By Corey Erdman
Plenty of boxers have the backing of their hometown fans, but none have the support of their city quite like Nico Hernandez.
Ever since Hernandez won a bronze medal at the 2016 Olympics and decided to turn professional, the city of Wichita, Kansas has done everything it can to give Hernandez the best possible chance to thrive. In December of 2017, the city gave Hernandez and his family the building they had been operating their boxing club out of for $1, ensuring Nico and would-be Nicos would always have a place to train. Wichita State University also awarded him a standing scholarship which he can use at any time.
“I didn’t know I had that kind of support until I came back from the Olympics,” said Hernandez. “Wichita hasn’t really been a big boxing market, but I see what Terence Crawford has been able to do there, and I’d love to have the same thing in Wichita.”
Hernandez is now 4-0 campaigning as a flyweight as a pro, with all four of his wins taking place at home in Wichita in front of crowds on average of 3,000 or more.
On Saturday night, Hernandez picked up his fourth win, a fifth round TKO win over late replacement Victor Torres. Hernandez was originally slated to face the 19-9 Jozsef Atjai, however due to inclement weather and other complications, Atjai was stranded at O’Hare Airport in Chicago, sleeping on the floor of the airport. As a result, Torres, who works night shifts for a demolition company in California, was contacted at 6:30 AM PST the day before the fight and made his way to Wichita.
"It was an electric night. Once again, Nico made the proper adjustment that can be credited to his amateur pedigree. In the amateurs, opponents often change at the last moment and Nico has overcome many obstacles during his boxing career,” said Hernandez’s promoter John Andersen of KO Night Boxing.
The obstacles Andersen speaks of are plentiful. Hernandez might be enjoying the charity of his hometown these days, but very little was handed to him in the past.
Hernandez grew up poor, and first learned to box in a home gym in his bedroom and used a set of makeshift strength and agility contraptions in his backyard made of wood. When the gym he and his father own burned down prior to his first professional boxing match, he returned to that same bedroom to prepare for his fight.
“I don’t wanna go back to the struggle. I remember what my parents went through. I remember times when we couldn’t pay the gas bill, so we had to boil water to take a hot bath and stuff. I wanna make sure my family never has to go through that again,” said Hernandez, who also works alongside his father and trainer Lewis as a lube technician at a trucking company.
The 22-year old has endured personal tragedy as well. In 2014, his best friend Tony Losey died in a workplace accident. Losey himself was a talented fighter with Olympic dreams of his own, so when Nico injured his ankle prior to the Olympic games and was unable to train or cut weight until four days prior to his first fight, there was never a consideration of dropping out—he had to do it for Tony. To this day, he memorializes his fallen friend on the waistband of his trunks.
For all of the things that have been taken away from him through the years, Hernandez has been given plenty in the way of physical gifts. It’s quite possible that he’s one of the most athletically talented boxers in the sport today. As a high schooler, he excelled in basketball and cross-country, where he was one of the top runners in the state of Kansas. According to his strength and conditioning coach Kenny Pedigo, Hernandez’s resting heart rate is 41 beats per minute. To this day, Hernandez has maintained his cross country speed, as he’s still able to crank out a sub-5:00 mile. Often times, he’ll do his roadwork with his old cross country teammates, because it’s frankly difficult to find anyone—boxer or otherwise—who can hang at that pace.
When he’s not training, Hernandez doesn’t watch a whole lot of boxing—he doesn’t have cable—but he does find a way to watch the other fighters in the flyweight division, some of whom have started getting television exposure. Thanks in large part to the emergence of Roman Gonzalez as the consensus pound-for-pound best fighter in the world in 2016, HBO dipped into the 115 and 112-pound weight classes. Not surprisingly, what they’ve got has been a series of excellent fights and top level talents, compelling them to continue their investment in the smaller weight classes even post-Chocolatito.
“It’s good to see guys my size getting time on TV. It shows that it doesn’t matter what weight you fight at, as long as people wanna see you fight,” said Hernandez.
The first time boxing’s lightest weight classes received sustained national attention in the United States was when Michael Carbajal burst onto the scene in 1989, ultimately becoming the light flyweight division’s first million dollar man alongside Humberto “Chiquita” Gonzalez. Sub-118-pound boxing would see a revival in terms of premium cable exposure on the backs of Danny Romero, whose flyweight title bout against Francisco Tejedor broke barriers on HBO, and contemporaries Johnny Tapia and Mark “Too Sharp” Johnson.
The common thread between all of those fighters is of course, they were American, and all had significant followings in their hometowns. Hernandez’s link to Carbajal is that he was the first US male to medal at light flyweight since Carbajal did it in 1988.
While HBO’s commitment to showcasing international talent is commendable, there’s no denying that American networks would all love to showcase an American fighter. There’s no reason for the carousel of super flyweight and flyweight fights to end on HBO any time soon, and one would hope, long enough for Hernandez, who’s already enjoying exposure on CBS Sports Network for all his fights, to hop aboard in his prime.
Despite the well-deserved exposure, little men in boxing still don’t receive purses commensurate with their talent level. But it’s totally possible that the economic stimulus the lower weight classes needs is in Kansas.
The million-dollar flyweight might just be a poor kid from Wichita.