Stop the blood. That was his first thought. No, not the first; first came disbelief that balled into fear that exploded into panic. Ariel Hernández had heard the details before racing to the hospital: A locomotive had sliced through the side of a tiny automobile caught on a Havana railroad track, shattering the ribs of the driver and ripping a hole in his lung. But Hernández had not been fully prepared to see the driver—his best friend, Roberto Balado, the one man he looked up to on the Cuban boxing team—laid out on a bed in the emergency ward, awake and leaking life through the many cuts shining on his skin.
Hernández had to do something. That is how you think when you're 22 and the world amateur middleweight champion and an Olympic gold medalist and people around the planet speak of the way your hands work a beautiful magic. Action is all. Just move, muchacho, and you can stop time. You can beat death.
So Hernández, white cotton pad in hand, began scanning Balado, his arms and chest and face. He waited for the slightest spot of crimson as the blood began to ooze. Hernández has some of the quickest reflexes in the sport, and his vision is extraordinarily sharp. "He's aware of everything," says American middleweight Ronald Simms. "If you blink your eye, he can see it. If he wants to hit some little dot somewhere on your chest, he can hit it."
Hernández watched and daubed, in a lightning flash, at any new hint of red. "I was cleaning wherever there was blood," he says. "I was trying to stop the bleeding. I was very scared." And, ultimately, he was useless. Balado, the super heavyweight gold medalist at the 1992 Olympics, died a few hours later. "I was there," Hernández says. "I saw him, talked to him. They were working on his ribs. I told him, 'Get strong, you're going to be all right.' "
That was July 2, 1994. Hernández trudged out of the hospital. Everyone had always remarked on how close the two men were, how much like brothers, and now Balado was gone. Hernández rode back to La Finca, the farm outside Havana where the Cuban team trains, sweating in the hellish twilight. He went to his room and began to undress for a shower, and only then did he realize the cotton was still in his hand, crusted and caked with blood drying black. He put it down and stood under the cool water. He dressed and then tucked the cotton in his pocket, where he kept it for a day. Later it went into his wallet. After Balado was buried, Hernández returned to his house, outside Pinar del Río, and carefully placed the bloody cotton in an album full of pictures and memories. But Balado's voice still followed him everywhere. "For all my fights, I remember him," Hernández says. "He always used to tell me: 'You are the best. Fight your fight.' I always think of that."
Balado was right. Hernández was—and still is—the best, a gutty talent who ascended to the world title through a supreme combination of power, speed and guile. His gold-medal-winning performance in the 1992 Olympic final against Chris Byrd of the U.S. was a defensive gem. The following year Hernández beat Akin Kuloglu of Turkey 9-7 to win the world amateur championship. But in the two years since Balado died, says Hernández, "I've gotten better. Because of his death, I've pushed a little harder."
So hard, in fact, that at 24 Hernández now stands as the premier amateur fighter—superior even to five-time world champion heavyweight Félix Savón—on a Cuban team that figures to take home a fistful of medals from the Atlanta Games. Since 1992 Hernández has suffered just one loss, an 11-4 decision to Germany's Bert Schenk at the '94 World Cup in Bangkok. "Hernández is the best pound-for-pound amateur in the world," says U.S. Olympic assistant coach Jesse Ravelo, who in '67 defected from Cuba after winning a gold medal at the Pan Am Games in Winnipeg. "He's got everything. He's very smart in the ring, makes you do things you don't want to do and then takes advantage of your mistakes. He's another Sugar Ray Leonard. The way he moves, he looks just like him."
In 1995 Hernández typically saved his best performances for the biggest competitions. In March he sailed through the Pan Am Games in Argentina, stopping his first three opponents, including Simms, in the first round. Hernández rocked Simms three times. The first time he connected with a right, the second time with a left hook, then, Simms says, "he threw an uppercut that hit me dead on the solar plexus. I never in my life got hurt from a body shot, but that one just paralyzed me."
In the final, Hernández beat his Chilean opponent 13-0 to secure the gold. Six weeks later, at the World Championships in Berlin, he demolished Eric Wright of the U.S. 16-2 and then dismantled four others—counterpunching, attacking, altering his style to fit the opponent, working amateur boxing's mystifying point-scoring system as if he were playing an easy video game—to earn his second world title. Ravelo has no doubt that Hernández would be a world champion if he ever turns pro. Asked if U.S. Olympic middleweight Rhoshii Wells, fighting in front of hometown fans, can beat Hernández at the Atlanta Games, Ravelo shakes his head sadly. "To be honest, I don't think so," he says. Adds Simms: "I don't think Wells will be able to hit him."
Hernández has heard all this, the pound-for-pound patter, the comparisons to Leonard and Roy Jones Jr. Early on, he studied videos of Leonard's fights. "He boxes like a Cuban," Hernández says, and coming from the apotheosis of Cuban boxing, this is high praise. Hernández grew up in the system, watching his older brother box for the national team, soaking up the clatter and smells of the gym. At eight he was accepted into the national sports system and began fighting, living away from home, learning to win the Cuban way: with footwork, defense and stinging speed. He learned to hit without getting hit, to build a lead and then sweep around the ring unscathed. "All of them come out to beat me," he says of challengers the world over, "but the other boxers can't touch me."