PULLING NO PUNCHES — Robert Fernandez with four of his young boxers. From L to R: Darrin Gaines, 12, Mario Lopez, 9, Cameron Smith, 8, and Albert Lopez, 8.
Robert Fernandez is on a mission.
In a small boxing ring two flights up in the Bayview YMCA, Fernandez watches four young boys, ages 8 to 12. The boys circle about, making hissing sounds as they jab and punch the air. They pivot and weave. They lunge. They hold their fists clenched, wrapped in tape, close to their chins. Every so often, a boy steals a glance at Fernandez. He is their coach and mentor — the man they look up to, the man who can turn them into boxing champs — and they want to make sure he sees them.
Fernandez watches, and calls out to each boy, one by one.
“Keep your balance! I want you to bend those legs!
“Look where your hands are! You’re going to get hurt that way. You’ve got to keep your hands up, close to your face. That’s it!”
In another day, these boys will compete in a boxing tournament, and Fernandez has to get them ready. As head of SFPAL boxing, the 40-year-old electrician isn’t content to teach the kids a few moves and send them home. He wants nothing less than to restore SFPAL boxing to its former glory.
“My goal is to make this program one of the best in Northern California,” he says. “I want these kids to compete at a high level. I’m an intense coach and I’m a tough coach. I tell these kids it’s not Romper Room here.”
Boxing has a long, storied history at SFPAL. Started in 1959, the year of SFPAL’s founding, the boxing program was run for 25 years by the great Earl Gonsolin, a much-loved San Francisco cop who passed away last year. Gonsolin developed many boxing champions, including Paul Sherry, a three-time Golden Gloves winner and the 1975 national champion.
Gonsolin also coached Fernandez’s father, Albert, a retired lieutenant with the San Francisco Fire Department who competed in three Golden Gloves tournaments.
Though Robert Fernandez never took boxing lessons, as a youngster he would tag along with his father to the SFPAL gym at the old Armory at 14th and Mission, and “hit the bags.” He soon developed a passion for the sport.
Gonsolin’s retirement from the program in 1984 coincided with a general petering out of interest in the sport. By the mid-1990s, boxing hit a low point in San Francisco. It vanished from the SFPAL roster.
In 2008, three San Francisco police officers stepped up to revive the sport. The three officers — Tom McGuire, Rain Doherty and Michelle Henderson — launched the new program at the Bayview YMCA. The program faltered, however, when the Y was closed for renovation
Boxing was reignited under Fernandez this past January. Fernandez ran a program for kids at the Ring of Fire Boxing Club and brought some of his kids over to SFPAL, along with his passion for the sport.
Despite his lack of experience as a competitor, it turns out that Fernandez is a very talented coach. “I have a knack for coaching,” he says. “I’m a student of boxing. I love boxing. I am constantly picking up tips to use in my coaching.”
Mario Lopez, 9, works on keeping his face covered.
Cameron Smith, 8, spars with the punching bag.
Robert Fernandez helps Darrin Gaines, 12, with glove
He is in good company with some of the best boxing coaches. He mentions Muhammed Ali’s coach Angelo Dundee, who started out as a “cornerman” for boxers but never got in the ring himself.
Fernandez calls boxing a “thinking man’s game — a chess game.” He thinks it’s unfortunate that boxing has gained a bad reputation because, in his view, it’s a great teacher of discipline, respect, hard work, friendship — and quick thinking.
“You really have to think in this game. If you don’t, you’ll lose,” he says. “You have to have some kind of game plan. The moves aren’t planned ahead of time. You may have to think a step or two ahead. But you have to be able to make adustments along the way. You have to think, how can I beat this guy, using his strengths against him?’
As an example, Darrin was in a fight last year where his opponent was winning because he was bigger and stronger. So Fernandez helped Darrin devise a strategy to win by outwitting his opponent. Fernandez won’t divulge the strategy — Darrin’s got many more boxing matches in his future, after all — but the 12-year-old was able to mount a comeback and win the match.
Boxing also teaches kids to be gracious losers. If they lose, he says, they need to dust themselves off and go back into the ring another day.
Today there are 10 kids in the SFPAL program, ranging from 8 to 17, and Fernandez says he can handle up to 20. He’s in the process of recruiting two assistant coaches. In the long run, he would like to expand the program even more.
He also trains his son, Michael, 20, who has 50 fights under his belt and is shooting for the 2012 Olympic trials, and after that, the ranks of the pros.
Fernandez is a tough taskmaster. But he also wants the kids to have fun. They work out five days a week and sometimes on Saturday. Sessions run two and a half hours.
He calls himself a “stickler for fundamentals.”
“I work constantly on basics every day,” he says. “A lot of kids aren’t really taught the basics of boxing. I want my kids to have that. If a kid doesn’t have that, he’ll look sloppy. He’ll look like he’s in a street fight. He’ll run out of gas. He’ll hit with unnecessary punches. Kids shouldn’t be put in the ring that way.”
The outcome of the tournament was a success for Fernandez and his boys. Both Cameron and Darrin won best boxer in their divisions. Darrin will compete in the regionals in May.
The 12-year-old Darrin says he has tried lots of sports but likes boxing the best. “I can’t stay away from it,” he says. “Boxing is the hardest sport you can do. It’s the only sport I want to do.”
SFPAL boxing registration is ongoing and the season is year-round. Training sessions are held at the Bayview YMCA at 601 Lane Street, M-Th from 4:45 to 7:00 p.m. The fee is $80 and includes registration in the United States Amateur Boxing Association. For more information, visit our website at www.sfpal.org/boxing/ or call the SFPAL office at (415) 401-4668 or Coach Robert Fernandez at (415) 595-4200.