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'Famous' Fortune

Boxer Carlos Hernandez looks to a big future after lean times

October 01, 2003|Paul Gutierrez | Times Staff Writer

The parade was nearly over when a familiar face caught the attention of Carlos "Famoso" Hernandez and his wife, Veronica.

Smiling back at them at Heliotrope Drive and Santa Monica Boulevard was Hernandez himself. A mural of the International Boxing Federation's junior-lightweight champion, sporting his title belt, had been painted on a store wall.

Carlos, who was serving as grand marshal of an El Salvador pride parade, and Veronica, pregnant with the couple's first child, were thrilled.

"That was pretty cool, that my people could, I guess, immortalize me like that," said Carlos Hernandez, a national hero in El Salvador thanks to his humanitarian efforts after the devastating earthquakes that hit the Central American nation in 2001. A 10,000-seat arena there is named after him.

Said Veronica, "We were just saying, 'Oh, my God. It's just so wonderful and crazy.' "

It wasn't that long ago that their life was just crazy. Before the parades, the adulation of a nation, the impending arrival of their son and the world title Hernandez (39-3-1, 24 knockouts) will defend for the first time Saturday night at Staples Center against Steve Forbes (23-1, six KOs), were uncertain days, many of which ended with them going to bed hungry.

They had practically nothing, but Veronica's unwavering support allowed Carlos to continue chasing his dream.

"I thank God that she's around," he said of Veronica, who serves as his manager and promoter. "She could have easily left and said, 'What ... am I doing with this bum?' She could have been with an older rich [guy].... But she didn't want that. She wanted to be with me. She fell in love with me, and she wanted to show me that."

Veronica, though, laughs as she recounts how, as newlyweds, she couldn't show exactly how much she loved him because of their living situation. The cash-strapped couple lived in his younger brother's room in his parents' thin-walled home in Bellflower.

Their living arrangements might have slowed their starting a family, and it undoubtedly cast doubt on the quest Hernandez had begun as a youngster, when he picked up his "Famous" nickname on trips to his grandparents' home in El Salvador by beating up street toughs.

They met in Veronica's hometown, Monterrey, Mexico, in late 1994, when Hernandez was a sparring partner for Tony Lopez for his fight there with Mexican legend Julio Cesar Chavez.

Veronica was a licensed psychologist. So it could be imagined the double-takes she received when she told her father, a lawyer, and her mother, a speech therapist, that she was marrying a fighter.

Only Carlos and Veronica, though, knew exactly how deep a financial hole they were in during their early days.

They left his parents' house to care for the grandfather of one of Carlos' friends in San Pedro, getting free rent in exchange.

Carlos' career seemed stuck in neutral. He was ranked No. 4, yet remembers clearing only $400 a fight.

Veronica pined to work; however, because they could not afford to apply for her citizenship, she was in the United States as a tourist and could not work legally in her profession. Veronica offered to clean houses or work as a waitress, anything to bring home some cash.

Carlos, though, would not allow that. After all, he said, she was a psychologist.

So they would make unannounced stops at relatives' homes at opportune times.

"His grandmother, bless her heart, she didn't have a lot of money, but she always had beans and rice," Veronica said.

"We were cons, freeloaders," Carlos said with a sheepish grin.

Only it really wasn't funny.

"I was so mad, because it was either get a job and just extinguish my dream," Hernandez said, "or suffer a little longer and just see what happens over the next couple of years and hope my career would change for the better."

Hernandez finally got a title shot in 1997 against Genaro Hernandez, who conducted a clinic in winning a unanimous decision.

But Carlos Hernandez caught the attention of manager Robert Mittleman, who negotiated a contract with Top Rank, and Hernandez soon had his second title shot and his biggest purse, more than $100,000 after expenses, against Floyd Mayweather Jr. in 2001.

Frustrated by the champion's speed and keep-away strategy, Hernandez lost another decision.

He got his third title shot in February, fighting David Santos in Las Vegas for the IBF's vacant 130-pound championship. When an accidental head butt opened a nasty gash over Santos' right eye, the ringside doctor stopped the bout in the eighth round, and it went to the scorecards.

Hernandez was leading on two, 77-74, and 78-73 on the third.

A weepy Hernandez, nearly 11 years after he had turned pro, with Salvadoran President Francisco Flores sitting ringside and two busloads of exuberant flag-waving Salvadorans from Los Angeles in the Mandalay Bay ballroom, realized one of his lifelong ambitions at 32.

He had another. He wanted to become a father.

Two weeks later, Veronica was pregnant.

"We planned this," Hernandez said as he gently rubbed Veronica's stomach. "We didn't want to bring in a child ... to suffer, so now that I think we're doing better, it's time. I want to send my kid to a good school. I want a frontyard and a backyard and I want to play with him."

They now have that home, in West Covina, and two cars.

"Carlos talks to [the baby] every night," Veronica said. "He prays on my belly and talks to him and the baby starts moving. It's beautiful. It's another part of him that I didn't know.

"We're just so excited. After almost nine years of being together and having to wait and wait and wait, it's just a perfect time."

Perfect enough, it seems, to throw a parade.

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