Daniel Ponce de Leon and Joe Hernandez: A Special Bond

By Ramon Rodriguez


Daniel Ponce de Leon and Joe Hernandez: A Special Bond

When you have the type of devastating power that can leave a man sprawled out on the floor unconscious, you tend to think you can do anything. Why listen to anyone’s advice? Your strength and ferocity will always see you through. Or so you believe. But why not? It seems that easy. Why, all it takes is one punch to end any match.

But boxing is multi-dimensional. A crafty and intelligent fighter with good defense can find loops in such a ferocious puncher’s arsenal and render him helplessly silly.

That’s what Joe Hernandez is trying to get through to his fighter Daniel Ponce de Leon,  one of boxing’s pound for pound hardest punchers.

Ponce de Leon (30-1, 28 KOs), a former Mexican Olympian, has been wreaking havoc in his division with his crushing knockout power for almost three years now. Arguably the hardest puncher at 122 pounds since Manny Pacquiao, Ponce de Leon has rebounded his career since having been out-slicked by WBC titlist Celestino Caballero in February 2005. Since that loss, not only has Ponce de Leon won the WBO title, his popularity has sky-rocketed among fight fans around the world for his highlight-reel knockouts, particularly his victory over Sod Looknongyangtoy in July.

In his rematch versus Looknongyangtoy, Ponce de Leon brutally knocked out his opponent in fifty-two seconds and sent the boxing world into a frenzy. With one straight left, Ponce de Leon did more than just knock Looknongyangtoy unconscious. He managed to stir boxing message boards for weeks on end. All of a sudden, pundits claimed the young man from Chihuahhua, Mexico was the fighter to follow.

But this past Saturday, Ponce de Leon did not look as spectacular against Al Seeger (27-1). Though he registered an eighth round technical knockout, Ponce de Leon did not look at all like the fighter that iced Looknongyangtoy during the summer. Though he landed key shots and cut off the ring quite well, Ponce de Leon looked stiff, sluggish, and frustrated against the inexperienced Seeger.

Hernandez, a true veteran of the boxing game and one of the sweet science’s most honest figures, has seen this happen before. He’s seen fighters generate a huge buzz and then fail to live up to the expectations. That’s why he’s so frank with Ponce de Leon. He always tells him what he does wrong in a way no one else would. But Ponce de Leon listens. He trusts Hernandez, who’s been with him since he turned professional, and only Hernandez.

“We go way back. We share a bond as friends and teacher-student. Our chemistry is father-son. It’s like a family. It’s unreal to say that we don’t have a contract, yet we’re still together. That’s not common in boxing. It’s something special. And it’s all because we have a mutual respect for each other,” Hernandez says. “We started his career together and stay together because he’ll listen to me.”

But it hasn’t always been smooth sailing for the two. Back in 2005, after losing to Caballero, Ponce de Leon and Hernandez split ways but reunited months later. According to Hernandez, the two stopped working together due to problems in communication.

“After he lost to Caballero, I told him we couldn’t continue working together. I told him what he needed to do, but he wouldn’t listen. So we parted ways. After the Caballero fight, he got a victory in San Diego. Following that fight, he came to me and told me to take him to a world title. I said to him that I would only if he listened to me. And he does. Since then, he does listen—he really wants to learn,” Hernandez says. “Now when we’re in the gym and he does something wrong, I stop him and tell him exactly where he’s messing up. And he takes my criticism well.”

Which could only mean that Hernandez was less than impressed with his fighter’s gawky effort this past Saturday, in which Ponce de Leon threw almost as many rabbit punches and elbow shots as he did jabs.

“He fought a young man with a lot of talent, but perhaps not enough experience. I don’t think it was a great performance on our part, to be honest. As a world champion with three or four defenses, we should be thinking a little more and executing better. Our timing was off, we weren’t setting punches up properly. We were too stiff, simply trying to walk through this youngster. We need better defense and more head and body movement,” says Hernandez. “Daniel won because he was stronger and had more experience than Seeger. But that’s not really what we need. We have to improve and be smarter. If we want to unify at 122 or take on the best, we need to be a lot sharper.”

Ponce de Leon agrees. He understands that though he battered Seeger for eight rounds, his punching power alone will not make him one of the sport’s pound-for-pound best.

“The fight was definitely tough. I was never frustrated because I knew I was in control of the fight. I knew I was ahead in all of the rounds, but I know I really need to improve. I need to improve on several things, starting with my jab,” says Ponce de Leon candidly.

Though Hernandez believes his fighter is learning quite well how to cut off the ring, he admits that Ponce de Leon is still rather green when it comes to setting up shots effectively.

“Seeger had a lot of speed and is a very sharp boxer, but I don’t think he executed that well, maybe because he was leery of Ponce’s punching power. Our plan was to apply smart pressure, land hard shots, and dictate the pace, not look like amateurs ourselves,” says Hernandez. “It helped that Seeger just wasn’t that strong. But Daniel can’t keep throwing wild punches from all angles if he hopes to fight the best.”

Which begs the question: when would Ponce de Leon be ready to fight someone of the caliber of Rafael Marquez, Israel Vasquez, or even Caballero?

“Daniel would tell you he’s ready, but we probably need a tune-up against someone like Sergio Medina. We’ll be back early next year,” says Hernandez. “Daniel is an absolute freak when he trains—he has such discipline. But that’s just half of it. After what I saw in this fight, he needs to improve on a few things. He needs more polishing before facing someone like Marquez or Vasquez. They’d counter us easily.”

Though one might get the impression that Hernandez may be a bit too rough on his fighter’s morale, Ponce de Leon understands his trainer’s efforts and intentions. He’s the first one to admit that without Hernandez by his side, he would not be where he is today as a professional prize fighter.

“It’s all Joe,” says Ponce de Leon softly. “It’s all Joe.”