PARK CITY — Nico Hernandez’s opponent got one thing right: Saturday night’s main-event, six-round flyweight fight wasn’t going the distance.
But it ended with Jose Rodriguez, the challenger who promised to knock out Hernandez at Hartman Arena, crumpled on the mat in the third round and Hernandez celebrating his second straight electrifying performance in front of his hometown fans.
Two fights, two wins, two knockouts — Hernandez’s professional career has lived up to the hype following his bronze-medal performance at the 2016 Olympics.
“We ran into a hurricane tonight,” said Ernie Haines, Rodriguez’s trainer. “This is the first person of this caliber we’ve ever encountered. He barbequed us.”
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This was a necessary barbeque in Hernandez’s eyes after he felt disrespected by Rodriguez during the lead-up to Saturday’s fight.
“I was trying to take his head off,” Hernandez said.
Close to 2,000 fans stuck out severe thunderstorms on Saturday night, which knocked CBS Sports Network’s live broadcast off the air and caused a nearly hour-long delay, to raucously cheer on Hernandez. After entering the ring at 11:25 p.m., more than a hour later than scheduled, Hernandez treated the fans who stuck around with his most emotional performance of his career.
Hernandez bounced around the ring, leading the movement and controlling the tempo. He was the aggressor from the opening bell, pummeling Rodriguez with an array of jabs, hooks, crosses, and uppercuts.
Hernandez felt so in control of the fight at one point, late in the first round, he read a right Rodriguez overhand, leaned backward to avoid the punch, shook his head as if to say, ‘You can’t touch me,’ then sent Rodriguez pedaling backward with a right jab to the face.
“Nico doesn’t talk a lot, but when his opponent does I can always see a different look in his eye,” said Lewis Hernandez, his father and trainer. “I think he was kind of mad over it. He didn’t say much, but I know how he is. He always goes for it a little bit more. It’s just worse for the opponent when they talk to him. It takes him to another level.”
Rodriguez was so discombobulated by the third round, he lost his balance 20 seconds in and fell to the mat. As the referee checked with Rodriguez, Hernandez stared down his fallen opponent, then began stomping just feet away from where he lay. It was evident Hernandez wanted the knockout.
Forty seconds later, Hernandez used his speed to escape from the ropes and deliver three straight vicious right uppercuts that floored his opponent and brought on an eight-count by the referee. Again, an emotional Hernandez paced back and forth and this time leaped into the air to stomp.
“I was in the moment, I was hype,” Hernandez said. “I saw I had hurt him and I wanted to take him out.”
The fatal onslaught would come just a minute later. With Rodriguez covered up in defense, Hernandez took a side step so he could step into a right uppercut so forceful it spun Rodriguez half-way around and left him half-consciously punching at air. A left uppercut toppled Rodriguez and left him on his knee well after the final eight-count expired.
“I guess I didn’t know what kind of fighter he is,” Rodriguez said through an interpreter. “He caught me with a lot of good shots.”
“I think what tonight showed was that Nico Hernandez is a phenomenal power puncher,” said Sean Wheelock, who was the color commentator for the fight on CBS Sports Network. “If he weighed 135 pounds, he would still be a power puncher. We talked about this back in March at his debut, but he just rips the body. I think what you’re seeing right now is an evolution in Nico and it’s going to be a rapid evolution.”
Although Rodriguez came in undefeated in his career and 2-0 as a professional with a pair of first-round knockouts, it was clear he was outmatched by Hernandez.
If Saturday’s dismantling was a statement Hernandez is ready for better competition, then his promoter at KO Night Boxing, John Andersen, was listening.
“I love the energy the kid brings, not only in the ring but he pulls it out of the crowd too,” Andersen said. “I think you guys are seeing the beginning of what we can build here. Nico performed at a very high level and I think we all know that Nico probably needs to be stepping up (competition) here. He put on one hell of a show tonight.”
Hernandez is already eligible to fight for a youth (under-25) world championship, which could vault him into contention to fight for a World Boxing Council title early in his career.
“I’ve been to the Olympics and I’ve fought the best guys in the world,” Hernandez said. “I feel like I’m on a different level than a lot of these fighters.
“I’ve been at the top since I was an amateur and that’s my plan to stay on top here.”
Andersen said Hernandez will “for sure” fight again sometime in late August, although the fight is unlikely to have a world title on the line — that could be in line for his fourth or fifth fight. Andersen also said the third fight could occur in Kansas, although specifics are far from being finalized.
Hernandez is sure to fight much better opponents for much bigger stakes in the very near future, but that championship shot he so badly desires has never felt as close as it did after Saturday night.
“I’ve been around this game a long time and this kid is something special,” said Bob Trieger, a publicist for KO Night Boxing. “You people (Wichita) better hang on for the ride because it’s going to be one great ride.”