By Joseph Wilhelm
Photos by Laura Baker, Meghan Wonder, and courtesy of Rob Fernandes
Rob Fernandes is a fighter. He’s always been one; it just hasn’t always been by choice.
Fernandes grew up in Taunton, Massachusetts, a blu
e-collar community that left little room for weakness and vulnerability. At age 13, his parents divorced, the same age Fernandes was kicked out of school and into the work force.
“I was always the small guy. I got beat up really badly when I was 14 by a bigger kid. He was picking on me and I got sick of it and just punched him in the face. I got beat up so bad. But afterwards, I sat right there, bleeding everywhere and I laughed while he walked away,” Fernandes said.
In case you were wondering, that 14 year-old kid is alive and well, still refusing to turn down a fight, even when it may be in his best interests. The only difference is that at 28, Fernandes has figured out a positive way to channel his tenacity and resolve.
Mixed martial arts; the perfect arena for Fernandes to quiet the inner-demons of a troubled past. Yes, he loves the feeling of winning a fight. But MMA also provides Fernandes with a different sort of satisfaction.
“You can see it in a guy’s eyes when he’s beaten. There’s nothing better than that. It’s better than getting your hand raised. His breathing becomes ragged. You can just feel that he’s had enough, that he’s done.”
Inside the cage, Fernandes, now fighting for Systems 8 Fight Club, is ‘The Boston Strangla,’ a moniker that he earned because of his tendency to employ his 6’2, 155 pound frame in choking his opponents into submission.
“I got the name after choking out seven guys in a row. My grandpa hated it. It’s pretty catchy but it’s a lot more specific than a name like ‘the Executioner’.”
Fernandes reaction perfectly captures the duality of his personality. He is, indeed, the Boston Strangla. And yet, the man behind the name is both mindful and caring, his smiling eyes, possessing a distinct glint, a disarming gaze that makes you feel as though he understands some profound humor of life.
His apartment does not look your typical bachelor pad. In place of empty beer bottles and sexy posters, Fernandes living room is tidily kept, with toys neatly packed into practically every corner. You see, Rob Fernandes is a father. The ever-present gleam in his eyes burns especially bright when he speaks of his daughter, Keilana, who Fernandes and the mother of his child, Leilana Torres, lovingly call Kiwi. Wouldn’t you know, at 7 months of age, she already expresses her father’s resolve.
“She just started crawling. We were totally unprepared. We’re really working hard not to spoil her too much, but it’s difficult.”
Fernandes says this in his distinct New England accent, a token of a life that he’s happy to have left behind. At 23, Fernandes left his native Taunton for Los Angeles, hoping that the West Coast would provide greener pastures.
“I realized that everyone back home was working in construction or in jail, so I decided to move out here,” Fernandes said, “Everything out here is so different. It’s a different country altogether,” Fernandes said.
When pressed to characterize the differences, Fernandes chuckles and appears hesitant, perhaps conscious of the fact that he’s speaking to a native Californian.
“The way people dress, the way people act, people are more verbal and resolute…people are a little prissier, the girls outdrink the guys out here, but everybody is also so much happier,” Fernandes said.
When he speaks of happiness, it’s difficult not to wonder if Fernandes is speaking of his own. The move to California has blessed him with his two greatest passions; his daughter and his dream. As he sits on the cusp of a professional MMA career, Fernandes cannot help but to reflect on how much he has changed since moving to Los Angeles, a transformation that has manifested itself in more than just his career aspirations and family life.
“You can just look at pictures. I even look different. The styles of my clothes, the type of music I listen, even the type of people I hang out with,” Fernandes said.
But don’t let his optimism and contagious smile fool you. Fernandes’ pursuit of happiness has not been an easy journey. A string of poorly timed injuries and ailments have hampered his success along the way.
In his only loss as an amateur (ironically, on the first-ever University of MMA event in 2010), Fernandes came into the fight having just recovered from a six-week struggle with a staph infection. In the first round, Fernandes broke his foot but willed his way through all three rounds, eventually losing by decision.
A month later, in October of 2010, he woke up in the passenger seat of a car. Fernandes and Torres had been rear-ended a drunk driver, blasted forward 250-feet by the staggering momentum of a vehicle traveling at 90 miles-per-hour. In the driver’s seat, Torres appeared lifeless, the innocent victim of another’s stupidity.
Incredibly, the couple, who no longer are together, escaped the horrific accident with their lives. The same couldn’t be said for their health. Torres was placed in ICU for a week, the left side of her body completely paralyzed, a condition that did not fully heal for almost two months.
Fernandes was left with brain bleeding and brain swelling, incapable of speaking without a stutter for three months afterwards. The accident also left him with a torn meniscus, bulging discs in his neck and back and three separate pinched nerves.
10.17.10; the date is permanently etched into Fernandes’ left wrist, an ever-present reminder of life’s precious nature. As the expression goes, he’s lived to fight another day.
Yes, he’s overjoyed to be alive, but Rob Fernandes cannot help but wonder what could have been.
“It’s so sad man. I still feel like I can do it. I wish I was still a 25 year-old kid with no injuries and never having to stop. Maybe I’m letting let it get to myself mentally sometimes, I just wish I were younger again.”
The reality of his situation does not escape him. In a sport as physically demanding as mixed martial arts, it’s now or never for the 28 year-old Fernandes.
That being said, recent results appear encouraging. In May, Fernandes returned to the ring for the U of MMA’s ‘Champions of Tomorrow,’ enjoying a unanimous victory against Mike Frausto of 10th Planet Van Nuys.
The victory would prove to be doubly rewarding, as Fernandes and Frausto would ironically become good friends and training partners in the wake of their war, hanging out, trading tips, and even cornering each other at jiu jitsu tournaments.
But that night, in the afterglow of his triumphant return, Fernandes addressed the crowd at Club Nokia at L.A. LIVE; the same crowd who greeted him with a chorus of boos upon being introduced as a Massachusetts native.
“For all you people booing, I hope you like what my mother taught me,” as he offered an audacious single-finger salute to his detractors.
Rob Fernandes, ladies and gentlemen.
As he prepares for his upcoming bout in the U of MMA’s ‘Second to None’ on October 21st, in which he will be pitted against Quincy Davis, also of 10th Planet Jiu Jitsu, you cannot help but wonder if the Boston Strangla will finally gain acceptance from the California crowd.
“I don’t think they’ll boo me,” Fernandes said.
Just don’t expect it to faze him if they do.