He fought to find himself

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How combat sports helped one man figure out what would bring him happiness


  • “Winning that first fight made me realize I wasn’t a loser,” said Chad Hernandez, who now teaches at Evolution Muay Thai, on West 27th St. Photo: Mac Blauner

  • Now 29, Chad Hernandez started training in martial arts when he was 17. Photo: Mac Blauner

Chad Hernandez is an accomplished grappling competitor and MMA fighter, whose accolades include the two amateur championship titles in MMA and a black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. The Manhattan resident, now 29, explains how a life spent in fighting brought him back to the classroom, and eventually led him to develop his own cerebral approach to combat sports.

How did you get into MMA?

I think a lot of men and boys wonder if they could protect themselves in a fight. I wondered this a lot too as a kid. I was bullied a lot. I wondered what would happen if I stood up for myself? How do you fight? Do you just close your eyes and swing? What would happen? I just didn’t have an answer.

When I was 17, an opportunity arose to train in martial arts for free at a youth program in White Plains. It was Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, which is this system that essentially allows you to play-fight without getting hurt, but also learn a highly effective form of combat. I was instantly hooked. It answered this primal question in my mind, how can I protect myself?

After graduating high school, I met the man who would turn me into an MMA fighter. He saw I was a poor young kid, with no money. We made a deal. I’d keep on training, and he would allow me to train for free. He took me under his wing. Soon enough, I was his protégé. One day he asked me If I’d be interested in trying an MMA fight, and I said sure.

The training we did, I now recognize it was too much, or way beyond what was normal, or maybe even bordering on abusive. During fight camp we trained all day, from 10 in the morning to 10 at night, insane physical conditioning while wearing an oxygen deprivation mask, constant screaming. The whole idea was to break me down mentally.

At the time, I just accepted all this as normal. I come from a rough home and hitting and screaming had been the norm for discipline. Besides, we were learning to fight. The idea was to be tough, right?

What was your first fight like?

At the time, amateur sanctioned MMA was not legal in New York, so my first fights were in an organization called the Underground Combat League, which were secret illegal fights that would occur throughout the five boroughs.

I remember being on the 6 train, going to the Bronx to this small run down boxing gym where the fights were being held that night. It was a scary, surreal experience. My opponent was 10-15 pounds bigger than me. He’d had 6 fights already. It was bad odds for me. But all the hellish training I’d done paid off. I dominated for three rounds and won a unanimous decision.

How did that feel?

Winning that first fight made me realize I wasn’t a loser, that I could be successful at something. I’d never been praised for anything in my life before, and suddenly people were congratulating me! It was addictive. So I kept fighting. The next year I won an amateur championship in Virginia. The year after that I became the champion of the Underground Combat League. I ended up having eight fights in total.

My last fight was at Madison Square Garden. I’d decided I was going to go pro as a fighter, but leading up to that fight, tensions with my coach had started to rise. My preparation for that last fight did not go well. I didn’t know how to cut weight properly and the day before the weigh ins I was in pretty rough shape. I ended up losing a tough decision to a guy who would go on to fight in the high-level MMA promotion Bellator as a professional.

That loss made me question if the life of a pro fighter was really what I wanted, and if it would make me happy. Thankfully, my fiancé talked to me. She said “Look, you have to do something with your life. If you aren’t going to be a professional fighter, you have to go back to school or do something.” So I signed up for classes at City College, leaving MMA with a 6-2 record.

What was that like?

Going back to school was scary! I had not been a good student before. But as it turned out, I found that my experience teaching and training MMA had given me a better idea of how I learn and how to be a student. I realized I could apply this same discipline to my schoolwork.

It worked. For the first time in my life, I was getting A’s. Even classes I was scared to take, I was hitting them out of the ballpark. I’d always felt like a dumb person, but by going back to college I was able to overcome this negative belief I had about myself.

What did you study?

I was going back to school to be a high school history teacher. But in college, I was suddenly surrounded by people trying to find their own meaning in life. Not just to find a job, but to find happiness. It made me think to myself: what would bring me happiness? The answer was teaching martial arts.

Which brings us to today.

Now I teach at Evolution Muay Thai on West 27th Street. I love it. As a teacher, you see people in a different light, their strengths and weaknesses. I take a much more thoughtful approach than what I experienced in my early years of training. No screaming or hitting. I build my students up, instead of degrading them. It feels like a way of giving back. My experience in combat sports had changed me so much as a person. As a teacher, I could guide others through their own journeys, whether they want to fight or not, and help them rebuild themselves in the same way I have done for myself.


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