Nico Hernandez’s backstory has become well-known during the first week of the Olympics—and for good reason. It is laced with love and loss and the kind of gritty perseverance that informs so many fighter’s lives. How the death, in an industrial accident two years ago, of his friend Toney Losey, himself an accomplished amateur boxer and someone Hernandez looked to as a brother, still haunts Hernandez. How the 20-year-old light flyweight from Wichita, Kan., says a prayer in the corner for Losey before each bout, hears him cheering him on from the stands and insists that Losey would have been fighting beside him in Rio.
Those heart-tugging details and Hernandez’s simple un-self-conscious emotion are a big part of why the Olympics are so compelling. But it’s clearly time now to focus on the boyish, gentle-voiced Hernandez for another reason: He is proving himself a very capable fighter. On Tuesday evening in the ring at Rio Centro Pavilion 6, Hernandez used a disciplined game plan, crisp punching and clearly superior conditioning to score a unanimous decision victory over Carlos Eduardo Quipo Pilataxi of Ecuador. The win advances Hernandez to a quarterfinal bout on Friday, meaning that he is guaranteed at least a bronze medal. For a United States boxing team that four years ago in London failed to win a single men’s medal, it is a huge accomplishment from the squad’s smallest fighter.
“It feels great,” said Hernandez shortly after the bout, his face sweaty but unmarked save for a small abrasion over his left eye. “Me and my team worked hard and we finally got to the big stage. We came here to change things for USA Boxing and bring home some medals.”
Coming into Rio, Hernandez was not the U.S. team’s most heralded medal prospect, primarily due to his relative lack of international experience. In last year’s world championships he lost in the opening round. But he is, in the words of Billy Walsh, one of the U.S. team coaches, Hernandez is “very teachable and trainable.”
“He’s come a long way in a short time,” adds Walsh, who, as the coach of the Irish national team until he took the position with the U.S. last November, coached the fighter who beat Hernandez in the 2015 worlds. “He does everything and tries everything you tell him.”
In his bout against Quipo, Hernandez displayed that capacity to adapt. The Ecuadorean started aggressively, pressing Hernandez throughout the opening round, making it difficult for him to find an effective punching range. Two of the three judges gave the round to Quipo.
But, following the instructions of his corner, and settling into the bout in the second round, Hernandez adjusted his approach. “They told me to not rush in,” explained Hernandez, patiently to a pack of American reporters in the mixed zone shortly after the bout. “They told me to use the feints, stay on the outside, use the uppercuts, because he was a shorter fighter.”
It was a cogent and businesslike explanation from a young man who is clearly a student of his craft. And for all the emotion that he carries with him into the ring, he went about his business with a calmness and precision that belied his youth and the size of the occasion. In the second and third rounds, Hernandez landed the crisper shots throughout and controlled the flow and distance of the action. Quipo, in contrast, appeared to get a bit flustered and clearly tired over the closing minutes.
After the final bell, with Hernandez standing in the center of the ring awaiting the decision, the big screen in the arena briefly flashed a shot of his mother in the stands, hands clasped and mouthing a prayer. There was no need. The scores were unanimous at 29–28, giving her son a 3–0 win and adding another, historic, element to his already resonant story.
“I think I’ve definitely set a good example for my teammates,” said Hernandez, when asked what he thought his guaranteed medal means for the U.S. team. “But they also support me, so that’s what it’s all about.”
The Nico Hernandez story continues, deeper and richer after tonight’s performance.