Hernandez loses but still feels like a winner

9/30/2007 - Boxing

Any introspective person covering boxing occasionally finds him or herself asking if the sport is too brutal, and wonders if maybe the most humane thing would be too ban boxing altogether. Occasionally we come across a boxer like Miguel Hernandez, and we're reminded that the sport can serve as a positive catalyst in a young person's life.

In 1980, Hernandez was five years old. He was living in Chicago, and his mother Elsa was having a rough time making ends meet. She was deeply depressed, and wasn't able to shake the coal-dark clouds over her head.

Her woes deepened, and she reached a breaking point.

Elsa collected Miguel and his sister, with the intent of killing herself and taking the kids with her, to a better place.

Elsa called Miguel's dad, and she alerted him of her plan. He raced over to the family's residence and pleaded with her to let the kids go. She relented, and Miguel and his sister waited outside in their father's car while he counseled their mom.

The talking didn't work.

Elsa took out a firearm, and shot herself in the head.

Miguel and his sister heard the shot. An ambulance was there quickly, but it was too late. Elsa died, and Miguel and his sister watched as her lifeless body was taken to the morgue.

"She was a great woman," Hernandez, now 33, told ESPN.com from his home in Chicago. "She had a lot of problems, going way back in her life. That affected me, and I had a hard time opening up to people."

The Chicagoan battled through the sadness and managed to focus himself to the point where he made Season 3's cast of "The Contender," after picking up the sport at the relatively advanced age of 27. Hernandez, a notoriously slow starter, dropped a unanimous decision to New Jersey's Wayne Johnsen in a fight that showed the rest of the cast and coaches that his unsculpted, 5-foot-7 frame holds an above-average portion of heart.

After the loss, Hernandez, who lives with girlfriend Yolanda Torres and sons Joshuah, 11, Jeovani, 8, and Justin, 6, didn't head home and sulk or stew.

His cousin, 32-year-old Andy Giler, is in a different kind of fight that puts Hernandez's loss to Johnsen in proper perspective. He's fighting lymphoma, and just had a stem cell transplant at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago. The boxer is pulling hard for his cousin, who gave Miguel a primer on heart on April 20, the fighter's last fight before going on "The Contender."

On that night in Cicero, Ill., Andy did as he always had done, and accompanied Miguel on his ring walk. This walk was different, though, in that Andy's feet were covered with painful lesions related to the cancer. Andy has a wife and four kids of his own, so there are plenty of other folks rooting hard for him to beat the illness.

Hernandez's "Contender" appearance almost ended before it started in earnest. He didn't make the first round of cuts, as Sugar Ray Leonard and coaches Buddy McGirt and Pepe Correa dismissed him for being too small to hang at super middleweight (168 pounds and under). So Hernandez took the slam, gathered his bags and went home. But he soon got a phone call, asking him to return because Henry "Sugar Poo" Buchanan dropped out for personal reasons.

He didn't hesitate to repack his bags and head back to the show.

The plane ride from Illinois to California, though, was a white-knuckle special. Was it a message of dissuasion from a higher power, Hernandez had to ponder?

The plane shook, rattled and dropped as it battled turbulence. At one point the turbulence was so bad, a stewardess was tossed in the air, hitting her head.

Drinks and food scattered and the interior looked like it had been stung by a tornado.

Hernandez thought the end was near, but luckily, an angel had been booked on the flight with him. In the seat next to him sat a woman named Julie, a nurse, who was on vacation with her husband. Miguel told her that he was a boxer, on his way to be on "The Contender." Julie, he recounts, told him to strive 100 percent and not to cheat himself. When the plane was tossed about, Julie talked to Hernandez, and assured him he would see his lady and his boys again.

"I was so nervous, and like a mother would do, she said, 'It's OK.' She was like an angel," he said. "I needed that to motivate me. By the time I got to California, I was so excited. I will never see her again, and I want to thank her."

Come fight time, Hernandez (20-6) entered "The Contender" arena the underdog. He started fighting at 27, had just nine amateur fights, and stood a half head shorter than Johnsen, 17-1, who played football in college.

In the first round, Johnsen, 30, fired his quick jab. It looked like he could use it to peck Miguel's eyes out, like deranged birds in a Hitchcock film. He delivered a right cross at the close of the round and it looked like Miguel's return to the show could be shorter than expected. His coach, McGirt, laced into him postround: "You gave that round away!"

In the second, Hernandez warmed up. He found a home for his right uppercut, and looked to soften up Johnsen's ribs with his right in close. Johnsen scored with the peppy jab and the right, however, and Correa told him he had two rounds in the bank.

Both fighters started out more urgently in the third. Hernandez slipped well, and landed a sharp counter right. He got Johnsen in some trouble, and the New Jersey native held on to clear his head. Hernandez scored again with a left hook, and the judges had to show him some love. He smiled and played to the crowed, joyfully, and McGirt barked at him to refocus. Correa, after the round, used a naughty word that Fox would've bleeped out if Sally Field were delivering it, as he demanded that Johnsen stick with his capable jab.

In the fourth, Hernandez didn't exactly pick up where he left off. McGirt gave it to him without a sugar coating. "You need a knockout," he told him. "What the hell are you waiting for? You're not going to get the decision. He's trying to survive."

In the fifth and final round, Johnsen piled up the jabs, and used the ring space to his advantage. Hernandez scored with a left hook, and Johnsen grabbed him to get a breather, but it was too little, too late, and the bell sounded.

The judges tallied up their cards and chose a victor. It was Johnsen, 50-45, 50-45, 48-47.

Post-bout, Miguel's gal and his boys dropped into the dressing room to console him. "You did good," his oldest told him.

"We went to war," the father said. "You guys gotta follow your heart," he said, taking the opportunity to impart a life lesson. "I love you guys, you hear me?"

"I love you too," the boys said. "You did good."

Hernandez, back in Chicago, told ESPN.com he still thinks he won the fight. But he will be content to let the fans have their say, after they watch the contest. He'll peruse the ESPN.com boxing message board, and accept the viewers' call.

"The blue team thought they'd walk through me," he said. "And with one more round, I would've stopped him. But I wouldn't change anything. I'm still not done."

And whether or not Hernandez is able to make up ground, and make some noise post-Contender, he has a handle on the game of boxing, and its importance in the grand scheme of things.

"My cousin is fighting for his life," Hernandez said. "And this is a sport."

Michael Woods, the news editor for TheSweetScience.com, has written for ESPN The Magazine, GQ and The New York Observer.