A rainy Saturday afternoon is not a time at which I am accustomed to watching elite professional boxers. And yet, as I sit and bemoan the return of the Irish summer, on the other side of the world in Macau, China, one of the most gifted athletes on the planet is stepping into the ring.
Despite being a reigning super-bantamweight world champion and a mainstay of every top ten pound-for-pound list, El Chacal (The Jackal) Guillermo Rigondeaux finds himself fighting in Macau against an unheralded opponent who had fought outside of Thailand just twice in his previous 66 fights. And he doesn’t even top the bill.
His bout is the main support for the 5th professional fight of Chinese Olympian (and Paddy Barnes’ fr-enemy) Zou Shiming. How has it come to this? The thirty-three year old Rigo may be the most polarising fighter on the planet, and perhaps the best athlete you’ve never heard of.
As a product of the legendary Cuban boxing school, Rigo is one of the most decorated amateurs of all time. Manny Pacquiao’s Hall of Fame trainer Freddie Roach has worked with most of the sport’s best fighters and those he hasn’t trained; he’s seen first-hand and studied. Roach described Rigo as, “Probably the greatest talent (I’ve ever seen)”.
Oh, and Rigondeaux has two Olympic gold medals and two World Championship gold medals, just in case you don’t take Freddie’s word for it. If you want to see those medals, just make him smile – Rigondeaux had his gold medals melted down to give him a very expensive smile. In fact, Rigo would most likely have a couple more gold teeth if it was not for an attempted defection in 2007.
Along with Erislandy Lara, Rigo tried to escape at the Pan-American Games in 2007. Captured and returned to Cuba, Rigondeaux’s boxing career was dead and his future, as a failed defector, was grim. Enter Cork-based boxing manager Gary Hyde. Rigo had initially refused Hyde’s offer to help in 2007. But although Hyde failed in his primary objective, he did succeed in signing Rigondeaux to a five-year management contract.
Hyde has proven to be as deft as a pickpocket when it comes to relieving Cuba of their amateur stars. In 2007, despite failing to convince Rigo to take his help, Hyde did manage to bring Cuban amateurs Mike Perez, Alexei Acosta and Luis Garcia to Cork. How? The classic “pay a Cancun cartel to smuggle the fighters out of Cuba and into Mexico” routine. By 2009, Hyde had heard that Rigo was ready to try and escape again and had mobilized his Mexican contacts to begin the extraction. However, someone had beaten him to it; Rigo was safe and sound in Miami. Thankfully, the contract Rigo signed in 2007 still stood and Hyde finally had his superstar.
The question now became, could the gifted amateur fighter make an impression in the professional ranks? The answer was an emphatic yes. In his 7th fight he won an interim world title; in his 9th fight he won the real deal. In between those two fights he found three minutes to spare in which to demolish Ireland’s Willie Casey. But it hasn’t always been plain sailing for Rigo. He has had some difficulties, not with his opponents, but with boxing fans, his promoter and television networks.
In April 2013, Rigo took on Nonito Donaire in a super bantamweight unification bout. At the time, Donaire was considered one of the top five pound-for-pound fighters on the planet and received every available “Fighter of the Year” award for his performances in 2012. In their fight, the under-dog Rigondeaux dished out a boxing lesson. Donaire, despite scoring a flash knockdown late in the fight, was hopelessly out matched. He had no answer for Rigo’s speed and movement.
However, the reaction to Rigondeaux’s performance was overwhelmingly negative. The fight went through prolonged spells of inaction, drawing boos from the crowd. ESPN’s Dan Rafael labelled the fight “boring”. Most surprising however was that Rigondeaux’s own promoter, Top Rank’s Bob Arum, also decided to stick the knife in,
“It was not a very engaging fight. If Rigondeaux would stand and fight, he has a lot of power and a lot of skills, but running the way he does really makes it not a watchable fight.”
That fight was televised on HBO and the American network were not impressed by the performance of Rigondeaux nor with the audible boos being broadcast into homes of HBO subscribers. When Rigo’s next opponent, Joseph Agbeko, turned up in survival mode and Rigondeaux delivered another one-sided victory devoid of thrills, the knives were out. The fans were booing, HBO no longer wanted to be in the Rigo-business and once again, Arum was throwing public jabs at his own fighter.
As a former amateur boxer himself, Gary Hyde knows how to slip a jab and counter-punch. He did just that by sending an open letter to Arum in which he made public the fact that Team Rigo had requested (well before the fight) that a replacement be brought in for Agbeko. They knew before the bout that he would simply be in there to survive. Given Rigo excels as a counter-puncher, putting him in with a guy who planned to cover up all night and throw no punches, was always a recipe for a disappointing bout.
And so it has come to this, the only man not named Floyd Mayweather who might have a claim on the title of “most talented fighter in boxing”, is seeing out his contract with Top Rank on a Chinese undercard. No longer on HBO in America, he is instead banished to the relative obscurity of UniMas, a Spanish language channel.
And yet, hope remains for the “Rigolution”. He does have a growing cult following. These fans can see that the talent is there but it just needs the right platform to shine. So what can Rigo do to go from small cult following to mainstream superstar? Step one was completed on Saturday afternoon. Rigo saw out his deal with Top Rank by delivering a one-punch first round knockout which, despite his “boring” reputation, was his 9th KO in just 14 fights.
The second thing I would like to see Rigo do is learn English. The sport of boxing is driven by America. It is where the money and the media are. Floyd Mayweather has shown how manipulating the media can transform a fighter into a star, even if they fight in a defensive style. In his pre-fight press conference, Rigo delivered some nice lines, including a thinly veiled “F.U.” to his critics,
“I have been world champion and an Olympic gold medallist for one reason – I do not make mistakes in the ring. I fight my fight, not my opponents’ fights. In baseball, great hitters do not swing at bad pitches.”
These sound bites would be much more effective if delivered by Rigo directly rather than through an interpreter. He appears to have the kind of arrogance and disdain for critics that could see him marketed successfully as a boxing “heel” – the term used for the “bad guy” in professional wrestling.
The final thing he needs to do – and he made clear in his press conference that it’s something he wants to do – is get one of the other big names in the division into the ring with him. Leo Santa Cruz has developed a following in the States whilst Carl Frampton and Scott Quigg both have significant fan-bases on this side of the Atlantic.
In order for the “Rigolution” to gather momentum he needs to fight one of those three and beat them in an exciting fashion. But he has to get them in the ring with him first. If necessary; go to Belfast for Frampton, Manchester for Quigg or give Santa Cruz the lion’s share of the purse but the road to stardom runs through at least one of those names. If he does wind up facing Frampton, then obviously my Irish blood will have me rooting for Carl “The Jackal” Frampton rather than Guillermo “El Chacal” Rigondeaux (could be a rare opportunity to see a “loser changes their nickname” match) but until then, Viva la Rigolution!
Michael McCarthy, Pundit Arena.