IT WAS the little-known figure of Angel Fernandez who, perhaps more than any other, was credited with the transformation of Anthony Joshua between his two fights with Andy Ruiz. If the complacency that undermined Joshua throughout the first was banished by Joshua himself, the cultured edge that so troubled Ruiz in the rematch had since been nurtured by those around him.
Fernandez, like Joby Clayton, had been recruited by Joshua to assist the long-serving Rob McCracken in his attempts to further his education when he should be relishing his prime. Fernandez’s methods – shaped by Cuba’s respected Jorge Rubio and Ismael Salas, more than any other – complemented a sense of patience Joshua had to rediscover, and will become even more influential on Saturday when he fights the remarkable Oleksandr Usyk, his most cultured opponent of all.
Born in Cangas, Spain, Fernandez – much like the heavyweight champion who approached him – largely learned to fight on the streets and dedicated himself to boxing at a relatively late age. A martial artist from 15, he was regularly drawn into street fights on the Friday, Saturday and Sunday of the same week, fights that on occasion swelled to involve tens of participants, the use of bats, chains and helmets as weapons, and eventually the police.
Arthritis and a respiratory condition meant that Fernandez’s father struggled to work beyond the age of 28 and forced his mother to be the provider for their family of three. Observing her work ethic and the reality that those in their fishing village were regularly forced to work upwards of 15 hours a day, that fighting spirit was coupled with a determination to forge opportunities beyond the only world he had known, ensuring Fernandez abandoned carpentry and his home, and eventually encountered the serendipity he required to build so respectable a future.
“What made me move to Lanzarote [at 18] was to get a better life,” Fernandez told Boxing News. “Do my eight hours and go home. I started working in a hotel in maintenance, then started making cocktails, and then became a waiter, an assistant manager, and was then offered the manager’s job at a nightclub.
“[Before then] I’d gone to Majorca with nothing. I’d broken up with a long-term girlfriend, and my friend said he had a friend in Majorca, and gave me his number. ‘Yeah, yeah, I’ve got work for you.’ ‘Mum, I’m going.’ This was in one day. I’m in Majorca, with a massive suitcase – it was my first time on a plane – and no one’s there. The reason he said he had work was because my friend owed him money – he just wanted my friend there.
“I called my friend. ‘Listen man, you better get a plane out here. If I come back I’ll bash you up.’ Within three days he was there, and we had to get him a job to pay the guy back. We worked in construction, at different hotels. I loved that friend but at the same time I wanted to kill him – he was lazy – and because of him I ended up out of work again.
“I had friends [from Cangas] in Lanzarote. I went from restaurant to restaurant, construction sites, asking for work. The following day three got back to me, and I started at the hotel. But when you’re living in an apartment with six friends, and then other friends visit on holiday – sometimes I’d come home and there’d be girls from different countries across Europe. Something needed to change – that’s what took me to working at night.”
It was working in that same nightclub where, at the age of 22, Fernandez met Kelly, the one-time colleague and English girlfriend who eventually tempted him to the UK, and it was also in Lanzarote where he took up kickboxing, and later boxing. “What took me to boxing was pumping weights and doing kickboxing – you think you’re king of the world,” Fernandez, who from one of those street fights still has a bat-inflicted dent in the back of his head, told BN. “I was better with my hands than legs [when kickboxing]. My coach took me to Alexis Callero, the Spanish super-middleweight champion who used to spar Jermain Taylor. I got there, and the beating he gave me – he beasted me, put me on my knees twice.
“I didn’t understand at the time, but thinking about it, my coach – what a prick. I wish I could go back and hammer the guy. I even went with no headguard. Body shots; punches on my head. The sparring there was war – they were there to knock anyone out. When I got home I had to put ice all over my face and head.
“That guy was so good, it’s what made me think: ‘No way should I do kickboxing. I need to get into boxing.’
“My girlfriend was already here in the UK. I phoned her and said: ‘I’m moving to the UK. I need you to find me an amateur boxing club.’ I used to hate her, by the way. We always used to have meetings before work, and the attitude… ‘In English, please.’ ‘This is Spain, so I speak in Spanish. If you don’t understand, go and learn.’ But after a while we started talking, became best friends, and went from there.”
After two years together Kelly had moved back home with her parents in Dorking, Surrey, and when Fernandez joined her there he started training at Epsom and Ewell ABC. Another inauspicious start at another gym was overcome to the extent that in his mid-twenties he had his first amateur fight, and despite his intense nerves eventually won all 10 he was involved in. “The intimidation, when you got into the gym, was crazy,” said Fernandez, a father of two whose eldest arrived soon after his move to Surrey. “Sparring with guys with a lot of experience. I think the trainer just didn’t like me. He was constantly telling me: ‘Come to sparring.’ That’s what made me put my hands up and fight – no technique whatsoever. I started training with another trainer there – James. It was more calm, and I started having more confidence in my ability. I started watching fights, and more controlled sparring. When I went back to the gym I started handling myself with everybody.
“When you have a very young family, and you’re paying rent – I was doing events work, and I didn’t know what time I’d be eating, sleeping or training. I was loving boxing, but there were days of 17, 18 hours. My dream was to be a professional boxer, but I was missing a lot of training. I was completely lost – I like routine, and it overwhelmed me. When you take someone’s passion away – one night I just said: ‘I can’t do this.’ I started crying; I called my mum. ‘I just want to go back to Spain. I need time to myself.’
“I’d got into a depression. All because of boxing. I went quite a few months without work, and I’d never been in that position in my life. You go to the job centre – on benefits – every two weeks and they just see you as a lazy guy that doesn’t want to work. The doctor said: ‘You’re a young man so I’m not going to give you medication. I’ll put you in touch with someone to talk to.’
“My girlfriend said: ‘Why don’t you do a personal training course? You always like to be fit.’ I started doing that, for £15 an hour. I was going to go into the nationals, and got tonsillitis and had to have them taken out. But I was very, very passionate [about personal training] and became self-employed in a tiny studio in Surrey, which was a huge risk.”
Danny “Cassius” Connor, a friend from Epsom and Ewell, introduced him to Lansbury ABC, where Fernandez oversaw circuits and worked on fighters’ fitness. “It was 6am to 9pm every day, but I loved what I was doing,” he said. “The problem came when some of the fighters started asking ‘Can I do the pads with Angel?’ [The trainer there] saw me as a threat, and text me to say: ‘I don’t need you anymore.’
“[By then] I’d also met [Ismael] Salas, on Instagram. He said: ‘Yeah, come round.’ I went to the hotel [in London, before Jorge Linares-Kevin Mitchell] and met Salas, and Linares. Wow. I asked questions, and if I could come back to keep learning. He said: ‘Yes, no problem.’ I couldn’t believe it. I wanted to be one of the best coaches, and to learn more. ‘How do you plan your sessions? How did you train the Cuban team?’ It was one of the best days of my life. He invited me to go to church with him the following day, but I was going to see my family in Spain. We had a good relationship, and I was always texting him to wish him luck. He was very friendly – treated me like a king. But out of the blue, for no reason whatsoever, he blocked me. Talking to a few boxers, they said: ‘He did the same to me.’
“I met Jorge [Rubio] when I came back from holiday. He was training Luke Campbell. I texted him on Instagram; he responded; we started talking. I left my house at 3am in the morning to get to Hull for 8am, at Jorge’s apartment. He treated me really well. Out of the blue he rang me one day when he was in Miami – he used to do me videos, like how he wrapped fighters’ hands – and he gave me access to his cameras in Miami. I could watch anything I wanted, and started learning a lot of what he was doing. I consider him my father-figure in boxing. That man opened the doors to where I am today.
“Jorge really focuses on the feet. Salas focuses more on rhythm, and upper-body movement and angles – his fighters have really good balance, but I haven’t spent as much time with Salas to understand his true philosophy. Jorge’s angles are crazy – he’s very good with the feet, and he’s very intense. I like things to be done technically perfect.
“When Jorge was back in Hull I went back. When he’s come to the UK he’s slept at my house. We kept the relationship going, and it got to the point where Isaac Chamberlain lost to [Lawrence] Okolie and I was training Markus Williams, very good friends with Isaac. Isaac came to the gym, and the rest is history.”
With Rubio assisting him for one week, Fernandez trained Chamberlain for his crucial victory, in October 2018, over Luke Watkins, when Fernandez roused him for the decisive final round. Chamberlain and Fernandez are no longer a combination, but their one fight together was a success, and to the extent Joshua – betraying a wider awareness of his sport that is overlooked and so much of the conviction that, like Fernandez, has inspired his success – contacted the Spaniard even before Ruiz so unexpectedly inflicted his first professional defeat.
“It was a few days after the fight when he [again] reached to me,” said Fernandez, based at Loughborough University. “‘One of the members of my team will be in touch.’ After less than an hour ‘KD’ was following me. We had a WhatsApp conversation, and here I am, with him now.”
IN CAMP WITH ‘AJ’
Fernandez explains how he got there
“WHEN I was still training Isaac [Chamberlain], I was watching TV, and I checked Instagram. ‘Anthony Joshua’s followed you.’ No fricking way. This was before the first fight with [Andy] Ruiz. I thought it was one of those accounts where someone follows you and then unfollows you days later, to grow their account. I think [Sergey] Kovalev did that. I waited – I didn’t say anything – and followed him the following day. After a few weeks, I got a message. ‘Coach, I would like to visit you one day. If you need anything, let me know.’ ‘Thank you so much, Anthony. You will be very welcome every time. I hope I will have the pleasure of meeting you soon.’
“I think it was through Isaac [that he learned of me]. ‘We have been following you for a long time.’ The fight with Isaac – people say he never fought the way he did. Even [Joshua] Buatsi said to me: ‘That’s the way I’d like to fight one day.’ Maybe that took me to ‘AJ’.
“There’s three coaches. Rob McCracken is the head coach – he puts what we need to do – and we have input. ‘What do you think?’ We do things as a team, and work well together. If it’s technical, if it’s sparring, he will ask Rob, he will ask me, he will ask Joby [Clayton]. ‘What do you think?’
“I went to Finchley on a Saturday, and went there full of ignorance. I still didn’t know if I was going to be part of the team; [whether I was] going there to help with balance, his feet, and making him turn in the shots. But Joby and Rob do the same thing. On Sunday morning I went there again – I’d cancelled my holiday, because, man, this was an opportunity – and he said straight away, before the session: ‘I’m going to be honest with you. I want you in the team.’
“No way. Your emotions – you laugh or cry. You don’t know the feeling that’s going through you. As Jorge [Rubio] means a lot to me, that man [Joshua] means the world. Not just him – his team for giving me an opportunity.
“One hundred per cent [it was a risk for him]. But when you go into a team you can’t go with an ego. This was an opportunity to keep on growing; to be alongside other great coaches in Rob McCracken and Joby. You can’t go into a camp like Joshua’s and say: ‘This is how things are going to be done.’ Who am I to say to someone like Rob McCracken, director of Team GB: ‘We need to do this’? I went there humble; to learn. In the future, I will say to fighters: ‘I’ve been in this camp.’
“Joshua’s made me a better coach. Rob’s made me a better coach. Joby’s made me a better coach. The first time I went to Finchley to meet Rob, he was training Joshua – meeting before we go into camp. The relationship with the coaches is absolutely great. Rob treats me so well, and I will be forever thankful. We have discussions together, as a team. I still ask Rob a lot of questions. Joshua’s work ethic is like nothing I’ve seen, and [he is] a very, very quick learner. Very sharp, and very intelligent. Together we make a great team.”