A professional boxing career of piling up victories and chasing championship belts is so close to finally becoming a reality that it’s difficult for Nico Hernandez not to imagine his future.
Hernandez, 21, will make his professional debut on Saturday night in front of friends and family at the Kansas Star Arena and on national television when he fights Patrick Gutierrez (0-2) in a junior flyweight bout. It comes seven months after he returned from the 2016 Olympics in Rio with a bronze medal, the first individual Olympic medal won by a Wichita native since 1968.
Hernandez wants his first world title to come within two years — “first” being the key word because he also has made it a goal to break Manny Pacquaio’s record of eight world titles held at different weight classes. And along the way he wants to become the face of boxing in Kansas, if he hasn’t already, and help the sport grow throughout the state.
“I know some guys like to wait a couple years to fight the top guys, but I plan on doing that as soon as I can,” Hernandez said. “I want to move up as fast as I can.”
John Andersen hasn’t spent much time in Wichita, but he feels like he already has a sense of the local sports scene.
“There’s two things that make sense out here,” said Andersen, a promoter with Knockout Night Boxing. “I think it’s Wichita State basketball and I think it’s Nico Hernandez.”
Andersen is betting big on Hernandez’s star power, as his company, Knockout Night Boxing, signed Hernandez to a contract that guarantees Saturday will be the first of four times he fights on national television and at the Kansas Star Arena in 2017.
The contract enhances Hernandez’s exposure and potentially his reputation, but it also creates more pressure to perform in these first four fights.
“You have to win and it’s going to be tough because it’s in front of your home crowd,” said Lewis Hernandez, Nico’s father and trainer. “To me, it’s a lot of pressure on him. But honestly, I think I’m more nervous than he is. He’s wanted this and I think Nico will rise to the occasion.”
Professional boxing also brings along new challenges to Nico, as Saturday will be the first time he is scheduled for six rounds and will fight with a smaller pair of gloves. He also doesn’t have much experience fighting without headgear.
But Andersen is confident Hernandez’s track record of success at the amateur level, where he compiled a 94-5 record and won six national titles in six years, will transfer to his professional career.
“I’m anxious to see what his power is going to look like with the new gloves,” Andersen said. “He punches like a 135-pounder, so I’m anxious to see him at 115 pounds.
“I’m thinking he’s in a big fight within his first 10 fights. I think we’re talking a big, giant fight by next year.”
Hernandez has said he aspires to be like Terence Crawford, who is from Omaha and currently 30-0, the unified junior welterweight world champion, and regarded as one of the top pound-for-pound boxers in the world.
It took Crawford 20 fights and five years after turning professional before he received his first shot at a title, which is a more realistic path for Hernandez, according to Mike Woods, a national boxing analyst for The Ring.
“It’s going to be different for different boxers and how they acclimate to the professional game,” Woods said. “In this day and age, with so many sanctioning bodies, you can see someone once they get to 18 or 20 fights, especially if they’re undefeated, getting that title fight.”
Woods acknowledged Hernandez could accelerate that trajectory with impressive wins, but says it’s too early to predict.
“I just want to let him breathe and let it develop,” Woods added. “I would want to see him fight as a pro a few times at least before I would say yes or no, I believe he can reach that world-class level. But if Nico is as talented as he thinks he is, then he’s going to get to those mountaintops he believes he can reach.”
Lewis Hernandez believes his son is capable of breaking the mold in the flyweight division and earning more money than a flyweight has ever earned before — but they’re not thinking about that this week.
“It’s really exciting to think about the possibilities, but we try not to look at that stuff,” Lewis said. “We look at what’s in front of us and we have to take care of business on Saturday night. There are no gimmes in boxing and you have to treat every fight like a championship fight.”
“I just want to show everybody my skills and how I’m not like the rest of the boxers,” Nico added. “I want to show that I’m different.”
As much as boxing is an individual sport, Hernandez knows he is fighting for more than just himself.
He feels like he is also fighting for the future of boxing in Kansas. He already has an Olympic medal and if he can add a world title to his resume, then Hernandez believes the sport could take off in his home state.
“I think it would definitely help boxing become bigger here and in all of Kansas,” he said. “I know some parents don’t want their kids doing it, but I think boxing teaches a lot of discipline and it helps keeps kids off the street. If I wasn’t boxing, I would probably be another kid on the street.”
It’s never been a temptation for Hernandez to leave Wichita and his gym, The Northside 316 Boxing Academy, for a place like California, Las Vegas or Texas.
“We have a lot of talent right here in Wichita, but we’ve never had anybody really stand out,” Lewis said. “We want to stand out and we want to leave a mark. We want Wichita to be just like those other places and we want to be known for boxing. Great fighters don’t just come from the East coast or the West coast, great fighters come from the Midwest as well.”
The road to proving that begins Saturday night.