA middleweight champion Gene Fullmer at the Ogden Stadium in Utah on August 5th, 1961. Fernandez lost a split decision to the tough and rugged Fullmer, but that statistic tells us only a fraction about their grueling 15-rounder.

The great battle of Ogden against the ferocious Fullmer was probably Florentino’s finest hour, even though he couldn’t quite cross the line. For Gene, the battle was a desperate and seemingly endless night’s work which encapsulated all of his magnificent fighting qualities. For Fullmer was battling two opponents during the latter part of that almighty struggle; the ever threatening Fernandez and the searing pain of a broken elbow.

A short time after the fight, champion Gene was inevitably asked who had given him his toughest fight to date. It had to be Ray Robinson, surely, or perhaps Carmen Basilio. Lord knows, Fullmer had enough names to choose from. He had crossed swords with a multitude of golden fighters from a golden generation, including Paul Pender, Gil Turner, Del Flanagan, Bobby Boyd, Rocky Castellani, Ralph (Tiger) Jones, Eduardo Lausse, Charles Humez, Wilf Greaves, Ernie Durando, Chico Vejar, Spider Webb and Joey Giardello.

Toughest

“Very often people ask me which was my toughest fight,” said Gene. “I guess they all expect me to say Ray Robinson or Carmen Basilio. They were tough fights, all of them, but the fight with Florentino Fernandez last August is one I will always remember. Florentino is a bull-like fighter who has the best single punch of all middleweights in the ring today.

“When he hits you flush with that left hook of his, you wilt. He hit me plenty when I defended my title against him, but I was winning the fight on all scorecards until the twelfth round. Then it happened. I threw a looping right hand at Fernandez and I heard something snap in my right elbow. The pain made me sick to my stomach.

“When I came back to my corner at the end of the round, Marv Jensen (Fullmer’s manager) suspected I had hurt my arm. He asked me what was wrong and I couldn’t answer him. I was afraid if I opened my mouth I would vomit. The pain from my elbow was going through my whole body, and it seemed to settle in the nerve center of my stomach. I was worried, real worried. How was I going to get through the next three rounds with only one arm? Would I be able to stand the pain? Would I empty my stomach right in the center of the ring the next time I used my right hand?”

Gene’s other major concern was not knowing how much Fernandez and his handlers knew about the injury. Did they know at all? Did they know everything and were planning an all-out bombing mission? It was never a garden party when Florentino Fernandez started bombing.

Said Fullmer: “I suspected Fernandez knew he had me in trouble because he fought with renewed vigor toward the end of the twelfth. In spite of a frenzied mind, I answered the bell for the thirteenth round with my mind made up to stay away from Fernandez as much as I could. He rushed out of his corner very unlike a fighter who had been beaten up to that point. Now I knew he was aware of how badly I had been hurt.

“I went on the defensive for the first time that night and for one of the few times in my career I could do nothing else. Fernandez chased me from one side of the ring to the other. I was still sick to my stomach. All the hours that Marv Jensen and Angelo Curley, my trainer, spent teaching me defensive boxing suddenly paid off. I was making Florentino miss with his murderous left hooks, ducking underneath each one and managing to stick a left jab into his face.

“The jab was light but it was enough to keep Fernandez off balance and make him back up a step or two. He was so anxious to knock me out, he swung himself out in the thirteenth and fourteenth rounds. When the bell rang for the fifteenth and last round, we were almost on even terms physically. He was tired and I was hurt. I knew he was tired so I just kept jabbing him, and I did it often enough to win the last round. When the final bell sounded, it was like the end of the war.

“In my own mind I thought I had won the fight with some to spare, but didn’t really realize it until I saw Jensen and Curley jumping with joy in my corner. Later, in my dressing room, the doctors told me I had fought the last three rounds with a broken elbow.”

Injuries

Those of us who have suffered similar injuries will know of the craving desire to cut our losses and retire to a quiet and peaceful place until the storm blows over. Even a hangover from too much of the hard stuff is a painful reminder of how long a day can be and how difficult it is to perform the simplest of functions.

Yet we know there is no hiding place in life, and there is certainly no refuge in the ring when Florentino Fernandez is trying his level best to take your head off. Some boxers raise the white flag, but they are a tiny minority. Most are natural born warriors at heart who regard it as their sacred duty to hear the final bell, whatever their pain and whatever the result.

Fighting in his own back yard that night, Gene Fullmer would have surely been forgiven by his home crowd if he had sat down on his stool at some point during that terrible nightmare and told Marv Jensen that he couldn’t go on. But quitting was never on the agenda for this toughest of Utah sons.

“Never once during the panic that ran through my mind did I think of quitting,” said Gene. “I had every excuse in the world to call it quits in my corner at the end of the twelfth. Nobody would have called a guy with a broken elbow a quitter. Certainly I would have had another chance at Fernandez, even if I quit right there. But, like I say, it never even came to my mind.”

Fernandez had grabbed his championship chance with both hands and put on a tremendous display. Praise from Gene Fullmer was praise indeed. Judge Del Markham had Florentino winning the fight with a score of 145-143, but was outweighed by referee Ken Shulsen and judge Norman Jorgensen, who awarded the decision to Fullmer by 145-142 and 148-140 respectively.

After a well earned five month rest, Fernandez kicked off his 1962 campaign by jumping straight back into the deep end in his bid to get another crack at the championship. He jumped straight back into another torrid battle too when he clashed with the future middleweight and light heavyweight champion, Dick Tiger. The tough and tenacious Tiger was coming into the best form of his career and stopped Florentino in the fifth round of their terrific duel at the Convention Center in Miami Beach. Having fractured Gene Fullmer’s elbow, Florentino got a broken nose for his troubles against Tiger. Do see that fight if you haven’t already. It is a marvelous give-and-take battle between two great professionals from a very special era.

Florentino’s luck was out and Miami Beach wasn’t proving to be a happy hunting ground. He was dogged by injury again three months later when a cut eye brought him a seventh round TKO loss to the artful Joey Giambra. Fernandez bounced back to score a second victory over Phil Moyer, this time at the Eugene Ballpark in Oregon. Florentino halted Phil in the seventh, knocking him down twice in that round after flooring him earlier in the second.

Two months later, however, came the shattering first round defeat to Rubin Carter in a violent, whirlwind encounter between two devastating left hookers. Carter looked quietly ominous as he kept his head down during the referee’s instructions, a powder keg ready to explode. Yet Rubin’s left hook wasn’t the catalyst of the impending annihilation. It was a chopping right to the jaw that knocked Fernandez down and put him in a daze from which he couldn’t recover. He made it to his feet but he was in a shooting gallery and couldn’t get out.

Carter, a ruthless finisher, didn’t take long to lower the boom. Backing Fernandez up to the ropes, Rubin unleashed a smashing left hook that swept the Cuban through the strands and out of the ring. Florentino had indeed been blown away by a human hurricane. It was one of the cleanest and most comprehensive knockouts you could ever wish to see.

Prior to the blitz, announcer Johnny Addie had advised the crowd of the Garden’s forthcoming attraction, a match-up between Joey Archer and Irishman Mick Leahy. Johnny got a decent rest in that one. It went the full ten.

Force

Although Fernandez was never quite the same force again after getting wrecked by Carter, the Cuban clouter recovered well from the defeat and remained dangerously explosive. He rallied to score five successive victories inside schedule over Hilario Morales, Obdulio Nunez, Jose Torres, ringwise Randy Sandy and Joe DeNucci.

The emphatic victory over Torres, who would go on to win the light heavyweight crown from Willie Pastrano, was particularly impressive. Fernandez knocked down Jose twice in a fifth round TKO victory at the Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan, marking the only time that Torres was stopped inside the distance in his 45-fight career.

Fernandez, however, couldn’t maintain his momentum and his form became increasingly unpredictable as he lost nine of his next 16 fights. He reached a low point in 1965 when he was knocked out in the second round by tough Jimmy Lester, suffering two knockdowns and a broken jaw. Fernandez suddenly looked very vulnerable and was also knocked out by Rocky Rivero and Luis Gutierrez during that bad stretch, as well as being stopped by Jose Gonzalez and Willie Tiger.

However, in the late sixties a move up to light heavyweight seemed to give the exciting Fernandez a new lease of life. He won seven and drew one of eight fights as he looked optimistically towards a world championship challenge against Bob Foster.

Mercifully, that didn’t happen as Florentino fluffed his lines in his 1972 match against Vern McIntosh at the Miami Marine Stadium. Fernandez started well, decking Vern in the opening round, but McIntosh came back to score a 10th round TKO and end Florentino’s career. No Bob Foster, no senseless hammering. It was just as well. A year earlier, in a non-title match, Foster had bombed McIntosh to defeat in three rounds.

Florentino Fernandez died on June 28th 2013 at the age of 76. We thank him for the thrills and spills he gave us.

Mike Casey is a Boxing.com writer and Founder & Editor of ALL TIME BOXING at https://sites.google.com/site/alltimeboxingrankings. He is a freelance journalist and boxing historian and a member of the International Boxing Research Organization (IBRO).

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  1. Don from Prov 05:55pm, 10/08/2015

    btw—what a great photo!

  2. Don from Prov 05:54pm, 10/08/2015

    I don’t know—three rounds with a broken elbow and no thought of quitting: there is tough and then there is Tough.  I have to add to the list of “thank you” posts for bringing back some memories.  The night that Carter knocked out Griffith—executed him really—in the first round, I had been sent to bed, no Friday Night fights was about the only punishment that I understood as a kid; however, I crept down the hall and took up a station from where I was hidden and could watch the fight—didn’t have to take too many chances on getting caught as Mr. Carter was kind enough to do his thing.

  3. Mike Casey 12:58pm, 10/08/2015

    Yes, Mike, a chilling prospect knowing that you had to get past guys of that quality!

  4. Mike Silver 12:51pm, 10/08/2015

    Thank you Mike Casey for bringing back some great memories of one of the my favorite fighters. What a terrific and exciting middleweight division we had back then. And these guys fought each other! If GGG, the best middle today, were around then he’d have to face the likes of Floro, Fullmer, Tiger, Carter, Giardello, Archer, Hank…and so on…just thinking.

  5. Mike Casey 04:40am, 10/08/2015

    Thanks, Jim. You are quite right about the very talented Fred Apostoli.

  6. Jim Crue 04:13am, 10/08/2015

    Hey Mike and Gordon,
    I too saw Jimmy Lester fight in SF in the 60’s. All action fighter. I was surprised when he knocked out Floro. Jimmy had a sad life after boxing but always kept his chin up. He passed a number of years ago. At many of Jimmy’s fights the vastly under rated former MW champ Freddy Apostoli was the ref. Ha, to me, the good old days.
    Thanks Mike for another wonderful article

  7. Mike Casey 12:50am, 10/08/2015

    Gordon, I remember Jimmy Lester very well - a real toughie!

  8. Gordon Analla 04:14pm, 10/07/2015

    The win by KO for Jimmy Lester was huge in the Bay Area.  Jimmy was known as “The Bayview Bomber” and that he was.  Another take no prisoners, bombs away fighter.  Bless them both.  May they rest in peace.

  9. Clarence George 01:33pm, 10/07/2015

    I’ve had it in Switzerland, Mike, but that doesn’t help me here.  Am also a huge fan of jellied Madrilene (with copious amounts of lemon), but no one serves it anymore.  You can’t even get it in cans.

  10. Mike Casey 12:59pm, 10/07/2015

    Priceless observation, Clarence! I too find my oxtail soup hard to get these days - that is quality oxtail soup.

  11. Clarence George 12:37pm, 10/07/2015

    I neglected to mention in my initial post that you titled your piece brilliantly.  Which leads me to further observe how much I like oxtail soup.  Very hard to find these days.  Gallagher’s used to serve it.  Perhaps they still do, but I haven’t been there in ages.  Moby Dick on Madison in the 80s (gone for decades, unfortunately) used to have Nesselrode pie.  No one else offered it then and no one has offered it since.

  12. peter 10:11am, 10/07/2015

    Good article. I always get Florentino Fernandez and Rocky Rivero mixed up.  Florentino Fernandez’s's knockout at the hands of Rubin Carter was as vicious as Rocky Rivero’s knockout at the hands of Frankie DePaula. I believe both fights were in Madison Square Garden.

  13. Mike Casey 10:04am, 10/07/2015

    Thanks, gents. Floro always seems to be liked by boxing fans and what is there not to like? And I still wonder how great Carter could have been if he had been more consistent. He was already slipping down the rankings before his famous arrest.

  14. Sean Matheny 09:28am, 10/07/2015

    Another great story Mike.  Florentino was one of my favorite fighters growing up, and your article brought back lots of fond memories.  His knockout at the hands of Rubin Carter is one of the most vicious I have ever seen, but Fernandez always was exciting.  Thanks for reviving great memories!

    I really enjoy all your stories.  Keep up the good work!

  15. Clarence George 09:03am, 10/07/2015

    Nicely done, Mike.  Heavy-handed Fernandez knew how to bring it.

  16. oldschool 08:35am, 10/07/2015

    Terrific tribute. Gaspar Ortega told me the two hardest punchers he faced in his career were (1) Fernandez; and (2) Sandro Mazzinghi.

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