Team USA’s Nico Hernandez (Wichita, Kansas) and Carlos Balderas (Santa Maria, Calif.) got their American squad off to a roaring start at the 2016 Olympic Games with two unanimous decision victories. The Olympic Village roommates fed off one another in their Olympic debuts on Saturday at a raucous Riocentro Pavilion 6 in Rio de Janeiro. Balderas kicked off the fun in the early session while Hernandez closed the day for the American team.
Balderas opened the 2016 Olympic Games in impressive fashion with a lightweight victory over Kazakhstan’s Berik Abdrahkhmanov. The first round was a feeling out period for both boxers as Balderas looked to push through some early nerves and measure his distance and timing. He found his rhythm late in the first round to set up a very strong second stanza. Balderas opened the second round with a strong hook that stopped the forward movement of his Kazakhstani opponent. Battling both Adrakhkhmanov and a hostile crowd, Balderas took control of the bout in the middle three minutes. Landing an effective mix of straight shots and hooks and punches to both the head and body, Balderas clearly won the second round of the bout. Although he took his foot of the gas slightly over the final three minutes, the American lightweight won a clear, unanimous decision victory to kick off the Olympic Games with a win for Team USA.
“I think I could have started faster. I did start off quick but I could have let me combinations go. I was throwing but I wasn’t really thinking about what I was throwing. We can always work better. Coach Billy and Coach Kay told me what he fights like and what is weaknesses and strengths are. We went over that in the warm up and I just went out there and executed the plan. They said that when’s on the outside, he looks to get on the inside. I knew if I was on the outside, controlling the distance and controlling the speed that I shouldn’t have any problems but he was tougher than I thought,” Balderas said.
The 19-year-old was the first American boxer to qualify for the Olympic Games but today’s bout was nearly 13 years in the making. “I can’t even explain the way I was feeling. I was nervous and excited at the same time. I felt pressure and I had a lot of anxiety because this is something that I’ve been working for since the age of seven but at the same time, I kind of wanted time to move a little slower as I was walking to the ring but we got the job done and that’s what matters,” he said.
Several American fans and supporters came out to Riocentro Pavilion 6 as well as several of Balderas’ family members, including his brother Jose, Uncle and trainer David and his grandfather. Despite all of the Americans in the building, every chant of U-S-A was met with boos. “I did notice that I had a lot of people going against me but I had my family out there. I had my teammates out there and that’s really all that matters,” Balderas said. “I noticed it was really loud in there but my teammate Claressa (Shields) had told me it’s just another tournament so just go in there and have fun.”
Balderas will return for second round action on Tuesday morning at 11:15 a.m. local time (10:15 am. ET) in a match-up with Japan’s Daisuke Narimatsu of Japan.
Hernandez stepped in the ring for the third bout of the evening session on Saturday facing Italy’s Manuel Cappai. As in Balderas’ bout, the first round had a slower pace with both boxers looking to pick their shots and find their spots in the first three minutes. The pace quickened in the second with Hernandez landing a sharp 1-2 combination that caught the eye of the judges. He used well executed feints and a sharp jab in the middle round to take control of the match-up. The American boxer continued his effective boxing over the final three minutes to secure the victory and ensure an undefeated day one for the U.S. team.
“In the first round, I was lunging in. I went back to the corner and made some adjustments and started using my feints more and working my way in and it worked. Billy told me that the first round was too close. You’ve got start using your jab more and work your way in,” Hernandez said. “We were mixing it up and clinching but it was my first fight and I was getting the ring rust off.”
Hernandez’s parents Lewis and Chello enjoyed the show inside the Riocentro Pavilion 6 and both were enthusiastic throughout the bout as their son’s lifelong dream culminated in front of them. “I heard them (my parents) in the crowd. I looked over and it definitely inspired me,” Hernandez said.
The 20-year-old Wichita native knows the magnitude of competing in the Olympic Games and the impact it can have on others coming behind him. “It’s definitely a good feeling because Wichita isn’t really known for boxing so for me to come out of there will inspire a lot of young boxers that no matter where you’re from, you can do it too.”
He was excited to add a second victory for the U.S. team and hopes to change the perception that exists for American boxing internationally. “It means a lot (to get off to a 2-0 start). In the last Olympics, there wasn’t a 108 pounder. I wanted to change that and I’m here now so I just want to keep going and getting victories,” he said.
Hernandez had to tune out a highly hostile crowd in the same manner Balderas did earlier in the day but he refused to allow the negativity to faze him. “I heard it but I didn’t pay any attention to the crowd. I’m focused on my fight and the person in front of me,” he said.
Hernandez will step back in to the ring on Monday in a match-up with number two tournament seed Vasilii Egorov of Russia at 5:45 p.m. local time (4:45 p.m. ET).
The six American boxers who did not compete in Saturday’s competition all walked in the Opening Ceremony with the United States delegation. The team had staff enjoyed the once in a lifetime experience of walking in to a packed Maracana Stadium alongside their fellow 2016 U.S. Olympians, including the U.S. Men’s Basketball Team.
All of the U.S. bouts are being shown live via livestream at this link. Boxing action can also be found on the various networks of NBC, including NBC Sports Network and Telemundo.
The U.S. boxing team will be off on Sunday.
For full tournament brackets and schedule information, click here.
Saturday U.S. Bouts
108 lbs/male: Nico Hernandez, Wichita, Kansas/USA dec. Manuel Cappai, ITA, 3-0
132 lbs/male: Carlos Balderas, Santa Maria, Calif./USA dec. Berik Abdrahkhmanov, KAZ, 3-0