RIO de JANEIRO — He could feel the dream slipping away the way dreams do when morning comes. And so Nico Hernandez charged forward. He was bleeding from a cut above his eye. He was hopelessly behind on points. He charged forward and threw his last and best flurry of punches, all 108 pounds of his fury, at Hasanboy Dusmatov. Part of the crowd chanted “USA! USA!” Part of the crowd booed the chant. The knock indicating there were 10 seconds left in the fight sounded. Time, everyone could feel, was running out.
Hernandez came to Rio a virtual unknown. He was just a 20-year-old light flyweight boxer from Wichita, Kansas, a non-medal threat, another fighter in the USA’s ever diminishing stable of Olympic boxers. Ah, the lament goes, once the United States dominated Olympic boxing. But that was long ago.
Hernandez was not expected to win even his first bout against Italy’s Manuel Cappai. Everyone nodded when Hernandez got peppered the first round. But then something inside Nico Hernandez triggered, something unexpected, and he began to fight with a new energy and edge. He overwhelmed Cappai in the second and third round to take the fight. “Interesting,” a few boxing observers thought. The kid had a little something.
When it ended, Hernandez went and sat in the stands with his father. And together, they thought about Tony Losey.
* * *
Boxing, perhaps more than any other sport, rises from hunger and it builds from pain. Nico Hernandez has known both. He has had a gun pulled on him. He has seen his mother struggle with her life. His father Lewis, a truck mechanic who had spent much of his life around boxing, put Nico in the ring when he was 9 years old, just to see if he could handle the pain. Nico knew from the first moment that his nose was bloodied that this was the sport for him.
That was when he started hanging around Tony. He was five years older than Nico, and he was wild. Got in fights all the time. Got involved in some bad stuff. Trouble with the law. But there was something about Tony that enthralled Nico … and Lewis. The father began training Tony as a boxer. The son sort of followed him around as a younger brother. Tony always watched out for Nico, maybe that was the real connection. Even when he headed for trouble, Tony made sure to point Nico away.
Slowly, Tony’s boxing talent began to straighten out his life. He was good, a southpaw with real Olympic aspirations. Lewis and Nico wanted to believe, needed to believe, that the good in Tony Losey was emerging, and that it would win out in the end. And then one day, two years ago, there was word that the Boardman plant, a steel plate fabricator in Wichita, had an accident. A six ton tank had fallen. A man was dead. The man was Tony Losey.
“He was going to the Olympics,” Nico says. “He was going to win gold.”
* * *
Nico Hernandez’s second fight of the Olympics was against Russia’s Vasili Egorov, the defending European champion, silver medalist of the last world championship, Sports Illustrated’s pick for the silver medal at the Games. And one more time, Hernandez started off sluggishly. There is something about Hernandez — he never seems quite ready at the start.
“I don’t know, maybe it’s the hugeness of the occasion,” USA boxing coach Billy Walsh says.
But once again, something triggered, that combination of rage and aggression and pure nerve that creates Hernandez’s boxing style. He was raised to fight like a pro. When he first went on this Olympic track he rebelled against the amateur style of pat-pat-pat punches and peekaboo defense — it felt like they were taking the fight out of his fighting. But he soon came to realize that he just needed to fight his own way, which is to say aggressively, moving forward, crowding his opponent, overpowering him.
As if turns out, Egorov was not ready for Hernandez’s fury. Walsh and Hernandez had anticipated that, and the anticipated that Egorov would turn up his already aggressive style and being firing wild shots from everywhere. This is what happened and Hernandez fended them off easily. He won the second and third rounds and won by unanimous decision. “I knew I could do it,” he said.
Then came the third fight, the fight for the bronze medal, this one against Ecuador’s Carlos Quipo Pilataxi. The United States had not won an Olympic boxing medal since 2008, so people were watching. Back in Wichita, the Cortez Mexican Restaurant was jammed with people screaming and cheering. Hernandez said he felt that sort of support from all over America.
And, yes, one more time, he came out with nothing. He lost the first round. And, you know the drill, something inside him triggered again. He came from behind again. He won again. And this time that meant he had won a momentous U.S. boxing medal. He was a national sports star. He had shocked just about everyone in the boxing world.
“I’m thinking about my brother,” he said in the afterglow.
* * *
All the while, Nico Hernandez wanted gold. Other people, those who might see perhaps more clearly than him, could see that the minute he clinched a bronze medal, he had surpassed their greatest hopes for him. “I know people back home are really proud of me,” he says but perhaps he doesn’t fully know just how proud everyone is.
“A fairy tale, that’s what it is,” Walsh says in that thick Irish brogue that his boxers love.
Anyway, it didn’t matter, for Nico, the gold was the dream. He would win a gold for Tony. For his father. For himself.
And then, Friday, against the Asian champion Dusmatov, Hernandez could feel that dream slipping away. Of course he lost the first round, that was expected. Heck, this was the biggest fight of his life, he barely slept the night before, and he always starts slowly.
But then that thing, the Hernandez intensity and force that had become so familiar in Rio, that thing that had kicked in the first three fights, well, it wasn’t quite there. He found tentatively in the second round; it appeared that he couldn’t quite figure out Dusmatov’s awkward southpaw style. The second round did look to be close — Walsh, seeing things through the eyes of the US coach, thought Hernandez had thrown the cleaner punches and stolen the round. But all three judges gave it to Dusmatov. They were probably right.
And so, third round, Dusmatov sensed that all he had to do was “use my legs and win the fight.” He backed away. And Hernandez was left chasing and throwing desperation punches with all he had left. It was not enough.
“I waited too long,” he lamented after the fight.
He waited too long. The judges all saw it as Dusmatov’s fight and there really was no argument. “He was the better man today,” Hernandez said. He shrugged. The pain of the moment will clear soon enough. For Nico Hernandez, there will be other days.