By: Eric Lunger
In early April 2013, it looked like things were finally going well for the supremely talented Guillermo Rigondeaux, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and one of the finest products of the vaunted Cuban boxing program. He had a solid three-year contract with Bob Arum’s Top Rank Promotions, and HBO appeared to be on board as well, with on-air personalities Jim Lampley and Max Kellerman as vocal supporters of the Cuban southpaw’s style.
Rigondeaux had defected from his native land – he was once Fidel Castro’s favorite boxer– in 2009, leaving close family behind in order to pursue a professional career in the United States. Unable to speak English, feared as an opponent, and seemingly unable to generate ticket sales, Rigondeaux’s dreams of making it big in the US were fading away.
But when he signed with Top Rank in July of 2012, the Cuban phenom quickly moved into contention at super bantamweight, and then captured the WBA World title by stopping Rico Ramos in the sixth round in January of 2012. Then came a chance at unification: a bout with Top Rank stablemate Nonito Donaire, the WBO champion and then number five pound-for-pound fighter in the world.
Rigondeaux boxed in his normal style, but he tagged the “Filipino Flash” with some brutal shots, and in fact hurt Donaire in the twelfth, forcing him to finish the fight with this right glove protecting his right eye. Donaire was eloquent and gracious in defeat, but Ridgondeaux’s footwork and evasive tactics soured Arum: “When Rigondeaux stands and fights, the [expletive] has a lot of power and a lot of skill, but running the way he does really makes it not a watchable fight,” Arum was quoted as saying in the aftermath.
Rather than being the culmination of his career, the Donaire win was for the Cuban Champion the beginning of a slide into irrelevance and then out-right avoidance. Rigondeaux fought twice more on Top Rank cards, once in Atlantic City (in a defensive snoozer), and then in a non-televised bout in Macau. After that, he became the most avoided man in boxing, and thus it is all the more remarkable that Arum is putting Lomachenko (arguably his most financially-attractive fighter) in the ring against the enigmatic Rigondeaux.
In the run-up to Saturday night, Rigondeaux has played the part on social media of the outcast and the underdog, whose victory will be all the sweeter should he pull the upset — and given Lomachenko’s advantage in age and weight, a Rigondeaux victory would be a big upset. No question that Rigondeaux is a polarizing figure in the sport. To some, he is a boring, defense-first fighter, who stockpiles points in early rounds, and then goes into cruise control. Others see him as the epitome of pure boxing skill, a practitioner of the high art of “hit and don’t be hit.”
Saturday night on ESPN, a free broadcast immediately after the Heisman Trophy award show: what bigger stage could Rigondeaux hope for at this point in his career? And one has to imagine there a voice, however faint, in the back of Bob Arum’s mind: have I made a mistake? Can the diminutive Cuban possibly pull another Donaire-like demolition of Top Rank’s Ukrainian Wunderkind?