By Ryan Songalia
When Chris Fernandez faces former IBF junior welterweight champion Paul Malignaggi on April 25 at the Foxwoods Resort Casino in Mashantucket, CT, he won't be fighting to keep some remote title opportunity alive. He won't be fighting to maintain an alphabet ranking with some organization or even to garner the attention of the TV networks. He will be fighting for survival.
At 16-6-1 (9 KO), "Kid Kayo" is being brought in as an "opponent" to help rebuild the Brooklyn spieler's confidence following three lackluster performances, punctuated by his first stoppage defeat against Ricky Hatton in November.
Self-esteem is what separates good athletes from exceptional ones. One's mental disposition can either liberate a fighter to defy common limitations or shackle them to mediocrity.
"I see a lot of fighters like Frankie Figueroa and Paulie that have a lot of confidence and for some reason I don't have that same kind of confidence," says Fernandez. "My family and trainers have that kind of confidence in me but I think it will take some time for me to see for myself."
Perhaps it's because he lives in the boxing abyss of Salt Lake City, UT, a region that hasn't produced a significant boxer since Gene Fullmer emerged onto the scene in the 1950's. As a result, adequate sparring isn't readily available to prepare him for fights. Fernandez has never had a promoter to guide his career and has grown accustomed to taking fights on short notice in his opponent's hometowns.
Fernandez recently parted ways with manager Greg Hughes, a state legislator working in Utah's 51st District. While with Hughes, Fernandez would make the trip down to Las Vegas to find sparring, working out at such notable gyms as Johnny Tocco's and Top Rank's.
"Since splitting with my manager I don't have the money to take off and go to Vegas to train for a month. It does make a big difference not having the sparring partners but all it does is motivate me even harder so I have to train harder.
"If that makes any sense."
Fernandez's last assignment was in December, facing WBC number one rated contender Devon Alexander. It was an inauspicious affair.
"I fought Devon Alexander right before Christmas. I had no money, I was damn near homeless. I couldn't buy my kids anything for Christmas.
"He by far is the best fighter I've ever fought. I don't know if it was his speed or what but I couldn't see the punches. I didn't throw any punches because I had to keep my hands up. He caught me early and hurt me and I fought as hard as I could. My corner stopped the fight after the third because they didn't want me to take any more punishment."
Fernandez hasn't held a job in three years - since the chain of fitness centers his uncle owned was bought out by Gold's Gym. Even though the Alexander fight was inopportune from a competitive standpoint, he recognized how fortunate he is to find some sort of income.
After that misadventure, Fernandez committed himself to the gym as if there was a fight ahead of him.
"I was sparring much more than I normally spar. I picked up my running. I was ready if they called me for an opportunity for three weeks to a month notice."
Before getting the call to fight Malignaggi, Fernandez had entertained several other offers, including former IBF lightweight champ Paul Spadafora. None of the offers presented made sense to him until the Malignaggi fight came around.
"When I got the opportunity, it was May 14 originally. I thought 'That's great, it gives me more time to get ready.'"
The fight was then rescheduled to the Carl Froch-Jermain Taylor WBC super middleweight championship undercard, about three weeks earlier than the initial date.
"The notice actually hurts Paulie because he's used to fighting on three months notice. I never know when I'm going to fight; I have to be ready to fight all the time."
Though Fernandez will be facing his most accomplished opponent to date, he won't be receiving his biggest payday. "I'm taking less than what most people would get for fighting Malignaggi. I think the risk is worth it. I've prayed about this and I really feel good about this fight. It's the right opponent, the right opportunity.
"I'm not taking this fight strictly for the money. I'm actually going into this fight trying to win."
Fernandez takes comfort in the fact that for a change, he won't be fighting in his opponent's hometown. "We have different judges, a different commission."
Malignaggi's recent inconsistencies suggest vulnerability, which can only help Fernandez's cause. Malignaggi, who has been noted for his exceptional punch resistance moreso than his punching clout, has been visibly hurt on numerous occasions since winning the title. Some may see Malignaggi as a wounded animal; Fernandez doesn't.
"I see him as a motivated fighter right now," Fernandez says of the 25-2 (5 KO) Malignaggi. "I think he has a lot to prove. I see a lot of people going after him because he got stopped. It shows that he is beatable."
Fernandez doesn't feel he can be content to give a spirited, losing effort. The fight isn't televised so anything short of a win on his record will not reflect positively on him.
"A loss would hurt me more than it would hurt Malignaggi. I've had opportunities to walk in that door, losing to Alexander and Ali Oubaali. If I had beaten those guys I wouldn't be in the position that I'm in today. I don't think a loss helps me at all, no matter how good I look."
At 33, the odds of him righting his wayward career are extremely long. Fernandez will likely finish his career without fighting for a world title or main-eventing a show at Madison Square Garden. But a man is a man and even in uncertain times, America is still the land of opportunity.
Time is running out for Fernandez, but common sense isn't.
"Obviously I still I have the passion because I wouldn't be fighting. I've been doing this since I was seven and I do want to be world champion. At the same time, what motivates me is financial reasons. That's the reason why I do fight and take some of the fights I've taken.
"I just think this might be my last opportunity. If I want to be able to provide for my family like this, I have to come through."
Ryan Songalia is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .