Michael Conlan exploded out of the Olympics in a blaze of righteous glory, signaling to all with a raised middle finger that he’d be one to watch exiting Rio. Claressa Shields, who last fought March 10, on “ShoBox,” secured her amateur legacy with another gold medal, repping the U.S.A. with precision and power.
We fight fans, who fixate more on the pro game, find ourselves wondering how all this shakes out, two, three years down the line…Which amateur will best acclimate to the pro style and hammer his or her flag into the punch-for-pay terrain? Can heavyweight Tony Yoka get more gold in the pros after making France proud? Shakur Stevenson had U.S. fans poised to shower him with adoration but he butted fists with a Cuban and made do with a silver. Robson Conceicao is a lightweight gold medalist from Brazil snagged by Top Rank Promotions. And then there was Kansas-based hitter Nico Hernandez; he grabbed bronze in Rio, taking the first men’s medal since 2008, and he will now transfer his attention to the pro sphere.
I put it to the 21-year-old Nico point blank, wanting to measure his level of confidence and see how he’d react to a direct query of his level of proficiency: Nico, are you one of the best or the best boxer to come out of Rio?
The young man who took the medal at light flyweight, at 108 pounds, didn’t flinch or hem and haw with his answer. “Of course I think I’m the best,” he told me. “I know Shakur got silver; he’s a great fighter but I don’t look at myself as any less as fighter. I accomplished many things; I lost maybe two titles in 12 years boxing.”
And tell me about that boxing hotbed, Kansas. I know what I know from Dorothy but not much more…
“It’s windy right now,” he said. “People think I live on a farm but nah; Wichita the city is the biggest in Kansas, though that’s not saying much. It’s not very big. It’s definitely different from New York, not very fast moving. Where I live, there are shootings every night. It’s the north side of town. There are gangs, kids and people not thinking right. And why I was on a bad track and that’s why I got into boxing. I think you find the best fighters in the hood. Could I have gone either way? I was pretty good…A lot of kids I knew are locked up; a couple are dead. I try to stay away from that.”
The gym was a natural place to gravitate toward, as Uncle Mike Hernandez fought pro. “Him and my dad would go to the gym and I’d watch,” Nico said. And he’d mimic. He and his pals would slug it out, sometimes sparring; sometimes he’d trade with a partner throwing fists in anger. “We’d put socks on our hands as gloves,” he recalls.
At Rio, unheralded Nico beat an Italian, then a Russian. Vasili Egorov got overwhelmed and Nico got a unanimous decision. Ecuador’s Carlos Quipo Pilataxi was next. Defeated him, too. Then to Uzbeki Hasanboy Dusmatov in the semifinals. “The first round, I was slow, I thought I lost the second too…The third I thought I definitely won; they didn’t give it to me. Nothing I can do but move on. Was I tempted to give anyone the finger? “Nah,” he laughs, “I thought it was too close; I couldn’t complain.” All three judges selected the Uzbek. Nico would have to be happy with bronze.
The region and his family, of course, were exultant. Mom and dad hugged him hard. Two brothers and a sister, all younger, beamed at him, though, he jokes, they are all pretty hard-headed, so it’s not like they follow in his footsteps and just toe the line.
They can continue to follow big bro’s progress and his example when he fights for the first time as a pro. March 25, “Knockout Night Boxing: History Begins” runs live from Kansas Star Arena in Mulvane, Kansas. Nico will do his thing on TV, on CBS Sports Network. Knockout Night Boxing LLC is the promoter, so no, Nico hasn’t latched on like Shakur did with Top Rank. He’s fine with that, he said.
“My style as a pro? It will depend on who I’m fighting. I can bang or box, do both. I’m liking (WBO junior featherweight titlist Vasyl) Lomachenko’s style. My first year or so, I will fight as much as I can.”
Dad Lewis filled me in further, “Nico is a future star, most definitely. He’s the most underrated coming out of Rio, he had less publicity but more talent than any Olympian. He had the best amateur record (94-5) and no one had more amateur titles. There’s no one consistent like him. In two years, he will be at the top of the pack. We had the opportunity to sign with Top Rank and others but we got great money and will be on national TV. It’s more than decent money. And how many make their pro debut on national TV? We are from Kansas, boxing is definitely not big here; a couple have made it. Brandon Rios and Victor Ortiz were living here. We plan to accomplish a lot more. Nico will be a better pro than amateur. He always lost the first round but he knows how to win.”
Michael Woods also knows how to win. He simply runs over to Dunkin Donuts for a large Joe every morning because every cup is a winner, thanks to “Peel and Play”!
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