The mat inside the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Tulsa was sticky, covered in a mixture of dried blood and hot sweat as two 300-pound titans traded blows.
It was 2017, and as the clock passed the 40-second mark of round 1, Jesse ‘The Hulk’ Hernandez felt calm.
The AXS cameras, broadcasting the event on national television, trained upon the Bruce Banner version of the Hulk, busy jabbing, dancing and dipping in a heavyweight game of chess.
But 50 seconds into the first round, the former Lone Grove and Ardmore football standout unleashed the explosive brutality that carried him throughout his career.
Hernandez ducked a dangerous roundhouse kick to the face, and after Lanier’s foot — sent with knockout intentions— whiffed, Hernandez turned green.
Too close. Hulk Smash.
Hernandez pushed forward and punted Josh Lanier’s liver into the back of his rib cage.
The brutal thump sent ‘oooohhhs’ throughout the Arena and Lanier crumpled at the waist, sending him head-first into Hernandez’s path of destruction.
‘The Hulk’ hurled his entire 300-pound body into a right hook, exploding a fist-sized crater into Lanier’s jaw.
Lanier lost his legs, but stayed conscious long enough to withstand a few more seconds of a body slam, elbows and hammer punches before the match was called.
“In my pro debut, the fight lasted 13 seconds,” Hernandez said. “In my nine professional fights, I average about one minute. That’s the kind of fighter I am. I’m explosive. I hit hard and fast. I got the name Hulk for a reason. But I’m trying to find that balance, between Bruce Banner and the green guy.”
Hernandez, after a two-year hiatus and a two-fight losing streak, began his return to fighting in Tulsa that night, improving to a record of 7-2 professionally and 11-2 in his overall MMA career. He’s currently the No. 10 ranked heavyweight in the Southwest region. But for professional fighters, who aren’t on HBO, Showtime and Pay Per View, life isn’t what you might expect.
It’s not a career, it’s a side-gig. Supporting the family comes first, and Hernandez has worked full-time for a long time.
After restoring his name, getting a much-needed win in the cage, Hernandez went between home and work, splitting two-week shifts as a safety manager on an oil drilling site in North Dakota, and back to his current home in Fort Worth, where he currently trains.
When he came to Fort Worth, Hernandez stumbled upon Durwyn Lamb, an MMA trainer and former kickboxing champion in Fort Worth at Phalanx Powerhouse Martial Arts.
“He’s teaching me how to hone the beast,” Hernandez said. “How to focus my energy and fight smart.”
And for another year, Hernandez waited on his chance, first and foremost supporting his family while also dabbling in combat sports.
And next week, in the fighting capital of the world, Hernandez will get his next shot.
He won’t be fighting in Las Vegas, he’ll be auditioning for Ultimate Fighter, a reality TV show where athletes literally fight for their dreams.
The fighter from Ardmore is confident in his chances. He said with his explosive fighting style and his coaches guidance, he should be a pretty sure bet to make the show, despite being a little out of shape at the moment.
“I’m ranked in the top 10 in the region and they know what kind of fighter they’d be getting,” he said. “I’m a guy who hits hard and hits fast. I can grapple and wrestle, but I’d rather turn out the lights.”
Lamb has previously coached four fighters that have made the show. Hernandez said he and his coach expect ‘The Hulk’ to become number five.
Despite carrying around 300 pounds on six-foot-two-inch frame, don’t let the weight or midsection fool you. Hernandez is an elite athlete with lethal speed and strength.
He was a standout in powerlifting, benching 501 pounds and in football, Hernandez played well enough to receive offers from the University of Oklahoma, Baylor University and the University of Miami and Missouri University.
Hernandez earned All-District honors as an offensive lineman as a senior registering 35 pancake blocks and graded out at 90 percent or better in each game. His play on the offensive line made him a highly sought after recruit but Hernandez said he preferred pummeling the quarterback instead of protecting them. In his junior and sophomore years alone, Hernandez had 90 tackles for loss and 25 sacks on the defensive line.
“Back in high school Coach Ridley and Coach Cunningham at Lone Grove helped me get my aggressive mindset,” Hernandez said. “You had to be quick and decisive and relentless to beat the man ahead of you and get to the ball. They preached that and I soon learned how to flip that switch.”
Hernandez stayed a Tiger after graduating from Ardmore going up to Mizzou where he planned on studying communications. According to the Mizzou athletics website, Hernandez was redshirted his freshman year and left the team after being placed as the No. 3 center center on the depth chart entering the 2007 campaign.
In 2008, Hernandez became a father, something he takes pride in to this day. He has three kids, and he said they like watching him win fights.
“They don’t like watching daddy get punched in the face,” he said. “I’ve used [my two losses] as a teaching moment for them. You might get hit, but you get back up. No fighter in this sport stays undefeated. In life, you have to bounce back.”
At Ultimate Fighter, the thing that’s most exciting for Hernandez isn’t the glitz, fame or potential spot in the UFC circuit.
It’s the chance to unleash his potential and prove his mettle.
To focus on one thing and one thing only.
“I’ve never trained really, like really trained ahead of a fight,” Hernandez said. “I was most prepared in my last fight and it showed. I was ready. I wasn’t out of control, in a rage or anything. It was lke, calm confidence.”
Hernandez’s only regret of his fighting career is going into fights out of shape.
“I wish I could have those fights back,’ he said. “The fighters I lost to, no disrespect to them, but they weren’t better than me. Every loss as a fighter, you look back and sift through to see what went wrong. Each time, it was conditioning. I would just run out of gas.”
“My conditioning and diet have always been an afterthought. Before fights I’d jog when I could but I didn’t know what it took to fight at an elite level or the work that it takes to prepare for a fight,” Hernandez said. “I do now. I think my potential is through the roof and I could have a good run once I’m on the show.”
With eight weeks of training, sparring for hours each day, and having a dietician, Hernandez said the world will finally see the Hulk in its true form.
“I’ll be in the best shape in my life,” he said. “When you’re in the ring with titans, every fighter has fists of dynamite. Anyone can win. There’s no reason it can’t be me.”
Hernandez is looking for sponsors to help fund his dream. For more information on supporting Hernandez click here and message him via his Facebook page.