Help in his time of need
During his two junior lightweight title reigns in the 1990s, Genaro Hernandez took on all comers, but nothing the fiercely proud warrior experienced in the prize ring could have prepared him for what he is going through now as he battles a rare form of cancer. However, Hernandez is not facing the fight of his life alone. He has the support of the international boxing community and the thousands of fans that he touched with his brilliance inside of the ring and his kindness outside of it.
Hernandez fights his toughest battle with help from his friends
Posted January 29th 2009 at 01:35am
If his latest challenge were a title bout, Genaro Hernandez would be looking for his second wind to carry him through the late rounds of what has been a grueling dog fight.
But the stakes in Hernandez's current battle are higher than any of the tough 12 rounders in which he engaged during his tenure as a two-time junior lightweight titleholder during the 1990s.
Hernandez is fighting for his life, but he is not doing it alone.
Last October, the 42-year-old Angeleno was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. Since word got out to the greater boxing community, Hernandez has been deluged with well-wishes and support from people in and around the sport he's always represented with class and dignity.
"It's very touching that people have me in mind and in their prayers," Hernandez said from his home in Mission Viejo, Calif. "A lot of times, people forget about fighters a few years after they retire, and to tell the truth, I thought I was pretty much forgotten.
"That's what makes all the emails and the letters and the phone calls I've received so special. I don't even know how most of these people got my phone number, but I've been amazed at calls I got from New York and other parts of the East Coast ‘cause I never even fought there.
"A benefit that was held for me a few weeks ago was especially moving because of all the people who had flown in from New York and Texas and other parts of the country."
On January 17, a dinner and auction was held in Hernandez's honor. The fund-raising event, organized by World Boxing Cares and held at the World Boxing Council's Legends Museum in San Bernadino, Calif., attracted more than 300 people and raised $30,000 that will go to aiding Hernandez's family and help him pay his mounting medical bills, which aren't completely covered by his insurance.
The event was attended by active and retired fighters - including Israel Vazquez, Roberto Garcia, Mando Muniz and Alfred Angulo - ring officials, promoters, managers, trainers and other boxing-industry types from the Southern California area and from as far away as Japan, but it was mostly made up of fans.
Hernandez was a very accomplished prize fighter. He won the WBA 130-pound title in 1991 and the WBC's version in '97. He made 11 title defenses over both reigns. He beat the great Azumah Nelson and only lost to the young, undefeated versions of Oscar De La Hoya and Floyd Mayweather.
But if he has a legacy in the sport, it's the connection he has with the fans.
"Genaro was always just one of the guys," said John Beyrooty, who covered Hernandez's early career as a boxing writer for the long-defunct Los Angeles Herald-Examiner and watched him fight numerous times at the Great Western Forum as the PR director for Forum Boxing from 1989 to 1997. "He was the man when it counted - inside the ring, but outside of the ring he was one of the guys. He didn't have to stand out; he didn't need attention.
"He's always been an unassuming, polite, respectful, family-comes-first man."
Hernandez never placed himself above anyone else - fan or fighter.
While he held his world titles, he often attended fight cards at the Grand Olympic Auditorium and the Forum but he always sat in the $15 seats among the other hardcore fans. In the gym, he paid the same respect to young amateurs as he did top-ranked contenders and fellow title holders.
"I've never seen a world champion get out of the ring to let two kids spar to get ready for the Golden Gloves or some amateur bout, but Genaro did it all the time," said Rudy Hernandez, Genaro's older brother and former trainer. "I'd get mad sometimes because we were getting ready for a title defense and he'd tell me, ‘Their fight is just as important to them as mine is to me; we're all equals here.'
"He would go to amateur shows and talk to the kids after their fights. I would be ready to go as soon as it was over; I had things to do, but Genaro would always stick around. He gave the same time and attention to an 8-year-old kid as he would a 60-year-old promoter.
"But now I see the support he's getting from all over the country - even from other parts of the world - and it's made me realize that it eventually pays off to be a nice guy."
The outpouring of concern - from those he met during his fighting days and from fans too young to have watched him fight live - has been an eye- and-heart-opening experience to a former fighter who once thought his boxing career was plagued by bad luck.
Two weeks before the biggest fight of his life - his 1995 lightweight showdown with De La Hoya - Hernandez suffered a broken nose while sparring with his buddy Shane Mosley. For five rounds, he was competitive with De La Hoya until a perfectly timed left uppercut shattered what was left of the cartilage in his nose in the sixth round. Hernandez, who knew another direct shot to that area of his face could have ended his career and even threaten his life, waved the bout off himself at the end of the round, drawing criticism and the unwanted "quitter" label from ignorant observers.
"Genaro was a smart fighter," Beyrooty said, "not a runner, but a smart fighter who utilized his strengths and turned his opponents' strengths against them. In the De La Hoya fight, he was too smart for his own good. He knew it was crazy to continue but had he waited 15 seconds longer, the referee would have stopped it and spared him all that unwarranted ridicule."
Beyrooty scoffs at anyone who would question Hernandez's heart and toughness.
"He always fought with sore knuckles," he said. "At the beginning of his career he had multiple surgeries on both hands. He fought with constant pain and he never complained or made excuses."
Hernandez's 12-round decision over Nelson for his second world title redeemed his image in the eyes of many. Nelson was coming off return-bout knockouts of Gabe Ruelas and James Leija, but the squat hall of famer found his 5-foot-11 challenger a difficult target to zero in on until he landed a punch to Hernandez's throat a second after seventh round had ended.
The foul punch could have resulted in Nelson's disqualification had Hernandez not been able to continue, but despite the pain and the opportunity to take the easy route to victory, Hernandez opted to continue fighting.
"What happened after he got hit in the throat after the bell rang is what Genaro is all about," Beyrooty said. "He could have won by DQ but he said ‘No, I'm going to fight on.'"
The choice to continue was a simple one to make, Hernandez recalls.
"It was out of respect for Nelson and the sport," he said. "I couldn't allow myself to beat a great champ by lying on my back. I had to get up and keep fighting."
Hernandez did, and he won the fight.
However, although he defended his second title against strong challengers like future beltholders Carlos Hernandez and Anatoly Alexandrov, he had a hard time getting high-profile fights, such as a unification bout with fellow titleholder Arturo Gatti. By the time he got his 1998 showdown with Mayweather, he was struggling to make the 130-pound limit and offered the ultra-talented up-and-comer little resistance en route to an eight-round stoppage.
Not long after the Mayweather fight Hernandez began experiencing blurred vision, the result of a small blood clot in his brain.
Hernandez says it was a "tiny spot" that could have been dissolved with medication. He could have kept the medical findings quiet and continued to fight. The WBC had promised him a shot at their 135-pound title. But as Beyrooty said, Hernandez was a smart fighter. As easily as he made the choice to continue against Nelson, he made the choice to stop fighting.
"My wife was more important and my life was more important than winning any title," he said.
Hernandez, who 16 years ago moved his family out of the tough area of South Central L.A. in which he grew up (just before his daughter, Amanda, was born), thought his days of struggling and fighting were over. He was wrong.
Ten years after making the decision to retire from boxing, Hernandez was diagnosed with Rhabdomyosarcoma, a fast-growing, highly malignant tumor that is common in young children but rare in adults.
The tumor was found in his nasal passage after he visited the doctor to have two fatty lumps examined on his neck.
"When the doctor gave me those words: ‘You have cancer,' and pointed right between my eyes to let me know where it was, that just literally broke me," Hernandez said. "They told me that the tumor is growing into my brain and that my only chance of survival would be to have it cut out, but that operation would cost me my right eye.
"I broke down crying. I'm a man, but I'm a human being. There's only so much I can take."
The treatment for Rhabdomyosarcoma is a combination of chemotherapy and radiation to shrink the tumor as much as possible before removing it in surgery. Hernandez's doctors told him that if the tumor can be shrunk enough, he might not have to lose his eye in surgery.
He delved right into the treatments thinking he knew something about pain and the extent of human endurance from his years of professional boxing, but his two months of chemotherapy and radiation sessions have given him a new definition of suffering.
"Nothing can ever prepare you for cancer and what you go through with radiation and chemo," he said.
The treatments, which began December 1, consist of radiation sessions Monday through Friday and chemotherapy every Tuesday.
The radiation almost immediately killed his taste buds, making food intake unbearable.
"Even water is nasty," said Hernandez, who for the past month, has absorbed vital nutrients through an IV tube inserted into his stomach instaed of eating.
His reaction to the weekly chemotherapy was constant vomiting.
"It's brutal," he said. "It hits me the day after. Suddenly, beginning at 3 a.m., I'm off and running to the bathroom to throw up for the rest of the morning. But I'm so dehydrated, I don't even vomit. There's nothing there but dry spit or chemical spit."
The combination treatments have rapidly taken 30 pounds off of his once-fit 160-pound frame. He's back to his fighting weight, but he looks nothing like he did in the 1990s. His body is emaciated. His face is gaunt. His hair - what's left of it - is grey and white. His lips are cracked, and his voice has been reduced to a raspy whisper.
But his spirit is intact despite his daily grind to and from the hospitals.
"I usually wake up around 2 or 3 a.m. because my mouth is so dry and irritated from sores," he said. "I'll hook up the IV and take in about two cans, which are about 300 calories each. I'm supposed to take six a day. It takes about an hour to an hour and a half for two. I'll try to go back to sleep at 4 a.m. before getting up to take the kids to school. Then I drive to the Kaiser in Hollywood where I get my radiation treatment. It's an hour and half commute.
"On Tuesdays, I go from there to the Baldwin Park Kaiser, which is about a half an hour drive. My doctors can't believe that I drive myself, but I put it into my mind that I could do it early on."
It's his fighter's pride, his brother says.
"Once a fighter, always a fighter," Rudy Hernandez said. "They don't lose that edge. The last thing he wants is anyone to feel sorry for him. He's not behaving like someone who is sick."
But this past week Hernandez had to relent and allow his wife to take off from work so she could drive him. He was too weak to drive alone.
It's when he feels completely helpless that dread begins to creep into his consciousness.
"Sometimes I can't help but ask God: ‘Why me?'" he said. "Why did this happen to me at age 42? Why now? Why a rare cancer?
"And then I realize that it's children who usually get this disease; children who have just begun their lives who have to deal with this."
Hernandez, the father of two, has always had a soft spot for children.
When the WBC's international non-profit charitable organization, World Boxing Cares, was first formed in 2006, Hernandez was among the first athletes who volunteered for its outreach to children's hospitals.
"Genaro was the first person to work with me with World Boxing Cares," said Jill Diamond, the U.S. representative for the organization. "He and Erik Morales visited Children's Hospital in L.A. Genaro went back on his own and got the birth dates of a number of the kids he talked to and later sent them Nintendo stations on their birthdays.
"I recently received a letter from the father of one of those children. He wanted to get in contact with Genaro and know how he could help in any way. That's been my experience running the fund raiser and sending out the press releases about it. People who Genaro has touched in some way have come from everywhere to offer their help.
"We received rather large donations from his former manager (Nori Takatan), the WBC, Lou DiBella. HBO has made a substantial pledge. But we also got a lot of small checks in letters from fans who wrote things like: ‘Hey champ, I'm a fan of yours and I wish I could give more.' Ring doctors and others in the medical field have offered their help and advice. Many donated their time and services to the dinner so that all the money raised could go to Genaro's family. The food was paid for, the waiters, the comedian and the auctioneer all volunteered. Fighters like Israel Vazquez and Mia St. John auctioned their time to fans, like having lunch with them.
"It's been an on-going grassroots effort by a community that has been inspired by Genaro."
Hernandez says he's been inspired by them, and it's given him the strength to keep fighting. He says he's beginning to see light at the end of the tunnel.
"Thursday is my last day of radiation, Thank God!" he said. "I'm told that recovery of the taste buds takes three to six weeks. Oh boy! You don't know how long I've waited to just to take one bite out of a hamburger.
"I've got the chemo until August, but Bob Arum and Top Rank have paid all my expenses to see a cancer specialist in Houston next week. I'm looking forward to it because I want to know if I'm headed in the right direction with my treatments.
"I know I'm not out of the woods yet, but I appreciate everyone for all they have done for me and my family. It shows me how fortunate I truly am. It reminds me that there are good people in the world. It gives me hope."
Those wishing to make a donation to Genaro Hernandez can do so through World Boxing Cares. Mark donations "Genaro", payable to World Boxing Cares, and mail to:
World Boxing Cares
36 West 22nd Street
New York, NY10010
Tax ID#: 26 2665978
All money is tax deductable and 100 percent of the proceeds go directly to the Hernandez family.