Vahe Gregorian

Boosted by spirit of his ‘brother,’ Wichita’s Nico Hernandez energizes cause of USA Boxing

Wichita’s Nico Hernandez (left) guaranteed he would win a medal at the Rio Olympics by defeating Ecuador’s Carlos Eduardo Quipo Pilataxi in a quarterfinal bout on Wednesday.
Wichita’s Nico Hernandez (left) guaranteed he would win a medal at the Rio Olympics by defeating Ecuador’s Carlos Eduardo Quipo Pilataxi in a quarterfinal bout on Wednesday. The Associated Press

Any number of sensations surged through Nico Hernandez in the moments after his monumental victory for his family and Wichita and USA Boxing on Wednesday at the Olympic boxing venue.

But among those flashes to where this all began and the new certainty of where it all is going, one image prevailed.

Because it’s the one that’s always with him, the one that watches over him as he prays before every fight.

“I know my brother, he’d be so happy right now,” said Hernandez, who in winning his Rio Olympics quarterfinal bout against Ecuador’s Carlos Eduardo Quipo Pilataxi assured the USA Boxing men’s team of its first medal since 2008. “I really thought he’d be here with me. But he’s not.

“But I know he’s with me here in spirit, and I know he’s happy up there. And I know he’s smiling right now.”

When he says his “brother,” Hernandez means Tony Losey, a dear friend and aspiring Olympic boxer who seemed to be emerging from a troubled time in his life only to be killed in 2014 in an industrial accident after a tank weighing an estimated 12,000 pounds fell on him.

The inconceivable shock to Hernandez and his father, Lewis, who had coached them both, was so impossible to reconcile and consuming that every day for more than a month they visited the scene where the tank rolled off two sawhorses onto Tony, Sports Illustrated reported.

Ultimately, somehow, honoring Tony’s memory further fueled Hernandez’s already considerable drive to use boxing to make a better life for a family that includes three younger siblings he frets over.

So here he is, overlooked and unseeded entering the competition and suddenly one victory away from fighting for a gold medal — and promised at least a bronze since boxing awards two of those rather than stage a third-place match.

If his rise seems improbable to many, well, it sure doesn’t to him. How could it, with all he has behind him?

“The top guys,” he said, “are meant to be beat. And that’s what I’m here for.”

Not only is Hernandez soon to receive the first Olympic medal for a Wichitan since Lynette Woodard in 1984 and just the seventh overall, but he also stands a chance to become the first native to win an individual gold since decathlete Jim Bausch in the 1932 Los Angeles Games.

Even if Hernandez smiled and said, “I’m not really sure how important this is,” the implications extend well beyond the clamor in Wichita encapsulated at the scene of the Cortez Mexican Restaurant on Wednesday night.

Consider that the once-proud U.S. boxing program (an Olympics-best 111 medals in the sport) suffered the indignity of its men’s team being shut out at London 2012 for the first time since the 1908 London Games that it didn’t participate in.

That’s why back home in Shawnee, USA Boxing president John Brown said he was “high as a kite” after watching the live stream of Hernandez’s fight.

“Do I have to tell the truth?” Brown added with a laugh in a phone interview. “I cried like a baby.”

In part, that was because of the story of Hernandez, who will become the first U.S. light flyweight to win an Olympic medal since Michael Carbajal in 1988 after a rousing run that featured an upset of second-seeded Vasilii Egorov of Russia on Monday.

“It couldn’t happen to more deserving people,” said Brown, who has coached an estimated 10,000 boxers over the years and took over in his current capacity 18 months ago. “He’s such a great kid, and he did this together with his father. They come from nothing, and now the kid’s got a shot to make his life successful.

“Maybe he can turn at least a bronze medal, maybe more, into something tangible for himself.”

In the triumph of Hernandez, and with others still in contention here, Brown also sees newfound hope for tangible gains for the program itself.

As he sat in his home office on a June day, Brown spoke in generalities of the woes besetting USA Boxing when he took over.

“Problems in every aspect,” said Brown, who also is the coach of Lenexa’s Cam F. Awesome, the heavyweight Olympic trials champ who, alas, didn’t qualify for Rio after being unable to add an international component to his resume.

Brown’s fervent goal was what he called a labor of love to change the culture and mentality.

Part of apparently at least gaining traction in that direction was hiring Irish coach Billy Walsh to reinvigorate a program that since winning six medals in Atlanta in 1996 had won just seven in the next four Games.

Walsh was hired last winter, eager to take on a job that on Wednesday he equated to “a sleeping giant.”

That choice came after a nudge from the USOC that wasn’t initially welcome to Brown, who preferred to hire within the United States.

But it wasn’t long before Walsh won over Brown and others.

And since the USOC cut off funding to the men’s boxing team this year and is paying Walsh’s salary, well, maybe there is newfound win-win brewing in a resurgence that Brown said had left USOC brass elated.

“We’re going to send Billy up to the USOC on a very frequent basis with his hand out for different development programs that we want to put together,” Brown said, laughing but likely not joking. “Like everything else in life, it takes money. Now we have a chance of actually getting it.”

Maybe, he added, “we can get this ship turned back around in the right direction.”

With a first and profoundly meaningful push from Hernandez … and his ever-present brother.

Vahe Gregorian: 816-234-4868, @vgregorian