Back in the early- to mid-nineties, Orlando Fernandez of Queens, New York, earned his bones as an assistant trainer to such local championship caliber fighters as featherweight Kevin Kelley, junior lightweight Regilio Tuur, and onetime super featherweight title challenger Freddie Liberatore.
Under the stewardship of head trainer Phil Borgia, Fernandez was in Kelley’s corner for some of the little giant’s most monumental fights. However, as much as he relished his role in boxing Fernandez felt that something was missing in his life so he joined the U.S. Navy at the relatively advanced age of 29 in November 1999.
While aboard the U.S.S. George Washington as a machinist’s mate off the coast of North Carolina on September 11, 2001, he was shocked to hear that his hometown had been attacked by terrorists. As his ship propelled itself toward New York at full steam ahead, Fernandez got to ponder his past, present and future.
“When we got to the New York, I went to the flight deck and all I could see was smoke,” said Fernandez. “I cried like a baby. Then I got mad, real mad.”
After leaving the Navy with six years of service in October 2004, Fernandez returned to Tampa, Florida, where his family had moved shortly before his enlistment in the armed services. He immersed himself back in boxing by frequenting the 4th Street Boxing Club and began working with anyone he could.
Within a month he took journeyman heavyweight Mike “The Jinx” Middleton to Knoxville, Tennessee, to fight undefeated Alonzo “Big 20” Butler. Before long he was also taking other fighters of varying skill levels on the road.
“Back in New York, Al Gavin was one of my best friends and I always picked his brain,” said the naturally exuberant Fernandez. “Between him and Phil, I got a great boxing education so I don’t feel overwhelmed in any situation.”
Fernandez exhibits so much self-confidence, he literally walked and talked himself into a job in professional baseball, a sport he loves nearly as much as boxing. While in the Navy he had worked part-time for the Norfolk Tides, a minor league affiliate of the New York Mets.
After his discharge he inquired about a position as the clubhouse manager for the Charleston River Dogs, a South Carolina-based minor league affiliate of the New York Yankees. Although instructed to return the job application in a few days, Fernandez took the bull by the horns and hand-delivered it that very afternoon. He wound up getting hired on the spot.
“Al Gavin was always such a big Yankees fan, he would have been so proud to know that I’m working for the organization today,” said Fernandez. “He also would have been proud of me taking the action I did to get such a good job.”
The list of people on whom Gavin left an indelible impression seems to grow everyday. Good fortune seems to follow them – and Fernandez is no exception.
While living in South Carolina, which has a barely discernible Latino population, Fernandez – who is of Puerto Rican descent and speaks fluent Spanish – was taken in by a local family. The Nettles clan had a teenage son named Brad, who was a bat boy on the same club that Fernandez worked for.
Fernandez wound up mentoring the young, impressionable Brad, as well as the scores of 18 to 22 year old ballplayers, many of whom were Latino, in much the way Gavin and Borgia mentored him. Fernandez was amazed to find that at the relatively young age of 35, he was being viewed as a wise, old sage.
“I had good teachers and role models my whole life,” said Fernandez. “Al and Phil taught me a lot. And Kevin [Kelley], who I went to high school with, was one of the hardest workers I’ve ever seen in any sport.”
At this time Fernandez is not all that sure what the future holds, but he is optimistic and confident enough to just enjoy the ride. He has already displayed the seemingly unflappable spirit of Gavin in a recent fight he worked with Miami-based junior middleweight Joe “Spiderman” Benjamin in Orlando.
“I didn’t realize I’d be working a corner – so I had nothing with me,” said Fernandez. “The fighter got cut and I just asked Uncle Al to guide my hand. I used a dry towel and put Vaseline on the cut, and it didn’t bleed for the rest of the fight. I was so excited – not just to stop the bleeding but to be back in the game. I’m loving every minute of it.”