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Nico Hernandez wins pro debut with fourth-round TKO

Nico Hernandez (left) threw a punch at Pat Gutierrez during their junior bantamweight fight Saturday night at the Kansas Star Casino. Hernandez won the fight in the fourth round on a TKO.
Nico Hernandez (left) threw a punch at Pat Gutierrez during their junior bantamweight fight Saturday night at the Kansas Star Casino. Hernandez won the fight in the fourth round on a TKO. The Wichita Eagle

In many ways, the professional boxing debut of Nico Hernandez went as expected.

A raucous crow of more than 3,100 fans packed inside of Kansas Star Arena, as chants of “Nico” and “316” filled the air throughout Saturday night. Hernandez, on national television, dominated outmatched opponent Patrick Gutierrez, as an injury to Gutierrez’s right hand stopped the flyweight fight in the fourth round.

While Hernandez’s first professional victory was largely expected, the Olympic bronze medalist still found a way to exceed expectations.

“I knew once I stepped in the ring,” Hernandez said, “I wasn’t going to let my fans down.”

So much pressure was placed on Hernandez to not only win in front of his hometown fans, but to do so in style. Hernandez delivered on the promise that Sean Wheelock, who was on the broadcast team for CBS Sports Network, thinks will allow him to rapidly rise in the flyweight ranks.

“As good as I knew he was, he is even better than I thought he was,” Wheelock said after the fight. “That kid, Nico Hernandez, that’s a world champion right there. He’s a very special fighter and there’s no doubt he’s going to get on the fast track. It’s not unthinkable that he will be fighting for a world title at 10-0, 11-0 in Wichita in two or two and a half years. He’s that good.”

As an amateur and Olympian, Hernandez was known as a slow-starter. Instead of being the aggressor, Hernandez would feel out his opponent and use the first round to identify how to pick them apart in later rounds.

There was no waiting on Saturday. Hernandez pounced on Gutierrez from the opening bell and seemed to thrive off the adrenaline from the crowd to win the first round — something he’s rarely done in his career.

“I kind of got carried away because I wanted to go in there and tear his head off,” Hernandez said. “I had to pick my shots a little bit better after that.”

In three-plus rounds, Gutierrez only managed to tag Hernandez a few times with significant strikes.

Gutierrez correctly pegged Hernandez as a fighter who throws wide punches and jumps into his throws regularly, but what he underestimated was the speed and precision with which Hernandez does so. Hernandez excelled with his footwork to create the angles that allowed him to land strikes consistently.

“I’ve never had my bell rung like that in a fight before,” Gutierrez said. “And I’ve fought in heavier divisions.”

Gutierrez was also caught off-guard by Hernandez’s punishing blows to the body, an ability he hadn’t shown before Saturday. Hernandez had actually just incorporated that into his game plan in recent weeks at the suggestion of Lewis Hernandez, his father and trainer.

“That’s something we’ve never done before,” said Lewis Hernandez. “I really liked him going up the middle. We’ve never thrown body shots like that before.”

It all made for a dominating performance, as Hernandez decidedly won all three rounds before the fight came to a halt with 30 seconds remaining in the fourth round when Gutierrez’s trainer threw in the towel and the referee decided to stop the fight.

Gutierrez said he re-injured his right hand, which he broke one year ago, on a punch thrown in the first round. But the injury didn’t become obvious until the fourth round when Gutierrez grimaced and signaled to his corner that he was in pain. Moments later, the fight was stopped.

Although it wasn’t the kind of knockout Hernandez was looking for, he left no doubt he was the superior fighter on Saturday.

“I know a lot of people underestimate (my power) because they’ve never been hit by me,” Hernandez said. “I mean, I don’t look like I can hit that hard.”

Since the fight was announced and the date set, Hernandez had felt the pressure to deliver in front of his hometown crowd.

After it was over, he finally was able to relax and enjoy the night backstage with his father.

They had shared so many moments together — amateur national championships, an Olympic bronze medal — but this one, Nico’s first professional victory, will be relished for a long time.

“This was like a new chapter tonight,” Lewis said. “He had his amateur career, then the Olympics, and now he’s a pro. That was very emotional for me when he stopped him. It’s something I’ll always remember. I’m a proud father after that one.”