Bringing hope to fellow Salvadorans was key to Hernandez's success

10/3/2008 - Boxing
Who says nice guys finish last? Former world champion Carlos Hernandez does his part to be a positive role model. AP Photo/Jane Kalinowsky

Watching it happen in front of you, you could have been excused for thinking Carlos Hernandez had been born and raised in El Salvador, the tiny Central American country teeming incongruously with hopeful, world-worn souls and displaced Los Angeles gangsters.

He wept through the postfight interviews after beating David Santos for the IBF super featherweight title in Las Vegas way back in 2003, and thanked all his fans back in El Salvador, which was where his heart was, it was easy to see.

Hernandez wasn't born in El Salvador; he was born in California. His parents didn't even meet while in El Salvador; they met after immigrating to the United States and settling in California. But throughout Hernandez's battle with Santos, then Salvadoran President Francisco Flores cheered from ringside alongside several dozen flag-waving Salvadorans bused in from Los Angeles.

There is a 10,000-seat arena named after Hernandez in San Salvador, the nation's capital, and though he dislikes the term "celebrity" as a way to describe his status there -- "celebrity is like, Brad Pitt," he says -- the word fits.

"When I'm there it seems like I'm related to everyone," Hernandez told ESPN.com, and chuckled. "Everyone's like, 'I'm your cousin,' or, 'I'm your uncle.' And they're not."

That's what Hernandez gets for being the first, and thus far the only world boxing champion of Salvadoran descent. It doesn't matter that it wasn't an undisputed title or that he managed just a single defense (against Steve Forbes) before losing the belt to Mexican champion Erik Morales in Las Vegas in 2004.

It doesn't matter either that in his other very big fights, against Genaro Hernandez in 1997, Floyd Mayweather in 2001 and Jesus Chavez in 2005, Hernandez came up short. In a recent comeback win over Hector Alatorre after two years off, Hernandez, who is 37 years old now, didn't impress. No matter. He remains royalty in the land of his ancestors.

El Salvador has seen its share of tragedies -- from a brutal civil war that lasted throughout the 1980s, to frequent earthquakes and landslides, to a murder rate that is among the world's highest. It is against this backdrop that Hernandez, modest of skill and temperament but with a real prizefighter's heart, emerges as a hero.

"[When I won the title] I cried during the interviews because it was very emotional; I did it for those people [in El Salvador]," Hernandez said. "They are poor people and have no heroes. To bring them hope and happiness was very special for me and my family."

Hernandez's status there is, though on a smaller scale, comparable to Manny Pacquiao's in the Philippines. Hernandez says that when he fought in El Salvador (against Roberto Avila in 1998 and Juan Angel Macias three years later), there was no crime in the capital because everyone was watching him fight. Impressive when you consider El Salvador has the highest homicide rate of any Central American country and one of the highest among all Latin American countries.

But then, though he grew up in the United States, it is not as though he is unfamiliar with the land. Hernandez spent many childhood summers vacationing in El Salvador under the care of his grandmother and great grandmother. The place his family came from has always been in his life and he goes back three or four times a year.

His parents came to the United States, Hernandez says, to find a better life. They were "typical lower-middle class people who worked hard but were still poor." He says his father didn't own shoes until he was 14 years old. His parents found the life they were looking for (and each other) in America, but El Salvador was always home.

"I thank God I'm from El Salvador," he said. "When I won [the title] I knew the celebration we had was for the millions of people watching me. I feel like I was born there. I always feel sad leaving. The United States is my home but I always felt like I was leaving a piece of myself in El Salvador."

It was during one of those long-ago Salvadoran summers that Hernandez's grandfather gave him the nickname "El Famoso" -- the Famous One -- which he still dons today.

"I would always get in fights," Hernandez said. "My dad would come from the United States and bring toys for the kids in the neighborhood and I would grab them and get into fights. [All the neighborhood kids] would go to my grandfather and say, 'Junior hit me,' and my grandfather called me 'Famoso,' saying, 'This kid is famous.'"

That was before the rapid rise in gang activity and violence that has plagued the capital in recent years and made San Salvador one of the most dangerous cities in the Western hemisphere and El Salvador more dangerous even than Colombia, according to violent crime statistics.

Experts estimate that there are 20,000 gang members in El Salvador, most of them the children of Salvadorans who fled to the United States to escape the civil war. They grew up in poor, inner-city neighborhoods, primarily in California, got into trouble with gangs and were deported back to El Salvador in large numbers in the 1990s. Most are members of MS-13, the notorious gang that formed in Los Angeles in the 1980s. The seriousness of the situation is not lost on one of the country's favorite sons.

"There is a big problem; there's a lot of it there," said Hernandez. "I grew up around it in Los Angeles so when I go to the capital I feel like I'm in L.A. I know it was made in L.A. and was imported to El Salvador. It's something they have to fix. It's an epidemic."

It's unfortunate and inevitable that not even a fully successful comeback by El Famoso would cure all or any of El Salvador's woes. But if he can keep fighting, keep giving his people a hero to root for, it surely couldn't hurt.

The Ring's senior writer William Dettloff co-wrote the book "Box Like the Pros" with Joe Frazier.