Sleepy Eye’s Hernandez set for big time on MMA stage

By Jake Calhoun

Journal Sports Writer

SLEEPY EYE – When Juan Hernandez first discovered mixed martial arts, he knew he loved it.

Hernandez, who was born in Texas and has moved from there to North Carolina as well as many other towns in Minnesota before settling in Sleepy Eye in 2009, was first introduced to MMA during his military deployment to Iraq, where his platoon sergeant was a big fan of the sport and watched DVDs of fights during their down time.

“UFC wasn’t that popular yet, but they were selling DVDs and that’s how you got to see the fights,” Hernandez said. “We were watching it and he told me a little bit about it and from there I just started watching them.

“I just loved it. I’ve always been a very competitive person, always been athletic. … I like it, I just never thought I’d compete in it.”

Hernandez eventually changed his tone and at 32 years old after years of training, he competed in the King of the Cage World Amateur Championships III with a potential professional MMA contract on the line. The event, which featured 30 fighters competing for five MMA contracts, was held at 6 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 3 at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas and had not taken place by the time this Lifestyle edition went to press.

When Hernandez finished his deployment, he went to school at Minnesota State University, Mankato, in 2008, where he started training as part of the MSU MMA club. He also used to take part in amateur boxing night at Buster’s Bar in Mankato.

“You’d put on some gloves, a helmet and you’d go out there,” Hernandez said. “They were three 1-minute rounds and it was tournament-style. Other than that, I didn’t do any actual cage fighting up until 2011, when I had my first fight.”

In his five years since his MMA debut, Hernandez has participated in 14 fights and gone 8-3 in sanctioned contests.

Most novice fighters notice a significant difference between the backyard or alleyway brawls and organized fights in the octagon.

Hernandez said that going into his first fight, he was never fazed or felt any fear. But he was taken aback by how different it was from what he was expecting.

“I lost the first fight, but that opened my eyes,” Hernandez said. “Like, ‘Oh OK, there’s a lot more to this than just going up and striking.’

“It took me a few fights and after that, the fear of losing will get to you.”

After about four or five fights, Hernandez said the uncertainty went away.

When Hernandez first started fighting, he competed in the 185-pound weight division without having done much training or weight cutting.

Once he got a little more into it, Hernandez dropped down to the 170-pound weight class, where he still had trouble adjusting to the weight cut.

“If you’re not used to the weight cut, it does a number to your body,” Hernandez said. “You have to get used to it.”

Even though Hernandez had eventually gotten used to 170 pounds, he was still considered small for the weight class. When faced with the opportunity to cut down to 155 pounds, Hernandez was unsure but eventually caved and made the cut to finally be the “bigger guy” in his matchups.

“Driller Promotions offered me a title fight at 155,” Hernandez said. “That’s 15 more pounds that I’ve got to cut. Unfortunately I did not make weight, but I made it at the next one and from there, I’ve been at 155 ever since.”

Because of his lankier body frame, Hernandez is able to gain an advantage on reach. Hernandez even won the 155-pound title match for Driller Promotions, which awarded him a snazzy championship belt as a trophy.

With the growing popularity of MMA fighting, more and more kids have been interested in getting involved or seeing if they have what it takes to thrive in the octagon.

However, as Hernandez found out almost immediately, it takes a lot more than just constant strikes.

“Once they get into it, they realize, ‘Holy crap, this is a lot more than what I thought,'” Hernandez said. “I’ve weeded out some of the guys in here. They show up one or two days and they realize it takes a lot to do this. It takes every day, you have to work and a lot of guys get tired.

“I work 10-hour days. I work 10-hour days and then I go home, I shower and then I get ready and come here and train for hours. That takes dedication to push your body to its limit and then keep going some more.”

One of the biggest obstacles new fighters often experience is in getting used to organized fighting and how much time the fights actually last if no one is knocked out.

At the professional level, MMA fights last for three 5-minute rounds and amateur-level fights last for three 3-minute rounds. In face-to-face combat, even the ticking of a few seconds can feel like a long time.

Because of this, cardio is essential to staying in shape for fighting.

“For me, I run two or three times a week and even then I don’t think I get enough … and I run about 3 or 4 miles at a time,” Hernandez said.

But even past all the physical requisites, MMA is also a test of mentality. Without a tough mentality or a willingness to push through perceived weaknesses, a fighter will not have his hand raised too often.

“If you think you’re tired and you want to take a break, you take a break,” Hernandez said. “But if you’re tired and your body tells you to take a break, sometimes you have to tell your body ‘No’ and push yourself. Push yourself to the limit every day, to the point where even if you get tired, you will still keep going.”