I'm a Christian, and the Bible said God will give you the desires of your heart. I wanted to be somebody. —Chris
A year after deciding to re-enter the ring, Chris "Kid Kayo" Fernandez felt confident that 2008 was the year his dream of earning a boxing world championship would come true.
He was wrong — 2008 was not his year. Neither was 2009, 2010 and especially not 2011, when he fought for an international belt and lost.
"I thought that was my chance," said the 37-year old Highland High alum. "I'm a Christian, and the Bible said God will give you the desires of your heart. I wanted to be somebody. I was tired of being a nobody. I know God has a bigger plan for me than boxing, but I believe he can use boxing as a stage."
In the wake of that loss, he considered his greatest fear — maybe it's just not meant to be.
After all, his confidence in that dream, his commitment to the sweet science was tested in ways he didn't think he'd survive — poverty, divorce, homelessness, broken promises, and far too many defeats.
What he saw as "paying his dues," lesser men might have seen as a sign that the final bell had rung on a grandiose childhood dream.
"There's been so many times, not only in boxing but in life, that I've just wanted to give up," said Fernandez. "But I didn't."
His perseverance finally paid off in May of 2012. That's when he defeated Mike "No Joke" Stewart in his hometown of Dover, Del., to earn the World Boxing Union welterweight title. He is just the third Utahn to earn a world championship in boxing.
On Dec. 15 — exactly six years after he decided to make a comeback in a sport that he abandoned at age 24 — he will defend that title in his home state.
"For the last six years, I've had the mindset that I'm going to give the sport everything I have," he said. "Then when I hang it up, I will have no regrets. When I retired at 24, I had regrets. That's why I had to come back five years later."
It was the tears of his mother than persuaded him to leave the ring when he was 24.
It was his third year of professional fighting and he took a bout on short notice. He had to lose 15 pounds in three days, which he did through fasting. He didn't know the weigh-in and fight would take place the same day, so there would be no chance to rest and recover from the weight loss.
"I didn't know that or I wouldn't have taken the fight," said Fernandez, as he prepares to spar with local fighters Saturday morning at Flash Academy in Holladay. "I felt so weak, and I got beat up. My mom was there because my family lives in Washington State now. She was at ringside and she was crying. I promised her I would never fight again."
He took a job with his uncle who owned several gyms. He worked his way up to manager and focused on raising his three children.
He didn't even watch boxing.
It was his decision to use boxing as a way to work out that reignited his passion for a sport he'd loved since he was in grade school.
"Little by little the fire started burning again," he said. "I thought, 'I still want to be a world champion. I can still fight.'"
And so the comeback began. Backed over the years by people like former Jazz great and Hall of Fame forward Karl Malone and Utah state senator Greg Hughes, R-Draper, Fernandez took any fight he could in hopes of earning a shot at a title.
But he didn't get that shot.
And he struggled inside and outside of the ring.
In fact, he'd lost five straight and eight of nine contests when he took the fight with Stewart with a 19-15-1 record.
When he agreed to fight Stewart last May, he didn't even know it was for the title. Champions are allowed to take fights but not defend their belts. They are, however, required to defend their titles at certain times, and WBU officials decided Stewart had to defend his title in his bout against Fernandez.
He had a second chance at that dream.
Fernandez went to his room and contemplated what was on the line.
"I came prepared to win and if they wanted to give me a trophy for it that was fine," he said. "I wasn't that nervous. I was following my dream. If I didn't get to be a world champion, I could live with that. I had given this everything I had."
At the end of eight rounds, he was the winner. The reality didn't sink in until officials mailed him his own 10-pound gold-plated belt.
His trainer, Eddie "Flash" Newman said most champions defend their titles in their hometowns. But a number of promoters wanted Newman and Fernandez to fight in another city.
"We wanted the fight here because a lot of people here have been behind him," said Newman. "It will give the younger generations the idea that by living here, they can make it also. When he won it, the whole state of Utah won it. For someone from this state to win a title means a lot."
Utah hasn't hosted a title fight since Danny "Little Red" Lopez from Ft. Duchesne successfully defended his featherweight championship in 1978 at the Salt Palace. Lopez, who now lives in California, and West Jordan's Gene Fullmer are the only other two native Utahns to earn world championships in boxing.
Fullmer's nephew, Larry Fullmer, son of the late boxing great Don Fullmer, will referee Fernandez's fight against Allen Litzau on Saturday, which will be held at the South Towne Expo Center in Sandy. (Tickets are available at SmithTix.com)
There are opportunities to meet Fernandez on Tuesday at a Meet the Fighter Night at Flash Academy in Holladay and on Friday at Lumpy's when the fighters will weigh in. There are eight other fights on the card that night, including several local fighters.
Newman said Fernandez that despite being 37, the boxer's best days remain ahead.Comment on this story
"He's a hard-nosed fighter," Newman said. " He trains hard, he's slick, he's wise, and he has athleticism. More important than anything else, he don't come with a full cup. So I can constantly give him knowledge. He's got plenty of heart. No matter what opposition I put him in, no matter how tough those guys are, he can rise to the occasion because he's a fighter."
And Fernandez never needed a belt to tell him that.