Eduardo “Rocky” Hernandez arrived at the Cancun Convention Center for his WBC super featherweight title bout against champion O’Shaquie Foster around three hours before the opening bell would ring. Convention centers, as one might imagine, aren’t equipped with locker rooms as an arena would be, so the dressing rooms on this night were either empty halls that a day prior had hosted some sort of tech convention, or a curtained off area within them. On this night, Hernandez and his team dressed and prepared in an empty meeting hall alongside all of the other fighters competing that night listed on the right side of the bout sheet, the B-sides. It might not have been the exact setting Hernandez had envisioned his big moment taking place, perhaps he dreamt of it being at Arena Coliseo or Madison Square Garden, but it was a long way from where he’d been just a few years prior. 

Hernandez was once one of the most highly touted prospects in the sport of boxing, declared a sure-fire world champion in his teenage years. The results in his early career validated those scouting reports. He turned pro at the age of 16 and by 19 was already rated No. 4 by the WBC at 130 pounds. Then, in 2019, he was unexpectedly blitzed by Roger Gutierrez, calling everything into question in the mind of the boxing public. He was written off as a one-dimensional puncher with no durability, another ill-conceived product of hype. In order to rebuild, he retreated to obscurity, to the places fighters go to do just that. A circus ring in Ciudad Victoria. A local basketball court in La Paz. An empty parking lot outside of Wild Card Boxing in the midst of the deepest depths of the pandemic.

A combination of the long road ahead, the low paydays on the club circuit and the uncertainty the pandemic created in the sports world in general had Hernandez considering retirement. He told those closest to him that he was considering finding other work. Among others, his manager, Hector Fernandez, convinced him to stay the course, and found him slots on Matchroom undercards in Mexico. After violent knockout wins over Jorge Castaneda and Jorge Mata, and an eventual release from a contract with Disrupt Promotions, Hernandez had a new deal, and a path to a world title shot against Foster. A stay-busy knockout win over Hector Garcia in July confirmed it for real. 

Hernandez made a promise to his family and to his daughter that he would become a world champion. 

Although he was surrounded by five other fighters and their respective camps in the meeting hall turned locker room, Hernandez turned the entire space into his own. With a folding table and a semi-circle of chairs aligned for members of his team and family, a Bluetooth speaker filled the entire room with his songs of choice. For about two hours straight, Hernandez and his team blared a collection of songs from various Rocky soundtracks. As Eye of the Tiger, No Easy Way Out, and Gonna Fly Now played on a continuous loop, Hernandez worked his way up to wailing the pads as his coaches barked encouragement at him. Before finally heading to the ring, Team Hernandez, most of whom wore matching red “Rocky” headbands, held one final prayer circle. When he walked to the ring, it was indeed to the Rocky theme, the one he’d played perhaps a dozen times in the locker room earlier. 

Through eight rounds, the fight unfolded as it must have in the story Hernandez had written in his mind, beating a more talented boxer with sheer attrition. Hernandez’s vaunted power was most certainly a threat, but it wasn’t staggering blows that were winning him rounds, it was constant, dogged pressure. After eight rounds, one judge had the fight a shutout, one had it 78-74 and another had the fight even. In effect, Hernandez would have needed to win just one more round on the second judge’s scorecard to secure a split-decision victory and a world title. 

By the ninth round however, Hernandez appeared tired, and knowing the calculus of the scorecards thanks to the WBC’s open scoring system, Hernandez’s corner concocted a plan to take a round or two off to preserve energy. 

Foster and his trainer Bobby Benton also knew the realities of the situation however, and Foster started spending more time in the southpaw stance where he could land looping lead right hooks. In the eleventh round, he stunned Hernandez early with a right uppercut. Suddenly, Hernandez was looking to his corner for guidance in the middle of the round, at one point, almost turning his back entirely. Somehow, he managed to turn the tables and buzzed Foster, flurrying along the ropes to end the round that will almost certainly be a Round of the Year contender, if it isn’t already the clubhouse leader.

It's in this moment that the movie in Hernandez’s head, of which he was the main character, led him astray. With three minutes remaining in a fight that would have netted him a world title if he could simply hear the final bell, his corner gave him the advice he was looking for in the middle of the round 90 seconds earlier. 

Hector Fernandez, who was also in his corner, first needed to know that his charge was cognizant of what was happening. He asked Hernandez what his name was and what round it was. Hernandez answered correctly, and volleyed a question back.

“How are you doing,” he asked.

“Terrific. Just do me a favor and go out there just like the 10th round, move and break his attack with clinching,” said Fernandez.

Hernandez said no.

“I’m not asking you, I’m telling you,” said Fernandez, becoming more heated.

“He hurt me in front of my people. It’s time to kill or be killed,” said Hernandez.

“Rocky, don’t let your balls get in the way of making history goddammit.”

At this point, Hernandez’s father intervened, pleading with his son to “go out there and box.”

Hernandez looked at his father and “sorry, no can do.”

As he wished to do, Hernandez came out swinging and met his demise. Perhaps even if he’d tried to box, he would have suffered the same fate, but one look at the clock at the end of the bout suggests that a few more lapses in action would have got him to the finish line. As Hernandez was battered around by Foster, Hernandez threw his headband onto the carpeted floor of the convention center, strands of his long black hair falling to the floor along with it, as he ran around to the other side of the ring to the chagrin of the commission.

No one could reason with the heart in this moment, not his manager, not even his family whom he’d promised a world title. 

Before long, Hernandez was off the canvas for the second time, swaying in the wind as Foster uncorked combinations, and Hector Afu had to do what Hernandez’s soul wouldn’t allow him to do. At 2:38 in the final round, needing only to stand for 22 more seconds, Hernandez was officially stopped.

Following the bout, Hernandez and Foster embraced in the changing area, telling one another that the trash talk prior to the fight was “just for show.” It was a kind gesture from Hernandez, but the truth of the matter was that he believed in the show all along, the Rocky sequel in his mind, and it was his undoing.

Harsh reality set in later that night at the local hospital, in tears as he laid in his bed, his face bruised and scraped, his eye being stitched. Fernandez pulled out his cell phone and told Hernandez he wanted to show him his favorite part of the fight. Hernandez was in no mood to relive any of what had just happened, but Fernandez insisted.

Fernandez played the final scene of Rocky I. 

“Keep your head up Rocky,” said Fernandez. “You lost to Apollo Creed to become known. Next time you’ll become a legend.”

With tears in their eyes, the two embraced, as Hernandez told his manager he loved him.

Those were the final words they spoke to one another for the rest of the night, the sounds of the emergency room filling the air, rather than the triumphant soundtrack they’d hoped for.