The noise inside the steamy Naval Academy gym is deafening. In the stands, hundreds of plebes are dancing and cheering; a hundred more cling to the ropes at ringside, screaming for the teenage combatants inside the ring.
The faded blue canvas is spattered with the blood of a thousand fights before this one, and the two boxers are christening it anew at the Plebe Smoker, an annual boxing exhibition staged for first-year students who might want to join the Naval Academy's intramural boxing team. Just five weeks ago, on Induction Day, these 1,200 first-year midshipmen, known as plebes, were nervous civilians, unshorn, undisciplined, untested. Now, after enduring the rigors of what is known at the academy as Plebe Summer, that July morning seems like a lifetime ago.
The plebes who get in the ring on this August evening fight less like boxers than like caged beasts, with no subtlety or skill. One dances all over like a maniac, another literally falls down as he throws a wild punch. The young man in the gold jersey lands a right, spraying more blood and sweat onto the canvas. The young man in blue is knocked to the mat, hopping back up instantly, confusion and surprise in his eyes. At the end of a standing eight count, he lunges back at his opponent, seeking revenge.
Knock him out, cry the plebes, exploding with the pent-up stress of weeks of Naval Academy discipline and deprivation. Kill him.
The fighters in the ring might like to grant them their wish, but they don't know how. They have plenty of heart, but no art. Their punches come in predictable, slow, straight patterns -- left-right, left-right, left-right. The rounds are only one minute long, but in between rounds the fighters lean on the stakes in their corners, their bodies heaving and glossy with sweat. Their cornermen are shouting at them, "Jab! Jab! Jab!" But the boxers can't comply with an order they don't understand.
It is a sight that fills Tom Virgets, the ultimate authority on Naval Academy boxing, with disgust. "This is evenly matched," he snorts as he watches two fighters lumber around the ring. "They both suck."
Then 18-year-old Frank Hernandez takes the ring and shows Virgets and the crowd what 156 pounds of mobilized muscle can do. Not that the baby-faced Hernandez looks all that intimidating. He's only 5 feet 7, and his protective headgear squeezes his already puffy cheeks into little balls of fat. Yet moments after the bell rings, it's clear that his opponent, Nathan Penka, is outmatched. Hernandez pops Penka with range-finding jabs. He slips a punch and gets in close, digging his fists into Penka with crosses and hooks and uppercuts delivered in lightning combinations.
"He's boxed before," says a pugilistic veteran in the stands. "He moves from the hips."
Hernandez hasn't really boxed before, not seriously. But he does move from the hips: when he dodges a punch, when he sends his fist crashing into Penka's gut. It is a performance that makes an immediate impression on Jim McNally, Navy's head boxing coach. This kid has talent, McNally thinks, as he watches Hernandez tattoo Penka with punches. He could be a champion.
TO HEAR TOM VIRGETS tell it, his childhood in New Orleans was an endless series of fistfights with local kids and strung-out druggies from the methadone clinic down the block. He waxes nostalgic about those days. "I can remember going 20, 25 days in a fistfight," he says fondly.
At 52, the laid-back deputy physical education officer is in excellent shape, but not physically imposing. Virgets speaks with a gentle Louisiana lilt and smiles as if he and the person he is talking to are sharing an inside joke. Cross him, though, and he could punch you into the next time zone.
"All talent evolves through struggle," he says, and it is a fitting motto for a man who has trained the likes of Tommy "the Duke" Morrison, conqueror of George Foreman and co-star of "Rocky V," and Donovan "Razor" Ruddock, who fought Mike Tyson at the peak of his powers.
These days, Virgets doesn't work with that kind of talent. Instead of being hungry young street fighters, students at the Naval Academy are more likely to have graduated from high school with straight A's and 1300 scores on their SATs. Virgets doesn't begrudge them their academic achievement but says scholastic success is often accompanied by softness. They have no idea how to fight, let alone how to kill.
Yet the core mission of the Naval Academy is to turn these callow high achievers into military leaders who can act decisively in the heat of combat, who can kill without hesitation. Which is why boxing has come to occupy such a fundamental part of the curriculum at Annapolis. Navy is the only service academy that requires every man and woman to learn how to box.
For most midshipmen, stepping into the ring is the closest they will ever come to real battle before becoming Navy or Marine Corps officers. The choice there is stark and simple: Destroy the enemy, or he will destroy you. Retreat, and you are cornered. Drop your guard, and you get your nose broken. The only option is to fight for your life.
Boxing is war writ small, and war, after all, is what they teach at the academy.
"We have to take kids who have never been in a fight in their life," Virgets says, "and we have to get them in touch with themselves, so that in a combative situation they have the courage to step up to the plate."
The day-to-day task of actually teaching midshipmen to box falls to Jim McNally, a wiry, voluble coach from Philadelphia who started his pugilistic career at Joe Frazier's gym. Every year, McNally instructs hundreds of midshipmen on the basics -- the jab, the hook, the cross, the uppercut, the block and the slip -- in an eight-week boxing class.
"There's gonna be a lot of blood," McNally likes to tell his students. "That's good. We have a lot of guys who hit the other guy, see blood, and stop and say, 'He's bleeding!' We say, 'That's good. Make him bleed more.' "
McNally puts all the midshipmen through their paces, but his real passion is coaching Navy's intramural boxing team and its elite boxing club, whose members represent Navy at intercollegiate tournaments. These are the fighters who will step into the ring for the academy's premier boxing event: the Brigade Boxing Championship.
Aside from the Army-Navy football game, the brigade championship is perhaps the most storied event at the academy, a tournament where the top boxers at Annapolis strive to prove themselves the best in the entire 4,200-member brigade. Past champions include astronauts and admirals, and the finals are fought each February before a crowd of thousands.
Alumni still talk about watching rival southpaws Oliver North, later of Iran-contra fame, and James Webb, a future secretary of the Navy, duke it out in a legendary 1967 fight that North won in the final round by a single point. Later, when North was brought before a military board threatening to discharge him because of injuries sustained in a car accident, he simply played a film of the bout to show the board members how tough he was. His future as a Marine was assured.
Each year, a few plebes try to become brigade champions by taking on older, more experienced fighters. It's a rare chance for first-year midshipmen to humble upperclassmen and maybe even go down in academy history. This year, Frank Hernandez will be one of those upstarts.
WHEN HERNANDEZ WAS GROWING UP in South San Francisco, his father hung a heavy bag in their garage and taught his three sons how to hit it.
William Farinelly Hernandez wanted to be a fighter, but couldn't afford to train in a gym in his native El Salvador. He was a bus and truck driver. He left El Salvador in 1978, right before the Central American nation plunged into civil war. He and his wife, Rosa, came to San Francisco with a 3-year-old, and nearly nothing in their pockets. They both worked for the Giants baseball team for 15 years as personal assistants to then-owner Bob Lurie, driving him around and baby-sitting his grandchildren. Now they buy houses, renovate and sell them. They've scraped together enough money to send all three boys, William, Franklin and Jorge, to St. Ignatius Prep, an exclusive Catholic private school where tuition runs more than $10,000 a year.
Frank's father thought boxing offered some lessons his kids might not get at a prep school. "I try to teach them, never give up," he says in heavily accented English. "Always, always, you have to survive, you have to do something to make you better in your life."
Frank would practice his moves by fighting Jorge, who is a year younger and also plans to attend the Naval Academy. Their father would serve as referee of these garage bouts. More than once his sons gave each other bloody noses: "Sometimes I would have to go into the middle to separate them. They would box like they were enemies."
Yet Frank came to Navy boxing almost by accident. It was raining the day he planned to try out for soccer, so he signed up for the intramural boxing team instead. He instantly felt at home in the ring. "It's one-on-one," he says. "There's no one else to blame but yourself if you lose. And I like that fact." Punching people offers another benefit. It relieves some of the relentless stress of being a first-year midshipman.
As a plebe, Hernandez is not allowed to listen to music in his room, leave campus on weekdays, wear civilian clothes or stay up past 11 p.m. He must wake up every morning at 6:30, and keep his shoes shined and his room spotless. He must memorize obscure naval trivia and recite it loudly when any upperclassman asks him about it. He must "chop," moving at a half-run, half-walk, everywhere he goes in his dormitory.
Hernandez wanted to attend the Naval Academy from the moment he first laid eyes on the campus, in the fall of 1995. He was 10 years old. His older brother, William, had just survived his summer as a plebe, and the whole family paid him a visit. Frank was impressed with his big brother as he watched him parade in his summer whites and make his way through an obstacle course.
William graduated from the academy in 1999 and now serves as a naval flight officer aboard a reconnaissance jet in Japan. Frank wants to be a service warfare officer. To qualify for admission to the academy, Frank had to agree to attend the Naval Academy Preparatory School, a yearlong program for future midshipmen who need extra academic work before enrolling at Navy. Despite this preparation, Hernandez already finds the work daunting. He's struggling to keep up in chemistry and history.
IT IS SEPTEMBER, and Coach McNally is rattling off the list of boxers who are going to fight against Air Force, the five-time national champion, when the Falcons visit Annapolis in a few weeks. Hernandez is among them, the only plebe who will represent Navy. McNally tells him, privately, that it is a sign of confidence in him. Now he has to get ready.
Someone pops a 50 Cent CD into the stereo as Hernandez and the other boxers begin doing circuits in the boxing gym. The room is ringed with sepia-tinted pictures of past boxing teams and blue-and-gold plaques listing former brigade champions. Heavy bags are suspended from the ceiling by chains in one corner; a speed bag juts out of a wall; headgear and gloves are stored in black cages. In the center of the floor are three boxing rings, one of them elevated. A heavy smell of leather and sweat hangs over everything.
One group hits the heavy bags; others are shadowboxing; more are sparring; and a small number of women are jabbing at one another on the elevated ring.
Until a few years ago, Naval Academy women didn't box; they took a course in self-defense that focused on how to disable an attacker. But Carla Criste, a Navy track and field coach, objected to that old way of doing things. She wants female mids to be able to start fights, not just respond to them. "When you hear the word 'self-defense,' it's pretty victimizing, as if you are waiting to get beat up," she says.
This will be a landmark year for women in the Navy boxing program. For the first time ever, they will compete in the brigade championship. The combatants will be senior Amber Coleman and junior Maia Molina-Schaefer, two 125-pound women who want to be Marines.
McNally doesn't even glance at the women. He's focused on the men, and he doesn't like what he sees: "You guys -- especially you guys who haven't gotten to the brigade finals -- need to concentrate on keeping your hands up," he says. "You're getting lazy."
A few seconds later, he interrupts them for a strategy lesson. Boxing, he says, is "contact chess. You're thinking three or four moves ahead." He demonstrates one of his old students' favorite slips in slow motion. He leads with his left, slips the counterpunch and clubs his opponent softly in the side. "Twice I saw him break somebody's ribs with that shot," McNally says, smiling.
THE INSTANT THE BELL RINGS on the night of October 3, Air Force junior Ryan Dorsey-Spitz comes at Hernandez with a flurry of punches. He's a far more experienced boxer than Hernandez, and he wants to impress the judges right away. Dorsey-Spitz's punches are wild, and Hernandez seems to block or slip all of them. Hernandez is quicker, too, and snaps off a low jab that connects hard. A crowd of about 200 midshipmen urges him on. But Dorsey-Spitz is a few inches taller than Hernandez, with a longer reach, and he keeps the midshipman at a distance. They dance in circles around the ring, Hernandez blocking most of his opponent's punches but unable to throw many of his own.
"Your hands were up, but you're not throwing too many punches," McNally says after the first of three two-minute rounds. "Double jab, hard right to the body, hook to the head." Hernandez nods, breathing heavily.
McNally's advice doesn't make any difference. Dorsey-Spitz continues to control the pace of the fight in the second round. And the judges will reward it. The bell rings again.
"You got two minutes to win this fight," says Hernandez's assistant coach and cornerman Jim Searing.
Hernandez comes out of the corner breathing fire, taking Dorsey-Spitz by surprise. The crowd erupts. "Come on, Frank!" midshipmen shout.
"Jab your way in! Jab your way in!" Searing yells from the sidelines, as excited as the audience. "One-one-two!"
But Hernandez quickly punches himself into exhaustion. Now the gloves are like lead weights; it's hard to keep them up, hard to keep blocking. Dorsey-Spitz counterattacks fiercely, briefly pinning Hernandez against the ropes. Vengeful punches smack into Hernandez's face and body. At the end of the third round, it is clear who has won the fight.
"You're learning, man," McNally tells a disappointed Hernandez as he strips off his headgear. His face is swollen, and blood trickles from his nose.
"I lost it in the third," Hernandez says. "I didn't have nothing left."
The other Navy boxers console him. "You had good defense, man," Amir Shareef, a national collegiate champion and Navy's best boxer, tells him. "You have a good foundation."
"Thanks," Hernandez replies. Then he walks off to change out of his sweaty uniform.
MCNALLY IS UPBEAT a few days later, at the first practice after Air Force. The Midshipmen won seven out of 10 fights. He congratulates his boxers and then sets up a television set at one end of the bleachers to review each fight. Hernandez takes the seat closest to the set. He and Searing dissect the grainy video of his bout with Dorsey-Spitz:
"Obviously, he has an advantage in reach," Searing explains. "He's throwing long, straight jabs in ones and twos . . . You need to get kinda down, slipping under." As the fight goes on, Searing says, "Trade jabs, you're always gonna lose."
"Yeah, I learned that pretty quick," Hernandez replies.
"Don't go back, go side to side," Searing says. On the video, Hernandez launches his third-round counterattack. "Now you're just getting a little frustrated, so you're throwing wild rights," Searing notes. "Small guys gotta get inside."
"I just gotta throw a lot more punches, I guess," Hernandez says.
"You just gotta say, 'I'm coming in.' " Searing advises. "Jab just like a battering ram."
The other matches follow. Some of the other boxers start dozing off, resting their heads on the aluminum bleachers. But Hernandez watches each fight with rapt attention.
HERNANDEZ HAS GOTTEN BACK his first set of midterms, and the grades are not good: a D in chemistry and an F in naval history. If he doesn't pull his grades up, he'll flunk out of the academy. But Hernandez doesn't appear to be panicked.
"I'm not too worried," he says casually. Many other plebes are in the same boat as they struggle to adjust to the demanding course load. Academy officials order Hernandez to get two hours of extra instruction each week, and that begins to make a difference as the semester goes on.
But things don't get better for Hernandez in the boxing ring. He wins sparring matches against his classmates but loses two other intercollegiate fights, including a loss to a boxer from archrival Army. By the time the brigade championship approaches in February, his record is 0-3.
McNally doesn't say much to Hernandez about his losses, but his teammates urge him to work harder: to run, lose weight, work on his form. If he wants to capitalize on his talent, he has to push himself, they tell him. That's what they do. A.J. Mallo, a three-time brigade champion, gets up at 5:30 a.m. every day to run. Amir Shareef, who may go pro someday, works out in the gym long after the other boxers have gone back to the dormitory.
Hernandez doesn't follow their example, not during the intercollegiate season and not as the brigade championship nears. He likes to eat hamburgers. And when he gets free time -- which, granted, is not too often for a plebe -- he doesn't run. He fires up the Internet to chat with friends or the girl he met at a dance a while ago.
"He's a little lazy," observes his mother, Rosa Elba Hernandez. "He eats a lot of junk food. I told him, You need to start changing your eating habits." This is the same doting mother who says she won't come to his matches: "I'm so scared, to see his black eyes."
Instead of dropping 10 pounds and getting into a lower weight class where he would be more competitive, he sticks it out among the 156-pounders, the most crowded division.
McNally isn't frustrated with him so much as disappointed at his lack of improvement. Unless Hernandez somehow turns things around before the brigade championship, he won't come close to living up to McNally's initial expectations.
HERNANDEZ ISN'T TESTED MUCH in the first round of the 63rd Brigade Boxing Championship, which gets underway on a mild Tuesday in February. He destroys a fellow plebe named Sam Wuornos, giving him his first taste of victory in a tournament he's been preparing for since the summer. Now he will take on an upperclassman, Nick Carter, a second-year midshipman from Dallas with iron fists and a hard gaze. Carter, a former wrestler, says he switched to boxing because he "wanted to start hitting people."
This quarterfinal bout will be sparsely attended. It is Presidents' Day weekend, and most of the midshipmen have seized the rare opportunity to get out of Annapolis.
When the bell rings, Carter strikes immediately, forcing Hernandez to retreat. Though he is on the defensive, Hernandez is still in control of himself. Twice he drives Carter into the ropes, and twice Carter punches his way out of serious danger.
As Hernandez returns to his corner at the end of the round, he has a bloody nose. Water is sprayed into his mouth, and he spits it into a bucket already full of water, saliva and blood. Neil D'Arco, a third-year boxer who has been mentoring Hernandez all year, tries to pump him up.
"Go body," D'Arco urges. "Two-three, two-three, all right?"
But it's Carter who is on the offensive at the start of the second round. Hernandez takes a step back and drops his hands, only to get surprised with a quick right cross that snaps his head back. D'Arco curses, and watches Carter drive Hernandez across the ring with the force of his combinations. Carter's final punch nearly knocks Hernandez off his feet.
"Come on, Frank, choose!" D'Arco yells into the ring. But Hernandez lacks the strength or the spirit to mount a counterattack. Carter dominates the third round, pursuing Hernandez around the ring.
"Not today," Hernandez says, as he returns to his corner for the last time this season and rips off his gloves. He's run out of chances to live up to his promise as a plebe phenom, but seems more resigned than enraged by his loss to Carter, who will go on to be a brigade champion.
"He's got power," Hernandez says. "I think he's one of the few guys who can punch harder than me. He deserved to win."
Nelson Hernandez covers the Naval Academy as a reporter in The Post's Annapolis bureau.