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The Fighting Hernandez Brothers

July 6, 2010 17 comments

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Another of my boxing stories is featured here, this time about a family of fighters, the Hernandez brothers.  It’s a story of overcoming odds, winning great victories, enduring brutal losses, experiencing tragic events, and, where possible, keeping on despite all the blows.  Rarely has a single family produced as many good boxers as this one did, but as the story goes into, there was a price to be paid.  The article originally appeared in a paper that no loner exists, the Omaha Weekly. Boxing seems to give journalists license to take a more literary approach and I pulled out all the stops in this one.

NOTE: The Hernandez brother who was perhaps the most accomplished in the ring, Art Hernandez, passed away recently. He was a world-ranked contender for a time, holding his own with some tough hombres.  He once fought an aging but still dangerous Sugar Ray Robinson to a disputed draw in Omaha. Most observers felt Art should have been given the decision.

 

The Fighting Hernandez Brothers

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the Omaha Weekly

 

Armed with fists of fury and cajoles of brass, the Fighting Hernandez brothers strode into town from the sun-baked Panhandle to whip nearly all comers in Omaha ring events from the late 1950s through the mid-1970s. Ferd, Art and Dale Hernandez each left their mark on the amateur and professional boxing scene, not only here, but regionally and nationally as well. The brothers’ lives inside the ropes were filled with more than the usual pugilistic triumph and failure. Three of them achieved Top 10 rankings — Dale as a lightweight and both Ferd and Art as middleweights. They fought all over the globe. They crossed gloves with several world champions, including some legends. They held titles. They got robbed of some decisions. An injury ended the career of one. A bad beating spelled the beginning of the end for another. A fourth brother, Chuck, never really had the heart for boxing and quit after a brief and uneventful career.

Life outside the ring has also held more than its share of highs and lows. There have been wives, girlfriends, kids, breakups. Separated by a year in age and quite a bit older than their male siblings, Ferd and Art were fast buddies and, by all accounts, bad influences on each other — indulging in vices that fighters-in-training are supposed to avoid. “We had too much fun together,” Art said from the south Omaha home he shares with his wife, Mary, and their children. “We were bad — that’s for sure. I guess we had no will power.” He said things got so bad even his big brother realized it was best if he moved on. “He knew that if we were together we wouldn’t be right, so he went west. The greatest thing he ever did for himself and for me was to get the hell out of town.” Ferd went to Las Vegas of all places.

After compiling a 35-10-3 record as a pro, Ferd incurred a detached retina that forced him to retire early at age 33. He stayed on in Vegas, becoming a main event referee, a straight man in the “Minsky’s Burlesque” show at the Aladdin and a casino bartender, before contracting liver disease that killed him at 57. Art finished with a 44-20-2 pro mark. In his post-boxing life he worked the security detail at Douglas County Hospital, often responding to calls in the psyche ward, before becoming chief of security. A freak accident in 1997 led to his left leg’s amputation. Dale, the hardest puncher of the bunch, slugged his way to a 37-6 pro record, but his disdain for training led him to quit before ever maxing-out his ability. A trucker by trade, Dale has spent the last several years in and out of prison for assault. Today, he is persona non grata with his surviving brothers.

Born in Minatare, Neb., Art and Ferd moved with their family to Sidney, where the Hernandez boys were weaned on The Sweet Science by their father, Perfecto “Pete,” a former glove man himself. The old man worked his sons hard. For Perfecto, now caring for his Alzheimer’s-stricken wife and the mother of his six children, Rebecca, in Cheyenne, Wyo., boxing was an art form whose object was skillfully avoiding being hit while laying leather on your opponent. “His thing about boxing was defense,” said Art, the only brother still living in-state and, according to some local ring observers, the best boxer, pound-for-pound, produced by Nebraska the past 40 years. “His philosophy was, ‘Hit, and don’t get hit.’ We just moved and moved and moved and threw a lot of jabs. He never yelled. He just told you exactly what you were doing wrong. ‘Throw more jabs, boy. Throw more upper cuts, boy.’ It was always, ‘boy.’”

From the time they were 5 and 6 years old, respectively, Art and Ferd were urged to scrap by the old man, who fashioned a makeshift ring at home and ran a gym Sidney boxing boosters built for him in town. “That’s where we learned everything that we knew. There were always fights,” is how Art describes those early years. “He had us sparring all the time. He was a great inspiration.” The two tykes became a kind of novelty opening act on local fight cards when their dad had them fight exhibition matches before regularly scheduled bouts. Art said that while definitely pushed into boxing, he genuinely liked the sport and only threatened quitting once under his father’s heavy hand, “but it never happened.”

As the brothers began dominating the junior boxing circuit, they quickly made names for themselves as tough little hombres. The Midwest Golden Gloves tournament, once a huge draw at the Civic Auditorium, became their personal showcase. They represented the southwest Nebraska district out of Scottsbluff. Art so outclassed the field he became the first fighter to win five Midwest Gloves titles and, after capturing his fifth, tourney officials told the then-19 year-old he was not welcome back. Ferd won two Midwest crowns and used the second as a springboard to do something his younger brother could not — win a national Golden Gloves championship (taking the 1960 welterweight division title in Chicago). Despite the brothers being virtually the same size, their father kept them in separate weight divisions for good reasons: one, to double the family’s chances at winning trophies and titles; and, two, to placate Mama Hernandez, who forbade her sons from ever fighting each other “for real.”

Fresh off his championship, Ferd, along with Art, competed for spots on the 1960 United States Olympic boxing team during tryouts in Pocatello, Idaho. At the tryouts Ferd lost in the finals and Art bowed out in the first round. While their bid for Olympic glory ended before it could begin, they scored a coup when Idaho State University boxing coach Dubby Holt, scouting prospects for his program, offered them scholarships. “He wanted a brother team and, so, we said, ‘Sure, why not?’ and we went there,” Art said. Things did not pan out for the pair in Pocatello, where they spent more time carousing than working, a pattern that played out over and over again whenever they teamed-up. Back home for Christmas break, Perfecto sized up his sons and determined while they were not cut out for school, they just might have the right stuff for prizefighting.

Art turned pro first, signing with Omaha promoter Lee Sloan, who acted as his manager and matchmaker. “When I turned pro, Sloan asked me, ‘Do you think you can be a world champion?’ And I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘Well, then, you’re mine.’ That was a motivating thing my whole life.” He trained under the tutelage of veteran handler Sammy Musco, a former prizefighter. Musco refined his punching style. “When he first started training me, my left hook used to come all the way around, where his style of fighting was to stay in tight and just throw it with leverage. Just a real short punch. It worked all the time. He was a good trainer — no doubt about it. He’d make you work and make you work.”

As Hernandez tells it, his first pro fight was nearly his last. Matched in a 4-rounder against Ray Terry of Chicago, he easily out pointed his foe the first three rounds but in the fourth he got careless and was dropped by a hard left to the jaw. He won the decision, but the pain was so brutal for so long he considered hanging up the gloves for good. “I thought, ‘Oh, shit, if this is the way it’s gonna be, I don’t want to do it anymore.’ I went back home for a whole year. I was weighing not to come back at all because that punch hurt me so bad. But there was nothing there for me in Sidney, and so I just decided to go back and do it to it.”

Ferd entered the prizefighting arena a few months after Art’s debut. Once Art overcame those nagging doubts to resume his career, he and Ferd notched a few more wins under their belts. Then, according to local boxing historian and former matchmaker Tom Lovgren, their shared manager, Sloan, decided one or the other had to go. It seems the two were raising such hell together that, in Sloan’s view, they were holding each other back and, so, he decided to separate these modern Corsican Brothers. He reportedly asked a promoter friend to overmatch the boys, vowing to keep the one showing the most poise in defeat. The fights were made and, as expected, each lost. The verdict: Art stayed on, while Ferd left for Las Vegas, just then evolving into a hot fight market.

By the mid-60s the brothers’ careers began taking off — each emerging as middleweight contenders. Before long, they were fielding offers to fight each other. “Yeah, we had offers,” Art said. “Well, he was rated No. 2 and I was No. 3. I asked my dad what he thought about it and he said, ‘Hey, you’re in the game for money. If the money’s right, take it.’ But, you know, our mom said, ‘No,’ and that was it.” In 1964, a young, inexperienced but promising Art got his first brush with immortality when matched with six-time world champ Sugar Ray Robinson, by then in his 40s but, as the saying goes, possessing every trick in the book. When the fight was initially made, Hernandez admits he felt intimidated by the Robinson legend. “When my handlers first mentioned the fight I thought, ‘I’m going to be killed,’ but then as I was training I got in terrific shape and I thought, ‘Well, shit, I’ve got nothin’ to lose — I’ll give it all I got.’ Which I did.” A steamy Civic Auditorium was the site of the 10-rounder, which went the distance and ended in controversy when a cagey Robinson, sensing he was behind, twice hit Hernandez below the belt. No fouls were called, much to the fans’ dismay. “I’m sure he hit me below the belt intentionally, but…that’s the fight game, you know?” Hernandez said.

Most ringside observers gave the decision to Hernandez, but the judges scored the fight a draw. “I won that fight. There’s no doubt about it,” Hernandez said. “I boxed him superbly, and then he tried making a butt of me. He slipped a punch one time and spun a little bit and slapped me on the ass. It made the crowd laugh.” He said while Robinson was ring savvy, his arsenal had little else left. “He didn’t have real hard, sharp punches. It was mostly slapping stuff. He never hurt me.”

Mere months after that tussle, Hernandez’s manager, Sloan, died of a massive heart attack. “That broke my heart,” he said. For the next few years he fought for Dick Noland, also the manager of heavyweight Ron Stander, who often sparred with Hernandez at the old Fox Hole Gym and once said of his much smaller and more agile partner, “He’s harder to hit than a handful of rice.”

Ferd was at the Robinson fight and after seeing how well his kid brother performed he grew confident he too could trade leather with the best. He proved his point a year later by winning a split-decision over Sugar Ray at the Hacienda Hotel, among the venues Ferd headlined at during the “Strip Fight of the Week” cards his promoter, Bill Miller, founded. Although both brothers became top contenders in the middleweight division, neither ever got a title shot. Art always felt Ferd hampered his chances by letting his Las Vegas camp change his style from the pure boxing stratagem their father instilled to more of a close-in style ill-suited to him. “That was his downfall. Instead of moving and boxing and slipping punches, he became a come-in fighter. He got hit too much. Then, he got that detached retina (in 1968). It’s too bad…he was a terrific boxer.” As for himself, Art chalks up his lost opportunities to ring politics, bad breaks and stupid choices. In a career of what-might-have-beens, he was often only one win away from landing a championship bout, but could never quite close the deal.

Perhaps his biggest frustration came in a 1969 duel with former champ Emile Griffith, then still in his prime. Fought in Sioux Falls, S.D., the well-boxed bout went the full 10 rounds and, in a reversal of popular opinion, Griffith was given a split decision. “The fight was a good fight,” Hernandez recalled. “I loved it. He was well-versed in boxing. I can remember bulling him into the ropes and throwing a lot of body punches, which is something I never did. I just saw where he was susceptible to it.” As against Robinson, Hernandez felt he clearly won, but again fell victim to scoring vagaries. “I don’t think it was close at all. Those yokels that judged the fight for Griffith were completely out of line.” What hurt most, he said, was the fact a victory might have set-up a title challenge. “I knew I was at my peak when I fought Griffith. If I had won that fight I probably could have fought for a world championship.” In the end, he said, “I guess I wasn’t impressive enough. There’s a lot of politics in boxing with the judging and the ratings and all that kind of crap.”

Hernandez had other chances to catapult himself into a title slot, but he always came up short, whether it was bad breaks or just plain bad habits. For example, a cut he suffered to his eye forced the stoppage of his first fight with world champ Nino Benvenuti in Rome and a leg injury he suffered in preparation for his second fight with Benvenuti in Toronto hampered his movement during the 10-round fight, which he lost by unanimous decision. The night before his match with former champ Denny Moyer in Oakland, Art reverted to his old ways by partying with Ferd. He paid for it in the ring the next night, losing a unanimous 12-round decision. He had more than his share of success, too, twice winning the North American Boxing Federation middleweight title and evening the score with Moyer in a 12-round decision in Des Moines. Ferd also faced the best, losing to Benvenuti and Luis Rodriguez, beating Robinson and boxing to a draw with Jose Gonzalez for the World Boxing Association American middleweight title in Puerto Rico in 1966.

Art’s toughest opponent? “That would have to be Jimmy Lester. He never stopped coming. I was in very good shape for that fight, but God, he would just pump and pump and pump. He was a tough guy. He beat me in a split decision.” Hernandez said while he never made much money fighting, and didn’t care much about the size of his purses anyway, boxing did let him see the world. His favorite stop? Marseilles, France. “The Mediterranean. Beautiful, man.” The worst stop? Vietnam, where he went as part of a USO tour during the war. “It was really disheartening to see all those kids in hospitals with their arms and legs shot off. It was terrible.”

While an injury forced Ferd to stop fighting, it took Art getting KO’d three consecutive fights to finally call it quits in 1973. “Bennie Brisco stopped me in three. Jean-Claude Bouttier stopped me in nine. And, in the last fight I had, Tony Licata stopped me in eight. After that, I thought, ‘Well, there’s no place else to go.’ So, I just gave it up.” He made an aborted comeback attempt when he started sparring with his up-and-coming brother Dale. “Once, he hit me somewhere on my head and I just tingled all over. I took the gloves off and said ‘That’s it. I’m done forever.’” He turned his attention to helping train Dale, the last great fighter in the Hernandez line. Where Ferd and Art were consummate boxers, Dale was a classic slugger. “He was a terrific puncher,” said Art, who often worked his corner. “Dale’s whole idea was he could knock anybody out and so he didn’t think he had to train too much. That was his problem.” The approach worked well enough for a time, with Dale securing a No. 9 world lightweight ranking, but the gambit caught up to him in a junior welterweight bout against Lennox Blackmoore. The sight of his brother beaten to a pulp at the hands of the counter punching Blackmoore was too much for Art to take. “I about had a heart attack in that corner because he got the shit beat out of him. I told Dale at the end of the fight, ‘I’m done working in your corner. I will not take it anymore.’ I never worked his corner again.”

After that thumping, Dale was never the same again, falling farther and farther off the training wagon. Away from boxing, Dale’s behavior spiraled violently out of control. He has done hard time for a series of aggravated assaults, the latest of which finds him serving a stretch in a Cheyenne, Wyo. jail. He is estranged from his once close-knit family. “I don’t know what his problem is. I have nothing to do with him anymore,” Art said. “I don’t even talk to him.” Just thinking of what his brother once was and could have been makes Art sick. “He could have been world champion. At 135 pounds he could whip anybody in the world. At 142 pounds he was too small. But he wouldn’t train to get down to 135. He wanted to play.”

With Dale out of the picture and Chuck living quietly in Des Moines, Art pined for the old days with Ferd, but they were separated by miles and lifestyles. Then, when Ferd became terminally ill in the mid-90s, Art and his wife Mary, a nurse, flew him out to Omaha. The change in the former world-class athlete was drastic. “I did not recognize him,” Art said. The couple cared for him the last three weeks of his life. He died in their home on July 17, 1996. Most of all, Art misses his brother’s “sense of humor. He was a funny guy.”

Two years later Art experienced the next biggest test of his life when, while clearing storm-strewn branches from the roof of his father-in-law’s house, he slipped and fell to the pavement below, his lower left leg shattering upon impact. He underwent eight surgeries to repair the damage. Then his recovery suffered a severe setback when infection set-in. Faced with months more of painful rehab and the possibility of infection redeveloping, he opted to have the leg amputated below the knee. “I knew that in order to get well, it had to be done,” he said, massaging the stub under the prosthetic he wears. He fought depression. “A lot of times I thought, ‘What am I doing here?’” He credits his wife for seeing him through it all. “If it weren’t for this woman, I’d be dead.” Friends helped, too. His old sparring chum, Ron Stander, hooked Hernandez up with another ex-athlete amputee — legendary pro wrestler “Mad Dog” Vachon, who lives in Omaha. “Ron called me and said, ‘I’m going to take you to Mad Dog’s because he’s got a leg like yours,’ and from there we become friends.” Hernandez made a quick recovery, resuming work four months later. He retired a couple years ago and, today, draws a county pension, enjoys watching televised fights and, like many old jocks, doubts this era’s competitors could have stacked-up with his generation of warriors.

In an era when boxing is largely dead in the state, Hernandez is the last link to one of Nebraska’s great sports dynasties. Leave it to Omaha boxing historian Tom Lovgren to put the family boxing legacy in perspective. About Art and Ferd, he said, “They could step up to fight anybody in the world. They showed no fear. They were animals.” About Dale, he reminds us, “At 135 pounds, he could beat anybody in the world.” Today, many pounds over his fighting trim, Art Hernandez battles diabetes and high blood pressure, but this still proud man is not one to wallow in Why me? pity. “Things happen,” he said, “and you just gotta go with the flow.”

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