ESPN’s Friday Night Fights has long been a showcase ground for up and coming fighters entering the lower to mid rungs of the top twenty rankings. The hope is to showcase a fighter a few times, hopefully match him tough but on a budget until he can graduate to Showtime’s Shobox prospect show. If the performances have been especially impressive or the fighter’s connection equally so perhaps he even moves straight to HBO’s Boxing After Dark series.
Inevitably in these showcase type of fights, there is the tough fight mixed in. There are regional title fights that move a fighter up in the rankings. But sometimes on the way to those tough matches, opponents get sick or injured and have to pull out as was the case with tonight’s main event. The original bout was a NABO junior middleweight title fight between 2008 Olympian Demetrius “Boo Boo” Andrade, a 6’1” southpaw out of Providence, RI with a record 13-0 and 9 knockouts and Derrick “Pooh” Ennis, a 31 year old, 23-3-1 with 13 knockouts acceptable opponent. On nicknames alone it looked like a good fight. Then this Tuesday Ennis got a flu that came complete with a 102 degree temperature. Understandably he had to pull out.
Promoter Joe DeGuardia of Star Boxing, who incidentally is President of the Boxing Promoter’s Association, needed an opponent and fast. They went to Terrence Cauthen, a 35 year old 1996 Olympic Bronze medalist in the lightweight division with a record of 36-7 with 9 knockouts. The 5’9” southpaw Cauthen opted instead to fight Thomas Dulorme February 17 on Shobox against a better style and size match-up in Thomas Dulorme.
With time running out and a half empty TV date, Star Boxing came up with 36 year old Angel “Toro” Hernandez, a fighter on a three fight losing streak including one TKO loss to Peter Manfredo and a disqualification. With a record of 30-10 with 17 knockouts, Hernandez is a Chicago fighter with a loyal following. His two best wins are also his last two back to back wins. One was a surprise unanimous decision win over James McGirt, Jr. in January of 2009. The other came in August of that year; a fourth round TKO of a completely past his prime Antwun Echols who was in the midst of seven losses with three draws over a four year span.
Hernandez is promoted by Boxing 360, a New York based firm young in the business but quickly growing. “Toro” was an early signing. From what one source claimed, he was sort of a “favor signing” to David Estrada, another popular Chicago fighter who made a name for himself against the likes of Shane Mosley and Andre Berto. Under 360, Estrada won his biggest fight in years against Orlando Lora on ESPN in April 2010. The fight was for a regional belt Estrada never received. Depending on which side you talk to, Estrada or Boxing 360, this set off a cold war between the fighter and promoter. What had been a love affair just hours after the win, quickly turned into Estrada and Hernandez not fighting under the 360 banner but instead taking fights with the newly formed Chicago Fight Club Promotions (CFC) , run by Cynthia Tolaymat, wife of Estrada and Hernandez’ manager at the time, Wasfi Tolaymat.
This action prompted Boxing 360 owner Dr. Mario Yagobi to file for arbitration over the contract. Estrada claimed breach of contract while Hernandez claimed that Boxing 360 did not compensate him for medical costs incurred pre and post of the Manfredo fight. 360 claimed that the lead promoter on that card, TKO Promotions, was responsible. Everyone went to court.
In the end, Boxing 360 was ordered to “use its best efforts” to get Hernandez reimbursement for the medical costs. Promotionally speaking, both Estrada, Hernandez and Wasfi Tolaymat were court ordered to give Boxing 360 7 days’ written notice of any bouts they wanted to take. At which time, Boxing 360 could decide whether or not to take part in the bout if another promoter was involved. Whether or not they did, the firm would be entitled to 20% of their fights purse. That final award ordered by the arbitration court is valid through February of 2013.
It came as a shock to Dr. Yagobi on Wednesday when he read on Fightnews.com that Angel Hernandez would be fighting on a Star Boxing card at the Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, CT this Friday night. Immediately, he contacted Fightnews.com and began calling everyone from Star Boxing, Michael Mazzulli, Chairman of the Mohegan Sun Athletic Unit, ESPN, you name it; all of it in an effort to keep Hernandez out of harm’s way. For Dr. Yagobi, this matter was not just about his contract being violated by a fellow promoter who happens to be the head of the BPA but about Hernandez’ safety. As explained to me, Dr. Yagobi had not gotten Hernandez a fight for one reason and it had nothing to do with the arbitration. The way he put it, Dr. Yagobi did not believe Hernandez was fit to fight.
“First of all Boxing 360 is the contracted promoter of Angel Hernandez,” Dr. Yagobi told fightnews.com. “I want it to be clear that the only reason that I am bringing this up at all is because safety of all fighters is our primary concern. Angel Hernandez is not physically fit to fight anyone at all let a former world amateur champion, WBO #9, WBC & IBF #13 and WBA #15 like Andrade. Hernandez is only 36 years old and physically he is already showing serious effects from major ring wars. Once such effect that is obvious to anyone is that his speech is very badly impaired. I wouldn’t care if this was a million dollar fight purse or more I would still do everything in my power to stop this fight from happening. I repeat, Hernandez should not be fighting at all. This is an absolute recipe for disaster possibly happening on national television. If this fight was to happen without our authorization I would not ask or accept any money from Hernandez’ purse. As president of the boxing association and an attorney of law, I would think Andrade’s promoter Joe DeGuardia would not want to put Hernandez or any fighter in that situation. If he didn’t know the current physical status of Hernandez he does now.”
The problems facing Boxing 360 were two fold. For one, neither ESPN nor the Mohegan Sun Casino would get involved with a dispute between two New York-based promoters. All they were concerned with was the health and safety of the fighter. The second problem was that Dr. Yagobi only has what is in his, and this writer’s opinion, only surface evidence there is a problem with Hernandez. He has, to both of our ears, what boxing people call a thick tongue, meaning, he slurs his words slightly. However, Dr. Yagobi had no proof other than what he had observed.
Consequently the Fightnews.com story, which at first had been titled “Andrade-Hernandez in jeopardy?” was later changed to “Andrade-Hernandez Update” with this addition edited in to the top of the article:
“Update: According to a source close to the promotion there is no verifiable independent report of Angel Hernandez having the medical condition claimed by Boxing 360. It is also known that Boxing 360 and Hernandez have been at odds since a June 2011 arbitration hearing when Hernandez unsuccessfully sought relief from a contract that runs through February 15, 2013.”
A battery of tests was ordered once Dr. Yagobi finished his round of calls over a two day period. To his surprise, Hernandez passed.
“Mr. Hernandez passed all the minimum tests required,” Mike Mazulli told me on a voice message left Thursday evening while I was on the radio. “In fact, he passed a couple that were above and beyond our minimum medicals which are a physical within the last year, blood testing for HIV and Hep B and C. EKG, CT scan and a neural exam. Mr. Hernandez passed all minimum medicals that are required plus some that I required to make sure he is ok to fight.”
Hernandez weighed in at 152.5 later that day. Andrade weighed a pound more. According to the Star Boxing press release Thursday night, the bout will be for an NABO junior middleweight title despite Hernandez’ three loss streak. In the end, the state deemed Hernandez ready to fight.
According to Hernandez’ new trainer, John Schaeffer, there was never any reason for concern.
“We’ve been trying to be in constant contact with this guy,” Schaeffer would tell me on Thursday, referring to Dr. Yagobi. “We had gone to arbitration because he wouldn’t fight Angel. He had this cock and bull story. We took the fight and got up here and ESPN got all upset and the commission. So we spent all day in the hospital getting scans done. The only thing they had to say about Angel was that he was in phenomenal condition. He passed with flying colors. No speech impediments.”
I was unable to get Mike Mazulli or any doctor who examined Hernandez on the phone so the fight will reveal the validity of Schaeffer’s statement. One source close to his gym, told me that Hernandez had not sparred a single round leading into a scheduled February 17 bout that was dropped for this bout. When I asked Schaeffer how rounds they had sparred, at first he told me Angel was ready to go twelve rounds. When I repeated the question he said around 30 rounds. The reason for so few rounds is that Schaeffer, whose credentials as a fitness coach can be found on his website, http://www.winningfa.../aboutJohn.html, does not believe in over sparring. With a fighter at the stage Hernandez is in his career that is understandable. However it remains to be seen if Schaeffer, whose credentials as a strength coach appear impeccable, is a boxing trainer capable of handling a championship fight. He is also the corner man for Gabriel Bracero who lost to Chop Chop Corley back in late January. All this aside, as Schaeffer tells it, at age 36 Hernandez is primed for one last run.
“He has trained with me for the last year,” Schaeffer told me, “ever since his last fight a year ago. He came to me about 180 pounds. He walks around at 154-156 now every day. There are no more weight issues or health issues. Anyone who thinks he is not healthy, or not in great shape is going to be very, very mistaken Friday night.”
At this point, I recalled to Schaeffer the one time I interviewed Hernandez back before he fought Manfredo. At the time, I had a lot of trouble understanding the fighter. In transcribing the interview, I had to rely more on the quotes of his former trainer, Fernando Hernandez (no relation) because most of what “Toro” said was inaudible. Schaeffer claims it is because English is Hernandez’ second language.
“Here is the problem with what you are thinking,” insisted Schaeffer. “He has very limited English. That is the issue. When you talk to him in Spanish it is perfectly clear. When he talks in English he sounds like he is slurring.”
Being a Mexican-American, I have many relatives whose first language is not English. Not one of them sounds like they are slurring when they speak in their limited English. Still, in the world of boxing, signs of brain damage are common place and in many circles considered simply a sad but acceptable byproduct of the business. Or maybe, Hernandez simply does not speak English very well. I hope ESPN at least explores the issue tonight.
The bottom line in boxing is that this is a blood sport. Fighter’s sacrifice their health, from their bodies in general to their brains specifically, for our entertainment, a bit of glory and money. In a dangerous sport like this, as we learn more and more about the mysteries of brain damage, the process of sanctioning fights and licensing fighters must become even more stringent. For fighters like Hernandez, 36 years old with 40 fights and 262 pro rounds under his belt following an extensive amateur career, the testing must become even more so. No knows what will happen tonight. Not even a brain surgeon could tell you. Will one punch do permanent damage? Two? A barrage? No one knows. But when the signs appear outwardly in speech or some other manner yet a fighter passes a physical or a CT scan, which sign should we pay attention to?
“They may pass all these tests and that indicates to you and to the boxing aficionados that the tests are not the right tests. Guys can pass these tests,” Dr. Margaret Goodman, former head of the Nevada State Medical Advisory Board told me last year in an interview on fighter safety.
In our conversation, we discussed Shane Mosley as an example of a fighter who may physically appear to be viable but who possesses slurred speech and dulled reflexes. The problem is that commissions don’t want to take a fighter’s license and his livelihood for fear of litigation later.
“That’s the thing,” said Dr. Goodman. “If Shane was to come before this commission again, they’d give you a whole scenario which they should do because they have to be fair and hear the case. But I would agree with you that, even though who doesn’t love Shane? Shane was an amazing champion and an amazing person in many respects but he is the perfect example of someone who should not be in the ring anymore. And how do you deal with that? This is one thing that I have professed and it is a very difficult thing and before I left, I was never able to put this together. But to me, just like you said, you gave the perfect reason why he shouldn’t be in the ring anymore but when it comes down to it, what does the commission want to do? They want to go by hard facts from tests, so they order a series of tests from a doctor that maybe has never seen him or doesn’t watch boxing, hasn’t seen how he has deteriorated from fight to fight over the years. How his speech has gotten more slurred, how he is not as quick. They don’t sit and analyze the film and that’s what needs to be done in making that determination. Yes, they have to pass all the tests like the MRIS or whatever else they send them through. That’s one part of it but the other, even greater part is just like you said, looking at what happened to an athlete from year to year. Obviously, you have to adjust for someone who is a little older. All of those factors will make you a little slower.”
Boxing is not there yet, however.
“We’re very fortunate to find a solid veteran like Angel Hernandez as a late replacement,” DeGuardia told Fightnews.com yesterday. “He’s been in with some of the best and beaten the likes of Juan Carlos Candelo, Frankie Randall, James McGirt, Larry Marks, and Antwun Echols. We expect him to be a solid test for Demetrius.”
DeGuardia, who I was unable to get on the phone for this article, fails to mention Echols was ancient and past it, a near tragedy himself by the time Hernandez fought him. JC Candelo won the December 2002 rematch over Hernandez from their January fight of that same year. Frankie Randall was 40 years old and in the midst of a seven fight losing streak that spanned from 1999 to 2002 when Hernandez got a hold of him. Three months before Hernandez TKO’d him in 4, Randall was TKO’d in 7 by Quirino Garcia, a fighter who was 28-21-1 at the time.
Now Hernandez gets to be someone’s name scalp. Such is the circle of life in boxing. Against a local favorite former Olympian ranked #9 by the WBO, by the WBC & IBF #13 and by the WBA #15, what chance does a 36 year old come forward slugger have? None.
“He will pound on him and [Hernandez] will keep coming because that is his natural instinct,” said Dr. Yagobi. “This is crazy. This is a business but we are not here to use people like this. He can get hurt. This is a sport and it is a business but at the same time you have to have certain rules.”
No matter his grievance, at this point, all Dr. Yagobi can do is helplessly watch this fight go forward.
“You can’t step on contracts and not abide by them. We have a legitimate contract that I sent Joe Deguardia. He, as an officer of the law should respect contracts, number one,” claimed Dr. Yagobi who also told me that as of late Thursday night, he had not been called by Star Boxing once during this process.
In six years and counting covering boxing, Boxing 360 is the first promoter I have seen arguing not to be on ESPN.
“Number two, we have everything to gain. Boxing 360 gets to go on national TV on ESPN. Put our logo up. Put our name up. We put our name and our fighter out there, right? And we get 20% of the purse. So which promoter would not do this? There’s a problem, right? The problem is I am worried about the guy’s health. The guy cannot be fighting. What happens he lands a lucky punch and drops Andrade? We become a hero, right? I am saying I don’t care about that stuff. I don’t even want the money. I will not accept any money if this fight happens without our authorization. I would not ask for or accept any money from Hernandez’ purse. So it is not about money. So what is it about? It is about getting the kid out. What is he going to do when he is totally incapacitated? When he can’t even provide for his family? What is going to happen then? Are these guys going to pay for him to run his family? How is that going to happen? This is outrageous.”
Some might call it outrageous. Others would call it simply the way boxing is.
It says here it is a call for improvements in our sport on a few levels. The Boxing Promoter’s Association may want to think of updating the way it treats its fellow members. From the outside, it appears as outdated as their website.
However to be fair to the local commission, they ordered more tests per Dr. Yagobi’s wishes and Hernandez passed. Not to move the goal posts but there does remain a question as to the efficacy of the tests. The damage done to the brain by boxing is a new frontier barely being studied on a comprehensive level. For now, we have to go with what we have and hope for the best or take the worst that is given to us by networks, promoters and commissions. If we want to take individual action, fans can always talk to their local commissions and ask for better standards.
“This is last minute. They don’t give a sh*t about the fighter. They care about their Friday night spot,” said Dr. Yagobi. “And they couldn’t care less who it was. But to put [Hernandez] in a fight against an Olympian who is undefeated and ranked highly by all organizations in a main event 12 round fight, you are almost writing this guy’s death sentence.”
Hopefully, that is not the case.