L.A.'s Unknown Champion : There's De La Hoya, the Ruelases . . . and Hernandez (?)

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As hooks go, Genaro Hernandez has a great left but not much of a promotional.

In a town where Oscar De La Hoya makes news as "the Golden Boy" and the Ruelas brothers broke in as "the Candy Kids," Hernandez labors under the unwieldy, "Hi, I'm your next-door neighbor, the World Boxing Assn. champion."

Simply being a top-drawer fighter might be OK in San Antonio, but it doesn't play in Los Angeles.

"It has nothing do with ability," promoter Bob Arum says. "It's the ability to draw at the box office."

It matters not that, of all the current L.A. champions, Hernandez, 28, is the most accomplished. With a record of 31-0-1, he has held his WBA junior-lightweight title since

Nov. 22, 1991. Only World Boxing Council 105-pounder Ricardo Lopez, among current champions, has reigned longer.

The night Hernandez won his title, De La Hoya still was dreaming of Olympic glory at Barcelona. The Ruelas brothers, Rafael and Gabriel, were out in Sylmar, still touching up the script on their rags-to-riches story.

And since, Hernandez has plugged along, knocking down every pin set in front of him.

So, how did the others pass him by?

"All he has is one of the best boxing styles out there," says Rudy, his older brother and trainer.

Oh, is that all?

What Hernandez lacks most is, well, punch.

De La Hoya won the gold medal, had a gripping story line and wrote his own ticket, signing a multimillion-dollar deal with HBO before he was sized for his first championship belt.

The Ruelas brothers rose from a chicken-coop ranch in Mexico to become champions and, last Jan. 28 in Las Vegas, became the first brother team to successfully defend titles on the same card.

By sheer boxing inertia, De La Hoya and Rafael Ruelas were bound to fight May 6 in Las Vegas in the biggest matchup of local champions in 20 years.

It will be a record purse for lightweights, with De La Hoya earning $1.725 million to Ruelas' $1 million.

Hernandez?

He's psyching himself up for Friday night's no-win fight against Jorge Paez as part of a first-rate Forum Boxing card at The Pond of Anaheim.

Hernandez will earn $250,000 for a ring date he views as a public relations problem.

"(Paez) has a lot to gain, and I have a lot to lose," Hernandez says.

For one thing, De La Hoya has already mopped up on Paez, knocking Mexico's clown prince of boxing out in two rounds.

If Hernandez does not do the same, the De La Hoya comparisons will be inevitable.

Also, after the fight was set, the WBA announced it would not sanction it because Paez is not ranked in its top 10.

As with a good hook, timing is crucial in boxing. Again, outside the ropes, Hernandez's has been less than precise.

As De La Hoya moves onward and likely upward in weight class, a once highly anticipated showdown is fading fast.

Arum, who promotes De La Hoya and the Ruelas brothers, holds the local cards.

"It's really sad to see." Arum says, "At one time, De La Hoya-Hernandez was as big as De La Hoya-Ruelas.

How did this happen?

Chalk it up to circumstance, pride and business.

In October of 1992, there was a $500,000 offer on the table for Hernandez to fight De La Hoya.

Hernandez only had to beat Raul Perez first.

Hernandez made the mistake of whipping Perez too convincingly, knocking his challenger out with a devastating left hook to the body.

For a still-inexperienced De La Hoya, Hernandez was not what Arum had in mind after all. The $500,000 offer disappeared.

Last December, Arum invited Genaro and Rudy to his Beverly Hills home to consider another deal. Arum offered Hernandez $300,000 to move up to lightweight and fight last Feb. 18 for De La Hoya's World Boxing Organization title.

If Hernandez prevailed, he would be guaranteed $750,000 to meet Gabriel Ruelas, WBC junior-lightweight champion. Hernandez would not be asked to give up his WBA title to fight De La Hoya.

"It was a free shot," Arum remembers of the offer.

Hernandez was insulted. As a reigning champion, not only was he being offered $200,000 less than was on the table in 1992, but he would be making $1 million less than De La Hoya.

No dice.

"I don't regret it at all," Hernandez says of refusing the offer. "He wasn't even a (major) champion and he was going to make more money than I was?"

John John Molina took Hernandez's spot on the Feb. 18 card and lost a unanimous decision to De La Hoya, who came of age in victory.

Hernandez admits one of the reasons he is not more famous is his own fault. Rather than signing on with one of the big three--Arum, Don King or Dan Duva--he remained loyal to the Japanese company, Honda, that has promoted him from the beginning.

For this, Hernandez is more famous than De La Hoya . . . in Tokyo.

Asked why he still has not landed the big fight, Hernandez concedes, "Two things: I don't have a gold medal and I don't have a promoter from here."

Locally, Hernandez fights under the Forum Boxing banner.

Arum says the lack of exposure has "minimized his successes."

Loyalty, Hernandez says, is more important:

"I'm not making as much money, or getting as much publicity, but I'm happy. These guys promised they would take me to the title, and they did. They haven't done anything wrong to me."

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The whole thing is Rudy's fault, really. Not unlike the Ruelases, the Hernandezes were a budding brother act in the early '80s. Genaro bypassed the 1984 Olympics and turned pro when he was 18.

Rudy, his older brother, was an up-and-coming welterweight, having won one of the first Forum tournaments in 1982.

Unlike Genaro, who never has to diet to make weight, Rudy ate his way out of boxing. In 1988, he mounted a short-lived comeback as a light-heavyweight.

"I did have a brother who boxed," Hernandez says, almost mournfully. "But I guess he didn't take care of himself."

Genaro was left to fend for himself--a boxer in L.A. without a gimmick.

He also has been cursed with chronically brittle hands, a boxer's bane.

There have been three operations on his left hand, two on his right. Sometimes after fights, his hands swell from wrist to finger tips.

Though not naturally a big hitter, Hernandez said he often has to hold back on his punches, which explains why only 15 of his 30 victories have been knockouts.

That still does not readily explain why Hernandez plays Robin to De La Hoya's Batman.

The Hernandez story holds its own with De La Hoya's rise from the streets of East Los Angeles and the Ruelas brothers' migration from a ranch in Jalisco, Mexico.

Hernandez, one of six children, grew up in South-Central L.A. He says boxing saved him from the streets.

"Boxing and my father," he says.

When Genaro was 9, father Rodolfo kept his son busy--and exhausted--with boxing and soccer.

Genaro, better with his hands than his feet, turned fists into dollars. Until 1992, he, wife Liliana and small daughter Amanda Raquel lived in South Central.

During the L.A. riots, Hernandez watched from his window, at 36th Street and Maple, as neighbors looted.

"Instead of the mothers teaching their kids, they'd go out and support what they were doing," Hernandez says.

From his window, Hernandez watched drug deals go down, heard the gunfire. When finally a drive-by victim was gunned down in front of his apartment building, Hernandez moved his family to Mission Viejo.

With a chunk of prize money, he plunked down $45,000 for a down payment on a nice tract home.

"It's hard to get a bank loan when you're a professional fighter," Hernandez says. "I'm not sure whether they think, sooner or later, I'm going to have to give up the house."

The move hasn't been easy.

"It's too quiet," he says of Mission Viejo. "I've only got one friend out here that I really talk to, the neighbor across the street. I used to be able to go out and there's people to talk to or play around with. It's hard to get used to. It's just a different climate."

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There is still time for Hernandez to cash in on his talent, but not as much of it as there used to be.

"This is the year Genaro makes the big money," Rudy says. "Look at the division. Where can Gabe Ruelas make this kind of money? Look at Oscar. After (Rafael) Ruelas, what's next for him?"

There is talk that Hernandez, should he get by Paez, will fight Gabe Ruelas in June.

"That's a fight we'd all like to make," Arum says.

But Arum wonders if Hernandez's tender hands will hold up.

And should he beat Gabe Ruelas, will there be a clamoring for Hernandez to at long last fight De La Hoya?

"I'm not even going to put it in my head that I still have a chance," Hernandez says. "It's been two years. Everybody's talked about it, but I don't see them putting down a contract."

Regrets?

"No, I never regret anything," he says. "If we don't come to an agreement, I guess it was something that was never meant to happen."

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