Skip to main content
Publish date:

STEP BY STEP DEVOTION TO HIS CRAFT, AND TO A FRIEND'S MEMORY, HAS KEPT CUBA'S ARIEL HERNANDEZ ON A WINNING TRACK

Author:

Stop the blood. That was his first thought. No, not the first;
first came disbelief that balled into fear that exploded into
panic. Ariel Hernandez had heard the details before racing to
the hospital: A locomotive had sliced through the side of a tiny
automobile caught on a Havana railroad track, shattering the
ribs of the driver and ripping a hole in his lung. But Hernandez
had not been fully prepared to see the driver--his best friend,
Roberto Balado, the one man he looked up to on the Cuban boxing
team--laid out on a bed in the emergency ward, awake and leaking
life through the many cuts shining on his skin.

Hernandez had to do something. That is how you think when you're
22 and the world amateur middleweight champion and an Olympic
gold medalist and people around the planet speak of the way your
hands work a beautiful magic. Action is all. Just move,
muchacho, and you can stop time. You can beat death.

So Hernandez, white cotton pad in hand, began scanning Balado,
his arms and chest and face. He waited for the slightest spot of
crimson as the blood began to ooze. Hernandez has some of the
quickest reflexes in the sport, and his vision is
extraordinarily sharp. "He's aware of everything," says American
middleweight Ronald Simms. "If you blink your eye, he can see
it. If he wants to hit some little dot somewhere on your chest,
he can hit it."

Hernandez watched and daubed, in a lightning flash, at any new
hint of red. "I was cleaning wherever there was blood," he says.
"I was trying to stop the bleeding. I was very scared." And,
ultimately, he was useless. Balado, the super heavyweight gold
medalist at the 1992 Olympics, died a few hours later. "I was
there," Hernandez says. "I saw him, talked to him. They were
working on his ribs. I told him, 'Get strong, you're going to be
all right.'"

That was July 2, 1994. Hernandez trudged out of the hospital.
Everyone had always remarked on how close the two men were, how
much like brothers, and now Balado was gone. Hernandez rode back
to La Finca, the farm outside Havana where the Cuban team
trains, sweating in the hellish twilight. He went to his room
and began to undress for a shower, and only then did he realize
the cotton was still in his hand, crusted and caked with blood
drying black. He put it down and stood under the cool water. He
dressed and then tucked the cotton in his pocket, where he kept
it for a day. Later it went into his wallet. After Balado was
buried, Hernandez returned to his house, outside Pinar del Rio,
and carefully placed the bloody cotton in an album full of
pictures and memories. But Balado's voice still followed him
everywhere. "For all my fights, I remember him," Hernandez says.
"He always used to tell me: 'You are the best. Fight your
fight.' I always think of that."

Balado was right. Hernandez was--and still is--the best, a gutty
talent who ascended to the world title through a supreme
combination of power, speed and guile. His gold-medal-winning
performance in the 1992 Olympic final against Chris Byrd of the
U.S. was a defensive gem. The following year Hernandez beat Akin
Kuloglu of Turkey 9-7 to win the world amateur championship. But
in the two years since Balado died, says Hernandez, "I've gotten
better. Because of his death, I've pushed a little harder."

So hard, in fact, that at 24 Hernandez now stands as the premier
amateur fighter--superior even to five-time world champion
heavyweight Felix Savon--on a Cuban team that figures to take
home a fistful of medals from the Atlanta Games. Since 1992
Hernandez has suffered just one loss, an 11-4 decision to
Germany's Bert Schenk at the '94 World Cup in Bangkok.
"Hernandez is the best pound-for-pound amateur in the world,"
says U.S. Olympic assistant coach Jesse Ravelo, who in '67
defected from Cuba after winning a gold medal at the Pan Am
Games in Winnipeg. "He's got everything. He's very smart in the
ring, makes you do things you don't want to do and then takes
advantage of your mistakes. He's another Sugar Ray Leonard. The
way he moves, he looks just like him."

In 1995 Hernandez typically saved his best performances for the
biggest competitions. In March he sailed through the Pan Am
Games in Argentina, stopping his first three opponents,
including Simms, in the first round. Hernandez rocked Simms
three times. The first time he connected with a right, the
second time with a left hook, then, Simms says, "he threw an
uppercut that hit me dead on the solar plexus. I never in my
life got hurt from a body shot, but that one just paralyzed me."

In the final, Hernandez beat his Chilean opponent 13-0 to secure
the gold. Six weeks later, at the World Championships in Berlin,
he demolished Eric Wright of the U.S. 16-2 and then dismantled
four others--counterpunching, attacking, altering his style to
fit the opponent, working amateur boxing's mystifying
point-scoring system as if he were playing an easy video
game--to earn his second world title. Ravelo has no doubt that
Hernandez would be a world champion if he ever turns pro. Asked
if U.S. Olympic middleweight Rhoshii Wells, fighting in front of
hometown fans, can beat Hernandez at the Atlanta Games, Ravelo
shakes his head sadly. "To be honest, I don't think so," he
says. Adds Simms: "I don't think Wells will be able to hit him."

Hernandez has heard all this, the pound-for-pound patter, the
comparisons to Leonard and Roy Jones Jr. Early on, he studied
videos of Leonard's fights. "He boxes like a Cuban," Hernandez
says, and coming from the apotheosis of Cuban boxing, this is
high praise. Hernandez grew up in the system, watching his older
brother box for the national team, soaking up the clatter and
smells of the gym. At eight he was accepted into the national
sports system and began fighting, living away from home,
learning to win the Cuban way: with footwork, defense and
stinging speed. He learned to hit without getting hit, to build
a lead and then sweep around the ring unscathed. "All of them
come out to beat me," he says of challengers the world over,
"but the other boxers can't touch me."

He especially loves facing U.S. boxers, who are so aggressive
that they play into his hands. "To beat an American is the most
important thing," Hernandez says. "Knocking an American out is
better than knocking out a better boxer. It's transcendent."

Hernandez laughs at the thought. He says he works on a physical
and mental level far above that of other fighters. "Yes, yes,
always," he says. Yet even though he insists there's no danger
of his becoming complacent, Hernandez has given off signals of
boredom over the last several months. He seemed unmotivated
while nonetheless winning two matches in the U.S. last October
and November, and he then squeaked by to win the Cuban national
championships in January. At least twice during the winter, he
disappeared for days at a time, missing workouts while his
coaches scrambled to make sure he hadn't been killed. Most
observers close to Hernandez shrug this off, saying he was
simply suffering from a small pre-Olympic letdown. But his
fiancee, Amber Hinohosa, has another thought. "He walks alone
now," she says.

Balado was his anchor. The two had known each other for a
decade, since Ariel left Pinar del Rio to go to the national
sports school in Havana in 1984. Balado was older (by two
years), bigger and more settled, and the two endured the early
lashing words of Cuban coach Alcides Sagarra together. Over the
years Hernandez found that Balado would share any possession,
keep any trust. "He helped me with everything; he taught me
boxing and life and women," Hernandez says. Hernandez moved to
Balado's neighborhood in Havana. They spent every day together.
Two days before the crash, Balado asked Hernandez to take care
of his wife, Dulce Monteagudo, should anything ever happen.

Hernandez was in the bath at La Finca when he was given the
news. He ran to where the crumpled Lada sat near the tracks.
Balado had already been taken away.

A few months later, Cuban officials offered Hernandez Balado's
old room at La Finca, but he refused it for seven months. It
didn't feel right, he said. Often he tells Hinohosa that he has
dreamed of Balado. Other times she will see him sitting alone,
and she won't press him because he looks so sad. "Every two or
three months I go to the grave," Hernandez says. "I take him
flowers. I visit him. I speak with him."

One of the few things that has cheered Hernandez in the past
year was the news that his picture was going up on the hallowed
Wall of Champions in La Finca's trophy room. In Cuba this is
boxing's highest honor. Only three other boxers have made it:
Balado, Savon and three-time Olympic super heavyweight champion
Teofilo Stevenson. "That's something I aspired to," Hernandez
says. "He always wanted us to be together on that wall."

When Hernandez speaks of this, he is calm. At times he drums his
hands in his lap to pop music blaring from a nearby radio,
rolling his head to the rhythm. Now he is sitting in the cramped
and battered two-room cottage owned by his fiancee. It is not
far from where Balado lived and the neighborhood boxing gym
named for the dead hero. A pig squeals next door. Hernandez
stays here when he is not in Pinar del Rio or at La Finca, and
he says he is content. Even opponents speak of Hernandez's
friendly nature; he loves loud music, to party, to talk, to be
with women, and he has opportunities to do all that. The Castro
regime gave him $3,000 for his world championship last year, and
he also received the prize that all Cubans covet and only the
top athletes receive: a new Lada.

He had his choice of colors--red, cream or white--and the
decision was easy. Balado's car was white. Hernandez wanted
white, too, so he could think of his friend when he drove, and
so people might see him coming down the street and think of
Balado, too. After he made his decision, Hernandez went to the
cemetery and explained himself to Balado, speaking in low tones
to the faded photo set on the gravestone, to the bones beneath
his feet. "I said that things are going well, and I have
continued to do well," Hernandez says. "I talked about the car
and why I got that color. I told him that I want to be the best
in boxing before I leave. I see him there, and I want him to
know that he's helping me."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY RONALD C. MODRA A U.S. COACH CALLS HERNANDEZ (TRAINING AT MORRO CASTLE IN HAVANA) "THE BEST POUND-FOR-POUND AMATEUR IN THE WORLD" [Ariel Hernandez running down steps]

COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS/DUOMO "TO BEAT AN AMERICAN IS THE MOST IMPORTANT THING," SAYS HERNANDEZ, WHO DID EXACTLY THAT WHEN HE OUTPOINTED BYRD FOR THE GOLD MEDAL IN BARCELONA [Chris Byrd and Ariel Hernandez boxing]

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY RONALD C. MODRA AS HERNANDEZ (WORKING OUT NEAR HIS HOME) GOES THROUGH HIS PACES, BALADO IS NEVER FAR FROM HIS THOUGHTS [Ariel Hernandez jumping rope]

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO [See caption above--Roberto Balado]