PACIFIC OCEAN, USS Essex --
Stepping onto the scale, the butterflies set in as Cpl. Roman Fernandez wonders who he will face later that day. Once the name of the opposing boxer is announced, his adrenaline starts pumping. His coach meets up with him in the locker room to wrap his hands and go over the game plan.
As Fernandez warms up, he hears the crowd and his walk-out music come on. Two thousand people from all around the country, around one ring to watch him fight.
“It’s probably the best feeling in my life,” said Fernandez, a team leader for Lima Company, Battalion Landing Team 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, “You’ll go through six, seven, eight months of training just to get to that one point in time. The nervousness gets almost unbearable and once you get in that ring, the bell rings and they say fight, it all goes away and it’s just a rush…utter happiness.”
Fernandez, who grew up in Madera, Calif., started boxing when he was 7-years-old and competing when he was eight. He excelled quickly, with the help of his father, who was a professional fighter, and his coaches. In 2012, he was accepted to participate in the U.S. Olympic Boxing Team tryout but instead he followed the footsteps of his grandfathers by joining the Marine Corps infantry. He said he wanted to do his part to support his country just as they did.
Currently deployed aboard the USS Essex (LHD 2) with the 15th MEU, Fernandez is using this opportunity to pass on his knowledge to the rest of his company; physically and mentally pushing them to become better, stronger and faster.
“We started boxing back in the barracks,” Fernandez said. “I had two guys that were former fighters and we started boxing from there. Then all of a sudden, people were lining up asking if I could teach them. This is my passion, what I love to do, so I said yes and it worked up from squad, platoon and eventually people from the company started coming around. All levels, all ranks, I love teaching them.”
Fernandez has been teaching the Marines for about five months now, all varying in skills and levels. He said he enjoys the thrill of the challenge and seeing them improve every day.
“Everything he has us do, he expects us to do it to perfection,” Sgt. Aaron Telles, a machine-gun squad leader with Lima Co. and one of Fernandez’s boxers, said. “So, every punch; he makes us do it until we do it right and then he makes us do it again and again the right way. I know from experience [in Marine Corps Martial Arts Instructor’s course] that he’s building muscle memory. That’s’ how you know a good coach from a bad coach; a bad coach says, ‘OK you did it, good job.’ Fernandez says, ‘oh, you only did it once? That’s not enough, keep going.’”
They train five days a week with focus mitts, bag drills, high intensity exercises and sparring. This training allows Fernandez to asses each fighter and determine what they need to work on.
“Sparring is when I really know what I’m getting out of my fighters,” Fernandez said. “It’s pretty much two guys putting on protective gear and going at it. That’s also when new problems arise; sometimes they get discouraged because they may look good in mitts or bag work and then when it comes to sparring they don’t do as well. But, as a coach, I have to explain to them everyone makes mistakes and help them get better.”
Growing up boxing set him up for success in the Marine Corps both physically and mentally. Fernandez explained during hikes, even when he’s tired he knows he can push his body past that point of exhaustion. He also handles his team like he would a boxing team; motivating one another to constantly strive for perfection and never give up.
“What I like about boxing is just the competitive nature. You have to have the will to win to beat the other person, it translates well into the Marine Corps,” Fernandez said. “The whole training, getting up early in the morning, running, and physical endurance that it takes just to go every single round and then being able to mentally push yourself to the next level… just never giving up.”
Fernandez challenges both the Marines he trains and Marines within his team to keep pushing themselves past their comfort zones and strive to be the best.
“Just because you’re hit doesn’t mean you’re out,” Fernandez said. “Three strikes, you’re not out. You just keep learning how to push past that pain. Never show your opponent weakness and keep pushing, because you’re always dangerous and they’re always dangerous.”
His leadership style has brought his platoon together and raised their confidence in each other.
“He has the same standard for us as he has for his team,” Telles said. “He only expects the highest degree of whatever you’re doing, from everyone that’s around him. That’s a rare quality in a Marine; a lot of guys expect at least the minimum, Fernandez doesn’t do that. He expects the maximum, and then past that. That’s a good thing, just like any other type of attitude, it’s intoxicating to all the people around you, which is what we need more of.”
This attitude show’s in Fernandez’s platoon.
“Our platoon is tight, and we’re known as the platoon that has all the fighters,” Fernandez said. “We’re damn good at our job. Let it be in the field, during operations or any kind of training for a mission; we know we’re going to kill it.”
After the MEU, Fernandez hopes to transition his focus from training his Marines to training himself. He hopes to fulfill his dream and join the Marine Corps Boxing Team for the remainder of his enlistment.
“I’m going to have a little under a year left on my contract and I’ve been working with my higher ups trying to get me on the team and finishing up my enlistment with them,” Fernandez said. “I want to use that opportunity to get me back into the boxing world and fighting amateur again so once I get out of the Marine Corps I’ll be able to transition to pro much faster.”
Fernandez is using the deployment to educate and strengthen himself and his fellow Marines. He said he loves coaching. However, he is also excited to shift from the teacher to the student role and getting back to the nerve-racking mornings on the scale. The fight goes by in a flash, but once they raise his hand in victory it’s the best feeling in life. And he’s ready to do it again.