Nico Hernandez earned the U.S. its first medal in men’s boxing in eight years Wednesday, although what color medal he gets might not be determined until Sunday.
Hernandez assured himself of no worse than a bronze with a unanimous decision over Ecuador’s Carlos Quipo in a light-flyweight quarterfinal. But he didn’t do it alone.
Before each fight, Hernandez climbs into the ring, turns toward the turnbuckle, kneels and then prays. With him, he says, is Tony Losey, a former training partner he long considered a big brother.
Losey, a talented light-heavyweight, died two years ago in a workplace accident, ending the dream Hernandez had of competing alongside his friend in Rio. Hernandez, grieving, quit boxing, deciding he couldn’t go on without Losey.
Then he hit on another idea: He would go to Brazil and win a gold medal. And Losey would go with him.
“[He’s] always with me,” Hernandez said after Wednesday’s victory. “My brother, he’d be so happy right now.
“When I’m in my corner praying, I know he’s right there with me. And I know he’s looking after me, watching over me.”
That Hernandez made it to Rio is almost as miraculous as the run he’s been on since arriving here. The 20-year-old failed in his first two attempts at making the Olympic team before qualifying in March.
“His transition between October and now has been amazing,” said Coach Billy Walsh, who joined U.S. Boxing last fall, about the time Hernandez caught fire.
Hernandez has been even better in the Olympics, upsetting Russia’s Vasilii Egorov, the No. 2 seed, in his second fight.
But he got off to slow start against Quipo, a two-time Olympian, losing the first round on two of the judges’ scorecards.
So Walsh, who coached Irish fighters to seven medals in the last two Olympics before leaving for a five-year contract to turn U.S. boxing around, made some changes between rounds. Stay back, he told Hernandez, use feints and force the smaller Quipo to come to him. And when he does, counter with uppercuts and body shots.
The strategy worked -- though when the referee raised Hernandez’s hand in victory, the stunned Quipo dropped to the canvas in tears. However the decision didn’t surprise the American.
“I definitely thought I had the victory,” he said.
Next up is Hasanboy Dusmatov of Uzbekistan, the reigning Asian champion. Win that bout, and Hernandez advances to the final. Lose and he still goes home with a bronze.
But Hernandez didn’t promise Losey a third-place medal, even if it is the first prize the U.S. has won since heavyweight Deontay Wilder won a bronze in 2008.
“I know he’s with me here in spirit,” Hernandez said of his big brother. “I know he’s happy up there. He’s smiling right now.
“I’m not going to focus on the bronze medal. I came here to get a gold medal, and I won’t be satisfied until I get the gold.”