The rickety wooden boat was crammed to the brim, and the breakers against the shoreline rocked it back and forth like a metronome. As luck would have it, there was room for one more passenger, but time was running out.
Pedro put an orange in his pocket, stole one last glance at his children, and told their grandfather, “If I die, they’re yours. If I survive, they’re mine.”
And with that, Fernando Guerrero’s father left the family home in Higüey, Dominican Republic, and hopped on the yola. The voyage through shark-infested seas lasted 27 hours, and while not everyone makes it to the other side, the prize was well worth the risk.
“My dad was trying to get to Puerto Rico, and from there, the U.S.,” Fernando said. “As dangerous as that trip was, he did it nine times even though he kept getting sent back. He had to do it because he believed in a better life for all of us.”
Pedro must have nine lives, because he finally reached his destination on that fateful last attempt. Soon, an eight-year-old Fernando would safely join him stateside in New York City, with the pair moving to Salisbury, Md., for the kid’s formative years, and later Los Angeles before setting up shop in Hayward last year.
It’s only fitting that Fernando, today a naturalized U.S. citizen and promising middleweight, will return to the Big Apple on Saturday to challenge Peter Quillin for the WBO’s 160-pound world title at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center (Showtime, 9 p.m.).
“It’s a proud moment for me,” said Guerrero (25-1, 19 KOs), now 26. “My parents wanted me to succeed here in the United States and get that American Dream, and I’m excited.”
After turning pro in 2007, Guerrero established himself as one of boxing’s top prospects by knocking out 13 of his first 15 foes. After winning two regional titles—one of which came by defeating future world titlist Ishe Smith—the explosive southpaw stood a perfect 21-0 four years later.
That’s when Guerrero took a brief detour with his career. Despite not having made the junior middleweight limit since he was 16, he took a one-bout sojourn to the 154-pound division to test the waters. This time, he capsized, as grizzled veteran Grady Brewer shockingly knocked him out in the fourth round in a nationally televised clash on ESPN2.
An age-old axiom is that a fighter’s aura of invincibility is shattered when he suffers the first blemish on his record. Usually an epidemic of finger-pointing ensues. Not so in Guerrero’s case.
“A lot of people want to talk about my loss,” Guerrero said. “I made all my decisions. I’m the one who went down to 154 [pounds]. I lost, and I needed that loss. It’s nobody’s fault. It was a learning experience. No excuses.”
Considering his starting point in the Dominican sugar cane fields, Guerrero put the loss in perspective.
“We lived in the slums. I remember growing up having to walk four miles just to drink water,” he said. “We didn’t have electricity, water, [or] bathrooms. We had to grow our food and wake up at three o’clock in the morning for mango season to climb the trees.
“But I’m not here to sell my story. I know that God is good, because as bad as I had it, someone’s having it even worse. There’s people in Africa stuck in wars. Me, I’m just grateful to be here in America. I’m grateful for the fans who come to my fights, and I’m grateful for what God has put in front of me.”
Guerrero did end up making one adjustment in his corner, parting ways with longtime trainer Hal Chernoff and leaving Salisbury, a place that embraced him so warmly that a team of dancers would lead him out to the ring before every fight.
“I miss that place, and I’m representing them on Saturday, too. I want to be the pride of everywhere I go,” Guerrero said. “Right now, it’s Hayward.”
Following a brief unbeaten stint with L.A.-based cornerman Ricky Funez, Guerrero and his father put their bags down in the East Bay to work with Virgil Hunter, who is renowned for building stars like super middleweight champion Andre Ward.
So far, the partnership has sharpened Guerrero’s tools. In a sixth-round stoppage of aging former contender J. C. Candelo last November, the lefty displayed both a tighter defense and an economical approach, landing precise combinations without wasting shots or getting out of punching position.
“I don’t think I even got touched,” Guerrero said. “I think the main thing I’ve learned with Virgil is having that mentality that you can fight an imperfect fight but still have that outcome of a perfect world if you come out with the win.”
The student of the game will hope to ace his final exam against Quillin (28-0, 20 KOs), who will be defending his home turf of Brooklyn. Known as “Kid Chocolate,” the 29-year-old incumbent possesses the type of power in his left hook and right cross to send opponents tumbling to the canvas.
“Guerrero deserves a shot at the belt. It’s something he worked for all his life, just like I did,” said Quillin, who floored Hassan N’Dam six times last October en route to victory in the same Barclays Center ring. “Nobody’s going to come here and beat me. I already know I can put in a hard 12 rounds.”
While Quillin enters Saturday as the favorite, Guerrero believes his training regimen with Hunter has prepared him for his first 12-round bout, having sparred with local pros like Alfredo Angulo and Tony Hirsch.
“He’s a good fighter. I saw what I had to see in the video,” Guerrero said, refraining from giving away his strategy. “But I can’t worry about what he does well more than I need to focus on what I do well. He can do whatever he wants if I let him, but I’m ready.”
Due to scheduling conflicts, Hunter will be in England to work gymmate Amir Khan’s corner on Saturday. However, Guerrero is at ease. San Mateo’s Nacho Saucedo, who has been a fixture in camp, will assume lead trainer duties.
Moreover, the one constant throughout his life will accompany him out of the dressing room and into the biggest stage of his career.
“My dad’s going to be here for me like always,” Guerrero said. “I could’ve come here to America and done a bunch of other stuff, but I’ve been doing everything the right way. He’s happy. I’m happy. Now it’s title time.”
KHAN PARTNERS WITH CONTE FOR DIAZ FIGHT
The final bout on the Showtime-televised card features Khan returning to his native England against Julio Diaz at Sheffield’s Motorpoint Arena (11:30 p.m.).
Khan (27-3, 19 KOs) continues his climb back up the 140-pound rankings after losing his junior welterweight title to Danny Garcia via technical knockout last July.
“Beating Diaz will hopefully put me in a good position and then I will get a title shot at the end of the year,” Khan, who stopped Carlos Molina in his previous outing in December, told The Daily Star.
Since the defeat to Garcia, the 2004 Olympic silver medalist made drastic changes to his team, replacing Freddie Roach with Hunter as lead trainer and adding Victor Conte as nutritionist.
“I am working with Amir, and he’s also been doing track workouts with Remi Korchemny,” Conte told CSNBayArea.com in March. “He’s more explosive, and I’m impressed with his progress.”
Diaz (40-7-1, 29 KOs), a former lightweight titleholder from Coachella, has seen better days but is on a three-bout unbeaten streak that includes a split draw with heavily favored Shawn Porter on the Khan-Molina undercard.
If Floyd Mayweather can get by Gilroy’s Robert Guerrero next week, Khan would likely also be on the shortlist of future foes for the pound-for-pound king.
“I’m No. 2 with the WBC in their rankings without even fighting at welterweight,” Khan said. “Maybe it’s because the WBC regard me as one of the people who could fight Mayweather.”
EYES OF TEXAS ARE UPON OLYMPIAN RAMIREZ
Avenal lightweight Jose Ramirez (2-0, 2 KOs) also sees televised action on Saturday. The 2012 Olympian, who turned pro last December, faces Antonio Martinez (1-1-2, 1 KO) at the Erwin Center in Austin, Tex.—the same site of Guerrero’s upset loss to Brewer (UniMás, 11 p.m).
Ramirez, CSNBayArea.com’s Male Amateur Fighter of the Year in 2012, has been sparring Watsonville junior welterweight Jonathan Garcia (10-0, 8 KOs) in camp.
Ryan Maquiñana is the Boxing Insider at CSNBayArea.com. Follow him on Twitter @RMaq28