For more than four decades, Bernard Fernandez was a sportswriter.
From 1984 until his retirement in 2012 he covered boxing for the Philadelphia Daily News. During that time, he had ascended to the A-list of boxing scribes, alongside such greats as John Schulian, Michael Katz, Ed Schuyler, Dave Anderson, Jerry Izenberg, George Kimball, Ron Borges, Thomas Hauser, and Tim Dahlberg.
Fernandez’s commitment to boxing did not begin and end at the typewriter. The New Orleans native was a five-term president of the Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA), where he was also the recipient of the Nat Fleischer Award for Excellence in Boxing Journalism in 1998 and the Barney Nagler Award for Long and Meritorious Service to Boxing in 2015. He will be enshrined into the International Boxing Hall of Fame, along with Bernard Hopkins and other luminaries, as part of the 2020 class, next summer.
The organization’s annual Bernie Awards, presented to writers and photographers in multiple categories, are named in his honor.
Boxing is in Fernandez’s blood, both literally and figuratively. His father, Bernard Sr., was a New Orleans police captain who in an earlier incarnation had fought professionally as a welterweight under the name Jack Hernandez.
One of Fernandez’s prized possessions is a framed fight poster of an August 1944 main event between Archie Moore and Jimmy Hayden in San Diego.
“My dad was in the semi versus Jimmy Hatmaker,” said Fernandez. “He was in the Navy at the time and on leave from the South Pacific.”
The fight was declared a technical draw in the first round after a clash of heads prevented it from continuing.
Fernandez bundles a lifetime of boxing memories and anecdotes into the recently published “Championship Rounds,” a compendium of 35 of his favorite stories from his days at the Philadelphia Daily News.
In the forward, two-time heavyweight champion George Foreman said the now 73-year-old Fernandez is “a bridge between the old crew that was going out and the new bunch coming in.”
Foreman was referring of course to the grizzled ink-stained old-timers versus the new breed of Internet journalists.
Rather than view Fernandez, who still contributes to TheSweetScience.com, as a wizened anachronism, the always erudite Foreman described Fernandez’s transition from one boxing era to another as “seamless” and containing the “best elements of both.”
He said Fernandez has a Ph.D. “in all things boxing,” therefore making him “a one of a kind representative of a special breed of boxing writers we’ll probably never see again.”
You can open any page to see just how special Fernandez’s relationship with all aspects of boxing and the written word truly is.
The book is broken down into six sections entitled Tales Worth Telling, The Heavyweights, The Non-Heavyweights, Screenings, Women in Boxing, and Farewells.
My favorites included stories on brothers Leon and Michael Spinks making history together; Wladimir Klitschko’s ascension to heavyweight glory; Arturo Gatti’s “lumps and lacerations;” and Chicago cruiserweight Craig “Gator” Bodzianowski’s comeback despite losing a leg in a motorcycle accident.
There is also the compelling tribute to Muhammad Ali; heavyweight Randall “Tex” Cobb being responsible for “making Howard Cosell quit;” a 2015 story on Don King called “Last Roar of the Lion in Winter;” and the saga of Gennaro Pellegrini Jr., a Philadelphia welterweight who attained his dream of fighting professionally before his tragic death from a mine explosion while serving in Iraq as a member of the National Guard.
As a youngster growing up in the Big Easy, Fernandez just assumed he would follow his father into law enforcement. That is until the intervention of an astute eighth grade schoolteacher named Sister Camilla drastically changed the trajectory of his life in 1961.
“She told me that there was going to be a citywide essay contest for eighth grade students where the top prize was one dollar,” recalled Fernandez. “With that amount of money, you could buy 100 baseball cards back then. Second place was fifty cents.”
Five weeks later a school assembly was held after Fernandez won the contest. Fernandez, whose nickname was Stormy because he was born during the great New Orleans hurricane of 1947, still vividly remembers what Sister Camilla told him that day.
(The storm was so intense it put the first floor of Lakeshore Hospital underwater. To make matters worse, Fernandez’s mother endured nearly four days of labor. One of many running family jokes is had Fernandez been a girl he would have been named Gail).
“Stormy, you have a gift,” Fernandez recalled Sister Camilla telling him. “I think you should be a newspaper reporter.”
From that day on, Fernandez believes that his fate was sealed. “Writing was probably the only thing I was really good at,” he said. “I was hooked.”
A steady path soon led to him working as a copy boy at the New Orleans Times Picayune while still in high school. After studying journalism at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, he worked as a reporter at the Mouma Courier before moving on to the Miami Herald and the now defunct Jackson Daily News in Mississippi.
Fernandez has an abundance of happy memories of every step of his storied career.
“At the Times Picayune I was stringing, and once in a while I’d get a byline or a four-line story,” he said. “All of the sportswriters there were very encouraging except for one. All he would tell me is that it’s all crap and the newspaper business stinks.”
When Fernandez shared those experiences with the editor, he received an invaluable lesson about the deadening of the human spirit. That lesson is evident to this day, in the way he writes, the way he lives his life, and in the benevolence he has toward aspiring and fledgling journalists.
“He told me that the reporter didn’t have a wife, didn’t have children, his parents were dead, and all he had was this job,” said Fernandez. “And he’s scared to death that someone will take it from him. I told myself then if I ever achieve something, I will never be like that.”
When Fernandez went to work at the Miami Herald, he was just 23 years old and full of youthful exuberance. “I thought they’d see how great I was and give me Edwin Polk’s job,” he said. “I should have been more patient.”
Next stop was Jackson, where Fernandez covered Southeastern Conference sports and eventually became president of the Mississippi Sportswriters Association. It was while there that he covered his first live fight, the September 1978 rematch between Muhammad Ali and Leon Spinks at the Superdome in New Orleans.
“That was about as big as it could get back then,” said Fernandez. “That fight had historical significance, plus it was in my hometown. I was honored to be able to be there.”
Once he arrived in the City of Brotherly Love, Fernandez primarily covered boxing but occasionally wrote about the Phillies and the 76ers. However, he stressed that, “My heart, first and foremost, [was] in boxing.”
While covering a February 1990 match between Vinny Pazienza and Hector Camacho in Atlantic City, Fernandez told several of his colleagues from other media outlets that he was going to Tokyo the following week to cover Mike Tyson’s seemingly easy title defense against Buster Douglas.
“Most of them said, ‘What the hell are you going there for?’” he laughingly recalled. “‘The fight’s going to be over in two rounds.’”
Fernandez says that his reasons were simple, and they wound up being somewhat prophetic. “Mike was like the Tiger Woods of boxing” he said. “Wherever he went, you had to go. But all those people were telling me what a waste it was to cover a fight 14 time zones away.”
Not only did Fernandez witness firsthand one of the biggest upsets in boxing history, Tyson-Douglas served as a harbinger for the equally thrilling first bout between Julio Cesar Chavez and the Philadelphia-born and bred Meldrick Taylor the following month. That was the memorable fight that was stopped in Chavez’s favor with just two seconds remaining in the 12th and final round.
“Those two fights are the most memorable of my career,” said Fernandez. “I’d come a long way from watching the Gillette Cavalcade of Sports when I was seven, eight years old. Back then I was probably the only kid in fifth grade whose favorite fighter was Carmen Basilio.”
In November 2001, Fernandez was asked by the late Tommy Kenville, the former Secretary and Treasurer of the BWAA, if he would be interested in becoming president of the organization. At the time, the BWAA, which had once been a highly regarded sporting institution, was teetering on the brink of oblivion.
“After a lot of thought, I said I’d do it, but I wasn’t going to be a caretaker and continue to do things the way they were done in the past,” said Fernandez. “I said I was going to put a wrecking ball to it and bring it into the 21st century.
“While boxing itself might be best served by going back to the way it was in the forties and fifties, the BWAA didn’t have to be stuck in the forties and fifties.”
Under Fernandez’s watch, the BWAA tripled its membership, created a website and a member’s directory, and put to rest the perception of it being mainly an East Coast entity by actively recruiting many West Coast writers.
The legendary Jerry Izenberg puts it mildly when offering high praise for Fernandez’s book.
“Bernard’s work shines like the Hope Diamond in a field of broken bottles,” he wrote.
You can’t get a better endorsement than that.
“Championship Rounds” is available on Amazon.com.