Team USA boxer Nico Hernandez, “The Pride of Wichita, Kansas,” pulled what one Olympic announcer called “the biggest upset in the tournament so far” by bravely and aggressively winning his second match Monday against a more experienced Russian boxer Vasilii Egorov in Day 3 of Rio’s 2016 Olympics.
“I just stayed focused the whole time...all of these fighters are the best in the country, “ Hernandez told NBCSN in the post-fight interview. “So I just stuck with the game plan and executed.”
(Photo Credit: zimbio.com)
Hernandez’ father told reporters that one of his son’s biggest strengths is his ability to adapt. Egorov is a southpaw and a downhill, relentless pugilist and Hernandez had to do a lot of adapting -- and surviving.
“The first round was close so I went back to the corner and spoke to my coaches,” Hernandez explained. “They said, ‘Don’t lunge in…let him come forward and hit him.’ That’s what I did and it worked out.”
Hernandez executed a wicked game plan orchestrated by veteran amateur coach Billy Walsh, who has been in charge of the U.S. program since late last year. Walsh predicted Egorov would rack up a high volume of wild punches, and he instructed Hernandez to chill, block the big shots and counter with his own flurry of combos and body blows. Hernandez won 29-28 on all three cards.
I first met Hernandez back in June when I interviewed three of the American male boxers who qualified for the 2016 Olympic Games: (Light flyweight Nico Hernandez, outspoken, hands smoking bantamweight Shakur Stevenson from Newark, N.J. and middleweight Charles Conwell from Cleveland Heights, Ohio).
They hosted a media workout at the famed Gleason's Gym during their lone trip to New York for the United States Olympic Committee's 100 Days Out celebration.
While Jersey and Cleveland have produced their share of boxers, Hernandez is from Wichita, which is hardly known as a hotbed of sweet science talent.
As soon as we started speaking I could see he had a fighter's mentality. His tattoos bear the story of pain he's endured, including the twin brothers he never got to meet. He had a silent assassin swag to him. He spoke quietly but his words were assertive and oozing with bravado.
“I'm really the biggest thing there in boxing, Hernandez told TSL before lacing up his gloves to do some ring work with his teammates. “ Boxing's not big at all out there (in Kansas). I like it. I drive down the highway and see my name on billboards and stuff. People honk at me. It’s inspiring. I never thought I’d ever be in that position.”
The 5-4, 108-pound Light flyweight started boxing at age 9...“My dad actually didn’t want me to start boxing. My uncle, Michael Hernandez, was a pro and I went to the gym with him a couple of times and it made me interested.”
Nothing would be easy for Hernandez on his Road to Rio. He didn’t qualify for the team until the midnight hour.
“I won the first Olympic qualifier and had a chance to make it at WSB and I fell short,” Hernandez recalled while leaning on the gym ropes, almost reliving the moment of agony.
"Finally in the Olympic Trials in Nevada, I won that and it qualified me to go to Argentina where I had to place top two... and I took silver in that and I got my spot finally.”
“Even that Olympic Trials win was challenging," Hernandez added. "Most of the opponents at these competitions...I had faced before and knew I would beat, but there was one older competitor and everyone was waiting for us to fight. I ended up having to fight him three times over the span of a week and I took the first one and the last one -- the one that counted.”
That’s what Nico hopes to do at these Olympic Games. His soft spoken demeanor transforms into that of a vicious predator when he’s in the ring and under siege.
That was no more apparent than in the third round against Egorov, when the fighters exchanged head-rocking blows in the center of the ring. Hernandez took some heavy shots in these first Olympics without headgear and he came right back and doubled up on his delivery.
(Nico Manuel Hernandez and Russian star Vasilii Egorov slug it out in Rio)
The NBC announcers raved about Hernandez’ gutsy performance. He’s the perfect example of how unexpected stars are born every four years at the Games.
“This kid barely has any international experience,” said one Olympic boxing announcer. “To step up on this big platform and defeat the No. 2 seed like he did is very unexpected and he has a lot to be proud of. “
Added another NBCSN analyst: “And to fight...with an ankle that he rolled about a week ago and then fighting (Egorov) 48 hours after he made his Olympic debut…(incredible)”
On Saturday, the 20-year-old Hernandez won his opening round fight against Italy’s Manuel Cappai. The dramatic win over Egorov secures Hernandez a spot in the semifinals and lifts the USA’s record in boxing matches to 3-0.
(Photo Credit: boxingnewsonline.net)
“This (win) is a big boost of confidence,” said Hernandez, who will brawl against Carlos Quipo Pilataxi from Ecuador in the Wednesday afternoon quarterfinals at 3:15 p.m.
“I want to be one of the top two guys here,” Hernadez said. “I’m definitely looking forward to my next fight and getting my way to the gold.”
All of the setbacks and the perseverance, killer instinct and tempered confidence has accelerated Hernandez’s growth and pushed his potential as a fighter.
He definitely has the heart and before he ever stepped into the ring at these Olympic Games, he knew his crew young of guns would make a dent in these games.
Hernandez let it be known at Gleason’s gym back in April: “I think we have a really strong team," he told TSL. "We are really young, but really hungry,” “We have great chemistry as well. I think we're going to do what we gotta do.”
So far he ain’t neva lie.