It's not often that an undefeated boxer, especially one who won an Olympic medal, would make the decision that Nico Hernandez did when it was announced weeks ago that he will be fighting in bare knuckle boxing.
Strange as it is, it's something that he's relishing and beyond excited to try out.
"This is as real as it gets, and now I get to punch someone in the face without gloves," Hernandez first said when he signed a promotional contract with Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship (BKFC) back in January.
Sporting a 7-0 record as a pro boxer, Hernandez will be making his bare knuckle boxing debut for BKFC on March 14 in his hometown of Wichita, Kansas. It's a fairly significant signing considering bare knuckle boxing didn't really start to get rolling in 2018 after a little more than a century of athletic commissions not sanctioning the sport. Even to this day, there are still many states that do not regulate or sanction the sport, which is why BKFC events in the U.S. have mainly been taking place in Florida, Mississippi, Wyoming and now Kansas.
But for Hernandez, it isn’t just some sort of publicity stunt or a cash grab. To him, fighting in what is perhaps the purest form or pugilism, bare knuckle boxing, is something that he could not pass up.
“Well really, I just thought it would be cool because this is where boxing came from, how it started. The way I look at it is that it is a one-fight deal and it’s just something I can check off my bucket list, fighting in the biggest arena in Wichita, Kansas," Hernandez told Fightful after wrapping up a training session.
The surprising partnership between BKFC and Hernandez began some time ago, when BKFC President David Feldman approached Hernandez's father about the possibility. Despite skepticism from those inside BKFC about Feldman's chances of getting the deal done, Feldman knew with the right money, he can get Hernandez to compete in March.
Feldman knew that, as an American boxer competing in the flyweight division, there aren't as many opportunities for big fights as the division is spearheaded by the likes of Kosei Tanaka, Julio Cesar Martinez, Moruti Mthalane and Artem Dalakian, titleholders who (except Martinez) are from countries halfway across the world.
“Everyone said, ‘No way Nico’s going to sign. He’s a U.S. Olympian boxer.’ I said, ‘Yeah, but he can fight. He’s a flyweight and I know what the flyweight division pays and I can offer something comparable, if not better that what he’s been getting.’ We’ll see where this takes us,” Feldman said.
The promotion wasn't one that Hernandez paid too much attention when it first started, but the concept of fighting in a ring without traditional boxing gloves does intrigue him.
Although Hernandez is perhaps the company's first young, notable boxing signing, he's not the first boxer to join the sport. Former boxing world champion Paulie Malignaggi fought for BKFC in June 2019 against former UFC fighter Artem Lobov. Hernandez said he doesn't watch much BKFC, including Malignaggi's bout with Lobov last year, saying he leaves the viewing to his father so that they can best prepare for this new sport.
“I haven’t watched it too much, I let my father do that, but I can assure that Paulie Malignaggi is not me. He’s a good fighter, but I feel like I have too much heart. I’m the one that you’re going to have to kill me to take me out,” Hernandez said
But with that announcement came a lot of confusion, concerns and negativity on social media. Among the many reactions to the news, perhaps the most common sentiment was, “Why is he going this route when he has such a bright boxing future?”
Though it may seem that Hernandez, who has not fought in a boxing ring since February 2019 due to a wrist injury sustained in a car accident, has switched careers altogether, he does assure, on more than one occasion when talking to Fightful, that this is a one-time deal. Hernandez said he already has plans to return to the boxing ring in May, but any further details are unknown at this time.
But the 24-year-old is fully aware of the criticisms and concerns about the decision and what it means for his future. Hernandez isn’t upset at the negativity. In fact, he’s flattered that so many were concerned, but that wasn’t going to stop him from doing what he loves doing.
“I do thank [those who expressed concern on social media] for their consideration, but it’s something I want to do. Just because you have a negative feedback, it’s not going to change my mind. I’m going to do what I’m going to do. But I do appreciate everyone being concerned about me, but I can handle myself. I promise my boxing fans that I will be back in the boxing ring soon after this," Hernandez said.
Throughout his break from the sport of boxing, Hernandez wasn't just nursing injuries and spending time with his young son, who isn't even two years old. He remained involved in the sweet science by going to the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs to train and spar with members of Team USA's 2019 Elite Men's team.
For BKFC, the announcement began what is perhaps the promotion's real start to find younger fighters, the ones who could potentially carry the sport throughout the new decade. While having the likes of Joey Beltran, Johnny Bedford, Chase Sherman, Joe Riggs, former MMA stars whose best days in their respective sport are long gone, be on marquee fights as a novelty, it isn’t the right model to become a sustainable and financially viable promotion that will last decades.
In order for BKFC to grow, it needed young, notable fighters on its roster and competing on events in order to avoid gaining a reputation for simply being a retirement home of sorts for MMA fighters who can no longer keep up with young and mobile grapplers.
“What we’re doing is we’re using these bigger names to lure people in and watch the cards to see these future stars do their thing on the undercard. Balance is the key. Balance the card out where you have a few names that people know and then have them check out the undercard and these guys that they may not know. It’s really all about balance… We are definitely targeting younger fighters now,” Feldman told Fightful, adding that he had just signed former UFC title challenger Thiago Alves minutes before the interview began.
That’s why signing Hernandez is so significant for BKFC. Even if Hernandez only fights once for the promotion, just being there starts the process of getting more athletes closer to Hernandez’s age to be a part of it.
“We’re developing a brand new sport. We’re not MMA, but it just so happens that the MMA fighters took to us faster than the boxers did, but know the boxers are understanding that there is less brain trauma and that there’s more notoriety. Nico Hernandez fighting in a boxing match, he’s going to get some press. But him fighting in bare knuckle, he’s going to get 10 times the press. It’s good for them and a lot of the boxers, former world champions, are starting to reach out to us and I think it’s phenomenal for the sport’s growth. It shows that it isn’t a retirement home. It’s showing that it is relevant,” Feldman said.
That exposure is something Hernandez wants for his boxing career. He has solely fought in his home state of Kansas, where he is a proven draw. When he fought on a Matchroom Boxing USA card in Wichita in late 2018, even promoter Eddie Hearn admitted to Bad Left Hook, "We had 4,098 in there but 2,000 went home after Nico [fought]."
That kind of draw power was something BKFC would be foolish to not explore and with the deal official, BKFC is virtually guaranteed a noticeably bigger audience come March than if Hernandez wasn't competing.
After his BKFC fight in March, Hernandez wants to start fighting outside of his home state and become a nationally-recognized name, not just in Kansas and the surrounding states.
“I’d love to fight out of Kansas. I’m ready to get a move out, get some exposure. Everyone in Kansas know me, but I want to be known more out there and get some exposure," Hernandez said.
Regardless of what happens on March 14, Hernandez looks like he is living his best life as a combat sports athlete. Whether or not he'll stick with bare knuckle boxing, pro boxing or even make the transition to have an MMA fight, something Hernandez also wants to do someday, he will do so without regrets, striving to be the absolute best in whatever sport he chooses to compete in.
BKFC 10 will take place at the INTRUST Bank Arena in Wichita, Kansas on March 14 and air live on pay-per-view.