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A joyride through some of history’s greatest fights

Bernard Hopkins fights
Bernard Fernandez tells Jack Hirsch about covering some of the modern era’s biggest fights, securing entry into the International Boxing Hall of Fame and being Sylvester Stallone’s co-star

The three-and-a-half hour ride from New York to Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania, in the summer of 2008, would be one that sealed my fate. I had decided to adhere to whatever Bernard Fernandez decided. He was stepping down after serving five terms as the President of the Boxing Writers Association of America, and I’d arrived to seek his endorsement as the heir apparent.

That afternoon Fernandez spoke as he wrote, calmly, in a clear and concise manner making me aware of all I needed to know before giving his blessing. But any thought that the fire in his belly had subsided was later put to rest during the first of my six terms as his successor. Fernandez had instituted an award named after the late Bill Crawford, a war hero who was a Congressional Medal of Honor winner (USA). It was for “Courage in Overcoming Adversity.” As voted by the BWAA membership, one of the recipients was to be Boston’s journalist George Kimball.

Fernandez had gone to great lengths to get another Congressional Medal of Honor winner to present the award, but Kimball who was an anti-war activist, declined, informing me he wanted to receive it from someone else. When I relayed the news to Fernandez on the phone he was livid, shouting at the top of his lungs that he wanted me to tell Kimball to… well… probably best we leave that to the imagination.

Kimball had at times a slightly adversarial relationship with Fernandez, but a high level of respect was there and he wanted to know what was said. “Well George, he knows you are not happy, but would appreciate it if you sucked it up and reconsidered,” I responded. Kimball did and the presentation went off smoothly.

Crisis averted, but it has been Fernandez who so masterfully wrote about them in his 43 years, as a newspaper sports journalist. The last 28 which were for the Philadelphia Daily News, covering a variety of sports, boxing being the prime one.

Fernandez will be in Canastota, next year for the induction ceremonies of the International Boxing Hall of Fame, but instead of writing the story he will be part of it as he’ll be enshrined among the immortals. In this internet-rich society, Fernandez’s induction reminds us of a bygone era, when it was the newspapermen who ruled the media roost.

For Fernandez it all started in New Orleans, on September 21, 1947. His life’s calling came into focus as a youngster in junior high school when he entered an essay contest at the Catholic school he was attending. Fernandez won, then got further encouragement from one of the nuns who told him he should use the gift he had to become a reporter. Fernandez duly listened when he realised his goal of becoming a baseball player was not a reality.

Fernandez went to Louisiana State University (LSU), where he majored in journalism and then became a correspondent for New Orleans’ morning paper, The Times Picayune, upon graduating in 1969. The previous year he and wife Anne had gotten married. “It was the best decision I ever made,” he says, of the union which is still going strong and has produced four kids and six grandchildren.

Ultimately there would be stints with various other papers such as the Miami Herald, and Pittsburgh Post Gazette. But it was in April 1984, that Fernandez landed his dream job, as a sportswriter for the Philadelphia Daily News. “Boxing is the best sport to cover, the people, the stories, the drama, there is nothing like it,” Fernandez says enthusiastically. “I approached the paper’s executive sports editor Mike Rathet, requesting to be the full-time boxing writer after the position opened up which was three years after I joined the newspaper.”

Fernandez credits his father Bernard Snr with piquing his interest in the sweet science. Boxing under the name of Jack Fernandez, he entered the service after a long amateur career, then had six professional fights in the early 1940’s, going a respectable 4-1-1 (1). The highlight was boxing on an event headlined by Archie Moore in San Diego. The poster from that show with his dad’s name under the legendary Moore’s remains Fernandez’s most prized material possession. Fernandez has fond memories of watching boxing on television with his dad whose favorite fighter was Carmen Basilio, and would ultimately be Bernard’s as well.

The Philadelphia beat was a bastion of boxing history. The decade before Fernandez came to town, it was lionised in the academy award winning film, Rocky. Joe Frazier, Bennie Briscoe, Cyclone Hart, Willie Monroe, the emergence of Matthew Saad Muhammad and many more made Philly the place to be. Champions, contenders, and wannabe’s took up residence in the city of Brotherly Love. For those like a young Marvin Hagler who had trouble obtaining quality fights, Philadelphia was a paradise in enabling him to ply his trade against its local opposition. And with the likes of Tim Witherspoon, Meldrick Taylor, Marvis Frazier, and others bursting onto the scene, there was plenty to keep Fernandez busy.

Fernandez was no stranger to covering big fights having worked the Muhammad Ali-Leon Spinks rematch in New Orleans, among others, but hit the ground running in his first assignment for the Philadelphia Daily News, being sent to Las Vegas, for the Hagler-Sugar Ray Leonard match. Of course, over the years he has been asked numerous times what he thought of the split decision that went in Leonard’s favour. “I had Ray up a point from ringside, but watching later on the TV, with the sound off, I scored it a draw. Leonard boxed very smartly, stealing several of the rounds with flurries,” he surmised.

But of all the fights Fernandez has covered, Mike Tyson-Buster Douglas in Tokyo, left the most indelible impression. Said Fernandez: “Tyson gave two interviews every day, one for the British press who he liked and one for the USA guys who he didn’t. I started going to the British press conferences where I could get better quotes.

“We had heard that Tyson was not training properly. After four or five rounds it started to dawn on us that this was not the same Tyson of our memories and that Douglas’ confidence was building. But what amazed me was that the crowd was totally silent during and after the match. Jim Lampley who was covering the fight for HBO said it best, that it was like being at a golf tournament.”

During his days in Philadelphia, Fernandez frequently scoured the gyms, attended fights at the Blue Horizon, other arenas, and conducted countless interviews. Relationships were formed and impressions were made. He internally rooted for the home team, but never lost his objectivity. It sometimes came at a price. “Meldrick Taylor was one of my favorites,” admits Fernandez, “but we had a falling out later in his career when I wrote that he should retire. His speech was starting to become slurred and he was boxing for only two or three thousand dollars a fight. Meldrick felt I should have been more supportive.”

Fernandez was at ringside in Las Vegas, when Taylor was halted with only two seconds remaining against Julio Cesar Chavez. Even after 30 years, the controversy surrounding referee Richard Steele’s stoppage remains. Fernandez’s voice shows a twinge of emotion as he speaks about that fateful evening in 1990. “It was a great fight that took place only 34 days after Tyson-Douglas, and a lot more exciting. Steele refereed Tommy Hearns’ first fight with Iran Barkley. He allowed it to continue when Hearns was defenceless after the first knockdown. Steele said at the time that great champions deserve to fight their way out of trouble.  But when he was questioned for stopping the Taylor-Chavez fight he said, ‘when I see a guy in trouble I stop it then and there.’ Referees have to be consistent and he wasn’t. In my mind Meldrick was done, never the same afterward, but he did deserve to win.

“The Fraziers were the first family of Philadelphia boxing,” reminisced Fernandez. “I had a good relationship with Joe, Marvis, and Jackie. Joe was a great fighter, one of the best heavyweight champions in history, but as a trainer not so good. I think Marvis would have been a better fighter if Joe didn’t train him. He tried to make Marvis into a left hooking machine, to fight as he fought.

“The fighter who was most like Joe was Bert Cooper. Joe thought that he could mold Cooper into a version of himself, but then Cooper had problems. His lifestyle was something that Joe didn’t tolerate and they had a falling out.”   

While speaking of underachieving heavyweights, Fernandez brings up Witherspoon. “The best of Witherspoon was really good,” he says of the former two time champion. “But he was lackadaisical in training. Because of that he was never all he could have been.”     

During his illustrious career, Fernandez checked all the boxes when it came to Philadelphia heavyweights, appearing as himself in the movie Rocky Balboa. “The intent of Stallone was to ask me to be a part of Rocky V,” he says, “but I was in Tokyo, for Tyson-Douglas. Then a few years later when I heard he was doing another movie, I made a joke in my column saying that Stallone owed me one. I then received a phone call from one of his associates saying that Sly saw your story. They then flew me down to the ESPN studios in Connecticut to film the scenes.”

Some fighters are easier to interview than others. Two of Fernandez’s favorites were former world title challengers Rodney Moore and Tony Thornton. “They were very intelligent and gave good answers to my questions. It was always a pleasure speaking with them,” said Fernandez.

The irony is not lost on Fernandez that he is going into the HOF the same year as another Philadelphian, Bernard Hopkins. The two Bernards have always shared a special bond. In fact, when Fernandez was inducted into the New Jersey Boxing Hall of Fame a few years back he reached out to Hopkins to be his presenter. The former middleweight and light-heavyweight champion gladly accepted.

When Hopkins upset Trinidad at Madison Square Garden, in 2001, he motioned to Fernandez to come toward the ring to take part in his celebration. Fernandez being the consummate professional he is, declined and continued to file his report. “I was at Hopkins’ debut in November 1988,” says Fernandez. “It was on a show headlined in Atlantic City, by John Wesley Meekins and Saoul Mamby. I was limited by my paper on how much I could write so I didn’t report on his fight. Over the years we did not always agree with the other, but I respected his work ethic and he grew to believe I would be fair with him.”

With the emergence of the internet, newspapers all over the United States were adversely affected. The handwriting was on the wall for Fernandez. “I could have stayed on, but elected to take the buyout that the Philadelphia Daily News offered me,” he said. “Because of the internet, staff was being cut and guys were being nudged into retirement. The travel budget was not being cut for team sports, but for sports like golf, tennis, and boxing it was. Right now they barely cover the fights even in Philadelphia. I loved my work, but it was starting to feel like a job.”

So Fernandez retired, or did he really? Adjusting to the new wave, he still is churning out work for The Sweet Science.com. Fernandez also recently came out with a book named Championship Rounds that has an abundance of fascinating stories.

“The Hall of Fame is an exclusive club,” says Fernandez. “To join the likes of great writers like Jerry Izenberg, Dave Anderson, and Hugh Mcllvanney is a massive honour.”

Perhaps I should have mentioned this earlier in the story, but Fernandez is not only a colleague, but also a very close friend. Unlike the trip to Drexel Hill that was filled with anxiety, the one to Canastota will be a joyride.

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