I'd rather lose my life than quit in the ring. —Chris Fernandez
SALT LAKE CITY — The stories are in the scars above his eyes and beneath the thrum of his fists.
Chris Fernandez recounts the night Marvelous Marvin Hagler and Hit Man Hearns fought toe-to-toe. He pauses during a training session to speak fervently of Sugar Ray Robinson, who gained his agility by tap-dancing as a youth. He reveres the time Roberto Duran, his famous "hands of stone" slowed by age, outsmarted the ferocious Iran Barkley.
Fernandez has own stories, too, such as the time Gene Fullmer, the former middleweight champ from West Jordan, told him to punch him as hard as he could in the stomach. Although retired for decades, Fullmer bet every teenager in the gym $5 that no one could make him grunt with a body blow. Nobody could.
Fernandez's breath is coming faster as he warms up in manager Eddie "Flash" Newman's gym in Holladay, but he has a dreamy look. He speaks of a stick-armed Danny Lopez, the former featherweight champ from Utah, leveling opponents cold with short, straight overhands. In fact, he has stories of them all: Bobby Chacon, Carlos Monzon, "Smokin' " Joe Frazier, George Formean, Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard, Oscar de la Hoya, all the way back to the almost-forgotten Sam Langford.
He loves recalling talks he had with Mike Tyson as he trained in Vegas for fights, and chides himself for not getting an autograph from Larry Holmes when he had the chance. He relishes meeting Ray "Boom-Boom" Mancini at an event in Ohio.
Someday, says Fernandez, he'll have his own place in history. Already the Salt Lake native and Highland High graduate is the World Boxing Union welterweight champion, just the third Utahn to hold a title.
There are a dozen weight classes in each of 10 sanctioning bodies, but as he points out, that only makes 120 champs. So he tells his stories like a tribal elder, reciting the oral history of his people.
Best of all, he loves the apocryphal tale of Jack Dempsey, back in the hard days of his youth. He draws strength from it, as does every fighter who ever came up from nowhere. Dempsey had gone down for the 17th time in a single bout ("they didn't stop fights back then") and was asked by a reporter what had motivated him to get up and knock out his opponent.
To which Dempsey replied: "We haven't eaten in three days."
This, then, is what drives and draws "Kid Kayo" Fernandez, who last month outpointed Mike Stewart to win the WBU title at age 36. Like Dempsey, he has known hunger. Two years ago, he was homeless, eating one meal a day in downtown Salt Lake, sleeping in his car. He had two kids, an ex-wife, and middle age sneaking up on him like a phantom punch.
"A total Cinderella Man story," he says.
Back then, he would relish his afternoons with his kids, but had to bring them back to their mother at night, where they were guaranteed a bed and a meal. It still tugs at him.
"I never want to be in that position again," he says.
Fernandez got there after returning to boxing in 2006, following a five-year break. But he couldn't make enough money in boxing to pay rent. Yet this is also where his story takes flight. Despite a 19-15-1 record, he won the title on an unlikely night in Dover, Del., Stewart's hometown, after losing five straight fights and eight of nine.
"I had seen guys on TV and knew I was better than them," he says. "I had to come back."
While boxing has too many rags-to-riches stories, they never entirely go out of style. Fernandez proposed the bout via makeafight.com ("You cut out the middleman, make more money") in April after deciding to give it one more try. His proposal was approved, based on the assumption he would be a respectable but not dangerous opponent.
Turned out he was both.
"I'd rather lose my life than quit in the ring," he says.
Ferndandez didn't know until the weigh-in was that it was a title bout. Originally the matchmaker booked him for eight rounds; title fights are required to go 12. But when he got to the weigh-in, Fernandez learned Stewart needed a title defense quickly in order to keep his belt. The commission agreed to sanction the eight-rounder as a championship event.
He had fought other title bouts before, but lost. This time, six years after starting his comeback, an unimpeded right to Stewart's head was enough. "Basically, from then on, I was sure he wasn't going to win a minute of any round," Fernandez says.
As he prepares to defend his title in August, he believes grander paydays are just around the corner. A bout in a World Boxing Council, World Boxing Association or similar event could land him millions. Hence, Fernandez goes into his boxer's crouch, arms tight to his ribs, scooping uppercuts into the air. He insists his speed is as good, his hands as strong, his knowledge greater than ever.
"I'm better than I was at 26," he says.
He puts his weight behind a dozen swings at a heavy bag the size of a side of beef. Flash shakes his head, saying it's the same type of bag used by legendary puncher Earnie Shavers, whose story they both know.
Fernandez acknowledges the time is passing to get a big payday, but insists his best days are still ahead. "I don't see why I can't do it," he says, echoing the words of a million palookas and a handful of princes. "I don't see why not."
It would mean never again sleeping in his car.
Plus, another story for the vault.