He especially loves facing U.S. boxers, who are so aggressive that they play into his hands. "To beat an American is the most important thing," Hernández says. "Knocking an American out is better than knocking out a better boxer. It's transcendent."
Hernández laughs at the thought. He says he works on a physical and mental level far above that of other fighters. "Yes, yes, always," he says. Yet even though he insists there's no danger of his becoming complacent, Hernández has given off signals of boredom over the last several months. He seemed unmotivated while nonetheless winning two matches in the U.S. last October and November, and he then squeaked by to win the Cuban national championships in January. At least twice during the winter, he disappeared for days at a time, missing workouts while his coaches scrambled to make sure he hadn't been killed. Most observers close to Hernández shrug this off, saying he was simply suffering from a small pre-Olympic letdown. But his fiancée, Amber Hinohosa, has another thought. "He walks alone now," she says.
Balado was his anchor. The two had known each other for a decade, since Ariel left Pinar del Río to go to the national sports school in Havana in 1984. Balado was older (by two years), bigger and more settled, and the two endured the early lashing words of Cuban coach Alcides Sagarra together. Over the years Hernández found that Balado would share any possession, keep any trust. "He helped me with everything; he taught me boxing and life and women," Hernández says. Hernández moved to Balado's neighborhood in Havana. They spent every day together. Two days before the crash, Balado asked Hernández to take care of his wife, Dulce Monteagudo, should anything ever happen.
Hernández was in the bath at La Finca when he was given the news. He ran to where the crumpled Lada sat near the tracks. Balado had already been taken away.
A few months later, Cuban officials offered Hernández Balado's old room at La Finca, but he refused it for seven months. It didn't feel right, he said. Often he tells Hinohosa that he has dreamed of Balado. Other times she will see him sitting alone, and she won't press him because he looks so sad. "Every two or three months I go to the grave," Hernández says. "I take him flowers. I visit him. I speak with him."
One of the few things that has cheered Hernández in the past year was the news that his picture was going up on the hallowed Wall of Champions in La Finca's trophy room. In Cuba this is boxing's highest honor. Only three other boxers have made it: Balado, Savón and three-time Olympic super heavyweight champion Teófilo Stevenson. "That's something I aspired to," Hernández says. "He always wanted us to be together on that wall."
When Hernández speaks of this, he is calm. At times he drums his hands in his lap to pop music blaring from a nearby radio, rolling his head to the rhythm. Now he is sitting in the cramped and battered two-room cottage owned by his fiancée. It is not far from where Balado lived and the neighborhood boxing gym named for the dead hero. A pig squeals next door. Hernández stays here when he is not in Pinar del Río or at La Finca, and he says he is content. Even opponents speak of Hernández's friendly nature; he loves loud music, to party, to talk, to be with women, and he has opportunities to do all that. The Castro regime gave him $3,000 for his world championship last year, and he also received the prize that all Cubans covet and only the top athletes receive: a new Lada.
He had his choice of colors—red, cream or white—and the decision was easy. Balado's car was white. Hernández wanted white, too, so he could think of his friend when he drove, and so people might see him coming down the street and think of Balado, too. After he made his decision, Hernández went to the cemetery and explained himself to Balado, speaking in low tones to the faded photo set on the gravestone, to the bones beneath his feet. "I said that things are going well, and I have continued to do well," Hernández says. "I talked about the car and why I got that color. I told him that I want to be the best in boxing before I leave. I see him there, and I want him to know that he's helping me."