“We believe in our heart of hearts that Floyd Mayweather is the successor in a line that starts with Ray Robinson, goes to Muhammad Ali, then Sugar Ray Leonard...We believe that he epitomizes that style of fighting"
That was the assessment of promoter Bob Arum after he had witnessed the future five-weight champion win his very first world title on this day in 1998. The man who then called himself “Pretty Boy” announced himself as a superstar by administering a boxing clinic against WBC super-featherweight champion Genaro Hernandez in Las Vegas, becoming the first member of the USA’s 1996 Olympic team in Atlanta to pick up world honours.
The manner of his win was stunning, easily a top five performance across his 50-0 career, and it came against stern opposition. Two-time world champion Hernandez was as tough as they come and had only tasted defeat once in a 40-fight career, against Oscar De La Hoya, and he had followed that with six consecutive wins.
A good demonstration of the East LA native’s toughness was when he fought Azumah Nelson in Texas for the 130lbs strap a year earlier. In the seventh round, the Ghanaian hit Hernandez in the throat after the bell, knocking him out and leaving him gasping for air. When he came to, the referee gave him a decision: stop fighting and let Nelson be disqualified, giving him the win, or carry on. He chose to carry on fighting, declaring “I want to win it like real champions do” and won via a split decision. A true sportsman.
Mayweather would go on to build a reputation out of beating men who had been lauded for their ‘toughness’ though and Hernandez was no different. At the end of eight rounds of boxing, the champion was left battered on his stool with both of his eyes closed, refusing to come out for the ninth. One judge had awarded Mayweather each of the first eight rounds, while the other two judges had it scored 79-73 in his favour. Mayweather landed 221 of 412 punches, while Hernandez connected on 103 of 314.
“Father Time caught up with us. He’s a true champion, and he’ll be a champion for a long time. He was just too quick for me,” Hernandez said in the post-fight interview. He would never fight again, retiring with a 38-2-1 record.
Mayweather would, alongside Manny Pacquiao, go on to define an era in boxing, winning 15 major world championships between super-featherweight and light-middleweight, generating $1.67bn in revenue. Hernandez worked as a broadcaster and trainer in retirement but was tragically diagnosed with a rare type of cancer and died in 2011. Mayweather paid for his funeral.
Speaking years later, Mayweather explained what Hernandez had meant to him: "When I was 16, I had a poster on my wall, because you remember, when we were young, we used to have posters on our wall. Young kids don't do that anymore.
“I had a poster, right above my head, Genaro 'Chicanito' Hernandez. And I used to watch him on TV fight and I said nobody will beat that guy. I was 16.
"Five years later I was across from that guy, fighting for the championship. Then he ended up passing away, I ended up taking care of his funeral, and still communicating with his family because he's the first guy that gave me my chance."