Boxing spotlight

Fernandez’s warmth, punches remembered


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•  Friday (9 p.m., ESPN2): Kevin Bizier vs. Nate Campbell, 12, welterweights.

Special to The Miami Herald

Friends and colleagues agreed when assessing Florentino Fernandez’s life and career. Few fighters matched Fernandez’s punching prowess and friendly, humble demeanor.

Fernandez, a 1960s middleweight contender and Miami resident for more than 50 years, died of a heart attack on Jan. 28. He was 76.

Fernandez’s death also shuts off another light that symbolized the glory days of the famed 5th Street Gym in Miami Beach.

Soon after arriving from his native Cuba in 1959, Fernandez became one of the signature fighters who trained at the revered gym, joining the likes of Muhammad Ali, Luis Rodriguez and Willie Pastrano.

“When Florentino arrived here, he quickly became a hero to many Cuban exiles,” said Ramiro Ortiz, boxing historian and former promoter. “The warmth and support he received from the Cuban community was huge. People liked him not only because of how he fought but how he treated everyone. He never turned down an autograph.”

Nicknamed The Ox, Fernandez scored 43 knockouts in in his 50 career victories. In 2003, Ring magazine rated the 100 greatest punchers of all time and Fernandez was listed at 56.

Retired fighter and promoter Tommy Torino never fought Fernandez in a sanctioned bout, but faced him in sparring sessions at the 5th Street Gym. Torino, who had a 27-fight career from the late 1960s through the mid-1970s, experienced first-hand the effects of Fernandez’s fists.

“How hard a puncher was he? How high is the sky,” Torino said. “When you spar, you usually don’t feel the full impact of a punch. But with Florentino even those punches had an impact. He had a left jab like George Foreman. He would paw with it and suddenly turn it into a weapon.”

Fernandez was victim of an era when boxing had deeper talent in all divisions. As a result, world title opportunities were scant for many fighters. In his only middleweight title bid, Fernandez lost a controversial split decision against Gene Fullmer in 1961.

“If you were rated in the top 10 back then that was comparable to being a world champion today,” Ortiz said, referring to the abundance of world titleholders in contemporary boxing. “It’s a shame Florentino never got another opportunity. Fullmer confirmed to me years later that Florentino was the hardest puncher he ever fought.”

Henry dies at 25

Omar Henry, an unbeaten junior-middleweight prospect from Chicago, died Friday of gallbladder cancer. Henry was 25.

Henry was scheduled to fight Juan Cabrera in the main event of a card Nov. 16 at Gulfstream Park, but withdrew days before the bout after he was rushed to a hospital because of abdominal pains. Tests revealed Henry suffered from gall stones. Subsequent tests confirmed that Henry was in the advanced stages of gallbladder cancer.

In his last bout, Henry won a unanimous decision against Tyrone Selders on June 23 at Hard Rock Live Arena. Henry’s final career record was 12-0-1 with nine knockouts.

Smith wins easily

Hollywood resident Antowne Smith won a unanimous decision over former world lightweight champion Jose Luis Castillo on Friday night in Chicago.

All three judges scored the junior-middleweight bout for Smith, 100-90, 99-91 and 98-92. Smith is now 23-4-1.

•  Timothy Bradley will have his first bout since his controversial victory over Manny Pacquiao when he faces Russia’s Ruslan Provodnikov on March 16 at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif.

Bradley (29-0, 12 KOs) will make the first defense of his World Boxing Organization welterweight title against Provodnikov (22-1, 15 KOs). HBO will televise the bout.

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