Daniel Hernandez: Bulletproof, Motivated, Beating the Odds
By Thomas Gerbasi
It was the conversation no one wants to have in boxing, the one where you tell a fighter and his family that it’s time to hang up the gloves. But as Alex Camponovo, matchmaker and General Manager for California’s Thompson Boxing Promotions, made his way to speak with the family of Daniel Hernandez, it wasn’t discuss a 40-year old journeyman, a beat up pug who was relegated to ‘opponent’ status.
Hernandez, 20, wasn’t even there. He was in a hospital with a gunshot wound to the head, left for dead outside a closed industrial clinic after a random shooting, saved only by a quick acting cleaning crew that called an ambulance for him. Seven hours of surgery at Lynwood’s St. Francis Medical Center followed, but the prognosis wasn’t good. If he survived, he would – at best – be partially paralyzed and probably lose his hearing and speaking ability.
He survived. And three days later, he woke up. His hearing was fine, he wasn’t paralyzed, and his speech was apparently okay too when he told his manager Eddie Gonzalez, “Okay, let’s go, we gotta go home.”
“It’s really a miracle,” said Camponovo, but despite his survival, there was no way he could ever be like he was before, let alone fight again. “When he survived this, originally my conversation with the family was like ‘well, maybe his career will be over, maybe he’s never gonna be a boxer again, for obvious reasons, but he’s got his life, he’s young, he’s got a lot to look forward to, he can probably get a job.’”
That wasn’t going to be good enough for “El Travieso,” and as a rising lightweight star with a 10-0 (6 KOs) record, why would you even expect him to accept his fate.
“I saw myself going up and heading into the next level,” said Hernandez, whose thudding body attack led him to a fifth round knockout of veteran Baudel Cardenas on January 22, 2010. In late March of that year, he was shot after leaving a party in Maywood. “My fight that I was supposed to have that month was gonna be my first eight rounder, and from that point I wanted to keep going up and up, and getting to that point to getting that belt.”
Ask him what he remembers of that night, and it’s basically a blank.
“Just leaving the party and basically that’s about it,” he said. “I heard gunshots go off and the next thing I remember was waking up in the hospital and I didn’t know what I was doing there. They told me I got through everything and I was like it’s time, I need to get out of here.”
The shooter was never caught, and Hernandez was left with an uncertain future…well, uncertain to everyone but him. Remarkably, he was released from the hospital two weeks after surgery, and his first stop wasn’t a shocking one, as he went to the gym. For him, this was just a minor setback, or maybe not even a setback at all.
“As time moved on, all the doctors, from the guys that saw him first to the neurologists, they couldn’t believe how well this kid recovered, and his heart, and how bad he wanted to be normal again,” said Camponovo, who knew what was coming next. The kid wanted to fight, but how could he possibly do it after surviving a gunshot wound to the head and while walking around with half a bullet still lodged in his jaw?
“I thought it was gonna be devastating for him and I felt that he was never gonna be able to recover or fight again, but it’s amazing,” said Camponovo. “He wants to fight.”
Tonight, he’ll get his wish. Over two years after cheating death, the 22-year old from South Gate returns to the ring in a six rounder in Mexico City against Jose Lopez (3-1, 0KO). The soft-spoken Hernandez couldn’t be happier.
“It feels good,” he said. “It’s about time and I can’t wait for Friday to show everybody that there’s nothing wrong with me and I’m back.”
In terms of a young man beating the odds and continuing to pursue a dream, it’s a feel good story of the highest order. But is it safe for him to compete in a sport where there’s danger present for those who haven’t lived through seven hours of brain surgery?
“They (doctors) told me I had to go through a lot of procedures and I went through everything they told me,” said Hernandez. “I even went to a specialist for that and everybody told me I was good.”
More specifically, Camponovo and Hernandez spoke to the California State Athletic Commission and followed their recommendations in terms of extensive pre-fight testing for Hernandez, and he’s passed. He hasn’t applied for a CSAC license yet, and there are precedents for those with previous non-boxing related brain surgeries to get licensed, if not in California, at least in other jurisdictions, such as former world champions Marco Antonio Barrera and the late Edwin Valero. But getting a license after any sort of brain bleed or inflammation is going to throw up red flags in front of any commission, regardless of it not taking place in a boxing ring.
“He’s gone through every single test that the California State recommends – an MRA, and MRI, and all types of special testing that’s required with a case like that - and we took the recommendations of one of the neurologists of the commission, Dr. (Richard) Gluckman, and he passed the test,” said Camponovo. “But before we went up in front of the commission and the medical board and get him denied, we decided to see if he’s in fact ready for a fight, not mentally, not neurologically, because he’s completely fine, but just to see how he’s gonna develop after two years of not fighting. I don’t want to get him denied and then have an uphill battle.”
It’s likely going to be a prolonged fight, but with Hernandez having received a green light from doctors, tonight’s bout will go a long way in seeing whether he’s at any added risk of injury having gone through his ordeal in 2010.
“I’ve seen him in the gym and I was a little concerned in the beginning because he didn’t lose any of his ability, but he was a little rusty,” said Camponovo. “But now he’s looking better, and even looking better than before and he’s so amped and anxious to get in the ring, it’s pretty amazing.”
And when you ask Hernandez the toughest part of getting back on the proverbial horse, the fighter immediately comes out.
“To tell you the truth, there were no difficult adjustments,” he said. “Once I got out of the hospital, I went straight to the gym and started working my muscles again. I came out of the hospital very, very sore, but I went back to the gym, loosened everything up, got everything back to how I used to have it, and from that point everything has gotten good. I’m training even harder so I can be stronger than I was before.”
The way he sees it, he’s no worse for wear than he was before he got shot, and in his mind there was never any question that one day he would don the gloves again.
“Everybody told me that I’m a lucky person because I’m still here, especially that I’m alive after getting shot in the head, because nobody survives that,” said Hernandez. “So I still belong here and I haven’t finished what I started and that’s the same in the ring; I haven’t finished what I started, and I have to finish it.”
Do his parents agree with his decision though?
“My parents never told me no or yes, they just told me it was always up to me,” he said. “If I really want to do it, I have to put my heart into it, and that’s what I did. They’ve seen me spar, and my dad sees that I’m the same person as before.”
You’ve got to have a certain level of bravado to step inside a ring and do battle with another man. Hernandez has always had that, and a bullet to the head hasn’t taken that swagger away. But when you go beyond that layer that allows him to take the pain of a fight and keep moving forward, he will muse about what he lost in the last two years.
“Time,” he said. “The time goes quick. I just want to pick up from where I was and finish where I want to finish, with that title.”
It’s going to be a long road, one longer than it was going to be before March of 2010.
“I’m optimistic and I think he’s gonna do well, but I’m always concerned, especially in a situation like this,” said Camponovo of tonight’s fight. “All the rust can show up that night and anything can happen. Danny’s fighting a tough guy and he’s fighting in Mexico City with all the altitude.”
True, but is Jose Lopez tougher than a bullet?
“Everybody tells me that this was a miracle,” said Hernandez. “In the beginning they told my parents there was a good chance that I wouldn’t make it and if I would, I would be paralyzed. And once I woke up, I moved everything and I wanted to get out right away, get off my bed and everything. Tonight, I’m just going in and going for the victory. There’s no pressure, I’m just gonna do what I gotta take care of. Training and sparring, you can’t compare that to being up in the ring fighting. It’s a whole different story, and it’s what I miss the most, being up in that ring.”