When Wichita welcomed Olympic boxing medalist Nico Hernandez home with a parade, there were three little girls riding in the convertible with him: his sister, Chello, and the daughters of his deceased best friend and fellow boxer, Tony Losey.
"They call me Uncle Nico," Hernandez says of the two girls, Ava and Aaliyah. "I looked up to him (Losey) a lot." Now Hernandez is "Nico" to most of Wichita, and he's the one being looked up to — all 5-foot-5 inches and 108 pounds of him.
Taking Ava and Aaliyah along for his victory ride is the kind of gesture that seems to come naturally to Hernandez, whose confidence and aggressive nature in the ring belie a soft-spoken, humble demeanor outside it.
Ask him about his professional and personal goals now that he's the owner of an Olympic bronze medal, and he says simply, "Just to take care of my family. Financial wise, I want them to have more than we have had lately." At the Northside 316 Boxing Club, where Hernandez learned his sport, he's still just one of the guys, albeit a world- famous one. He likes tattoos, playing video games with friends and watches. "I just like jewelry period," he says. He's worked as a lube technician and installing sprinkler systems. During a break in the photo session for this article, he leaned down and encouraged the club's youngest pugilist, who came up no higher than his waist.
Hernandez seems genuinely taken aback by the reception he received in Wichita after his Olympic triumph. In Rio, he knew people back in Wichita were holding large watch parties to cheer him on; he says the knowledge helped motivate him. But he didn't expect hundreds to meet him at the airport and chant his name. He didn't know the city would throw him a parade through his north Wichita neighborhood, then hold a celebration at his alma mater, North High, and that Wichita State University would then offer him an open-ended, full-ride scholarship.
"Dang, I didn't know I had this much support," he says. "My city's behind me."
Of course, there is another Hernandez — a skilled and relentless warrior in the ring. It could be seen in the televised bouts from Rio, where he thrice started slowly only to come back and defeat higher-ranked opponents. The Northside 316 Boxing Club, located in a former fire station on north Market, is the place to learn about the work ethic and family background that shaped him. It was created eight years ago by Nico's father, Lewis Hernandez, for the purpose of training his son and others.
Today it holds a regulation ring, a variety of punching bags hanging from the ceiling and trophies that line the walls. But it started with a much smaller ring fitted with a plywood floor. Lewis, a diesel mechanic, did not have a lot of extra money to put into the effort. Instead, he bartered his expertise as a boxing trainer and other services in exchange for what he needed to turn it into a real gym.
"Everything you see, Lewis did this himself," says his brother, Emiliano Hernandez, who helps run the place. Lewis Hernandez says he has loved the sport his entire life, teaching himself about it by watching as many fights as possible. "My mind was always running about boxing." When Nico, then nine years old, asked to take up the sport, his father issued him a warning, "If you want to box, it's something you do seriously. You don't play boxing. You play basketball or soccer, but boxing is a sport you take seriously."
Without much training himself, Lewis Hernandez says, a lot of what he tried to teach Nico was "trial and error." But he did have a couple of guiding principles. When he watched other fighters, he would see what worked against them. "Everything they got hit with, I taught him," he says.
He also believes that nearly every fighter is naturally good at something. Rather than try to start from scratch, Lewis tries to find that one thing and "build them up from there." In Nico's case, it was a punch called a left check hook, with which his son could punish an opponent who ventured too near. "It's probably one of the best I've ever seen," Lewis says.
Nico's physical conditioning was in the hands of another relative, Lewis' uncle, Pat Villa, a former boxer himself. "Give me twenty-five," Villa shouts to a dozen young would-be Nicos (including several girls) training after school on a rainy afternoon in September. That task completed, he sends them up and down the old firehouse's concrete stairs 10 times. "They hate the stairs," Emiliano Hernandez says with a grin.
If Nico hadn't taken up boxing, he might be remembered as one of the better all-around athletes to come out of North High in recent years. He was part of basketball, soccer, wrestling and cross-country teams, excelling at the latter two sports.
"Soccer definitely helped me with footwork," he says. "Cross country improved my conditioning. Wrestling made me stronger. Basketball maybe helped my eye-hand coordination, I don't know."
But boxing was his passion and came most naturally; he won his first 25 fights. After a while, it became difficult for him to find willing opponents in Wichita. "They found out they were going to be fighting Nico," Emiliano says, "and it was like 'Hey, I don't want to fight Nico."
Nico became known for his willingness to battle bigger, heavier opponents if somebody in his weight class wasn't available. Lewis drove his son around the country so that Nico could fight, often without enough money to afford a hotel room. "They would sleep in the car and go fight, and he would win," Emiliano says.
Nico was the 2011-12 Junior Olympic National Champion, 2014 Youth Open Champion and U.S. Olympic Trials Champion, among other titles. Despite those credentials, his success in the summer Olympics was viewed as a surprise by most observers, probably because of a relative lack of international experience and promotion by the U.S. boxing establishment.
It didn't surprise the people who know him best.
"He doesn't get intimidated by anybody, honestly," Emiliano Hernandez says. Emiliano describes his nephew as a fighter able to adjust quickly in the ring, with the ability to brawl or box as necessary. “But heart and focus are his biggest strengths,” he adds.
"Watch when he gets punched, watch where his eyes were," Emiliano says. "They never leave his opponent. That shows you how focused he is."
Today Nico's record stands at 118 wins and 12 losses, including his defeat by eventual gold medal champ Hasanboy Dusmatov in Rio. Nico’s bronze made him the first U.S. male boxer to medal since 2008, and the first Wichitan to do so in any sport since 1984.
Like other U.S. medalists, Nico received another medal that he was allowed to bestow on his most influential coach. It's called the Order of Ikkos, named after an Olympic coach in ancient Greece. Not surprisingly, Nico presented it to his father.
As big of a deal as a bronze medal is, the Rio Olympics vwere no fairy tale experience for Nico. For one thing, his best friend wasn't there. Tony Losey, who also had Olympic aspirations, died in a work accident in 2014. For another, Nico rolled his ankle two weeks before his first fight while out for a run. Although the injury was kept quiet for obvious reasons, he wasn't able to resume training until four days prior to the bout.
Then again, it didn't seem to matter as Nico whipped three better-known opponents.
Surrounded by the best athletes in the world, Nico says he never lacked confidence. "I put it in my head that I'm one of the top athletes also. I stayed focused the whole time."
Unlike certain other U.S. athletes, he also didn't let any celebration get out of hand. His fondest non-boxing memory of the Olympics is doing the limbo on the beach, which a network morning news show back in the United States happened to broadcast. And oh yeah, of eating, which he says is practically impossible to do when you're fighting every other day and trying to stay below the prescribed weight limit.
"I gained ten pounds in a week," he says. Nico says he may take up WSU on that scholarship offer someday, perhaps studying business as a backup plan, but first he'll try his hand at professional boxing. Prize money in his weight class isn't normally huge, but the right kind of boxer can attract bigger-than-normal payouts.
"I plan to make the fights more exciting when I fight," he says.
Lewis Hernandez sees a possible model for his son in Manny Pacquiao, the Filipino boxer who won titles in eight different divisions, moving from light flyweight — Nico's current division — up to light middleweight.
"I think Nico will beat him" in number of titles, Lewis Hernandez says. "They still haven't seen the best of Nico."