When Fidel Castro and the revolution came, professional sports were among the trivial things that left Cuba – only to return through amateur practice and theoretical greatness. Generations of Cuban boxers became thought experiments of who they could have been or should have beat. These hypotheticals filled boxing fans with daydreams of what would have gone down if Teófilo Stevenson had taken the multimillion dollars to defect Cuba and fight Muhammad Ali. But he didn’t. And all we have is one romantic Stevenson quote: “What is a million dollars against eight million Cubans who love me?” Likewise, we can only imagine a fight between Félix Sávon and Mike Tyson. But like Stevenson before him, millions of dollars didn’t lure Sávon away from home. We are left transposing Tyson onto one of his supposed successors, Shannon Briggs, whom Sávon easily defeated in front of Fidel and Stevenson. Guillermo Rigondeaux is the last of the great Cuban boxing triumvirate, and likely the best of them all. But unlike his predecessors, he left the island and was branded a traitor and “Judas” by Castro. And on Saturday, Rigondeaux will be Cuba’s first great boxer in almost 60 years to realize his potential – at least partially.
When Rigondeaux faces the Ukrainian Vasyl Lomachenko, it’ll be the second time he fights a top pound-for-pound boxer. Four years ago, he beat Nonito Donaire – the reigning fighter of the year – with surprising ease. Since then, Rigondeaux’s career has suffered. His former promoter, Bob Arum, has publicly discussed Rigondeaux’s lack of marketability, going so far as to say HBO didn’t want to broadcast his fights and that even the mention of his name made network executives vomit.
The problem with Rigondeaux – if we can classify it as such – is that he is too good in the worse possible way for boxing. Freddie Roach, the great trainer who’s guided Manny Pacquiao into one of the best boxers of his generation, described Rigondeaux as, “one of the greatest talents I’ve ever seen…Probably the greatest talent.” And yet, Rigondeaux’s style is the type that alienates those who watch boxing for violence.
Rigondeaux is thoroughly of the Cuban school of boxing, which when compared to other Latin American styles, especially from Mexico, is removed from machismo. Cuban boxing is a calculated, scientific style that – as Rigondeaux demonstrated in his fight against Donaire – frustrates opponents along with large segments of fans who consider that methodical style boring. To be fair, watching Rigondeaux box can become tedious. But he is nowhere near as banal as he’s made out to be. This idea has gained momentum as two of boxing’s most popular, major outlet writers have repeatedly criticized Rigondeaux’s fighting style.
Rigondeaux’s lack of popularity makes it so that there’s little monetary value to gain in fighting him. If this wasn’t bad enough, Rigondeaux’s supreme skill made him almost unbeatable during his prime. A combination of these two factors make it so that the Cuban boxer is easily and often avoided. Boxers will risk a loss if it means making millions, but they won’t if it means making a fraction of that.
As a result, Rigondeaux has spent the better part of the last several years calling out top-level opponents, Leo Santa Cruz and Carl Frampton, who’ve each given reasons for not fighting including lack of money – reasons Rigondeaux has repeatedly mocked. He has also called out Lomachenko, who finally bit, but only if the fight occurred at the Ukranian boxer’s 130-pound weight class – two weight classes above Rigondeaux’s fighting weight.
“[Weight] has nothing to do with it,” Rigondeaux explains in Spanish, “We are ready for 130, 140, and whatever else comes.” But despite Rigondeaux’s optimism, the weight along with age – he is 37, eight years Lomachenko’s senior – are factors, especially for the lighter weight classes where each pound is magnified.
His fight against Lomachenko in New York’s Madison Square Garden will also mark the first time two, two-time Olympic gold medalists fight each other. Rigondeaux won his in 2000 and 2004 while Lomachenko earned his in 2008 and 2012. And as skilled and decorated as an amateur as Rigondeaux is, Lomachenko may be his equal. Though, again, as with the weight challenges, Rigondeaux is unconcerned. “We are ready for whatever…that, for me is no type of problem,” he says.
As one would expect of a person who’s experienced what Rigondeaux has, the boxer seems completely unfazed by the advantages he’s given up in facing Lomachenko. Always in shape and four months into his training for Saturday’s fight, Rigondeaux appears extra motivated – in part because Bob Arum promotes Lomachenko. When asked about the prospect of defeating another one of the promoter’s top fighter, Rigondeaux, takes it as a given. “This will be his second fighter we’ll give a piñaso to,” says Rigondeaux about Donaire, who was also promoted by Arum and was, at that point, his prized fighter.
Rigondeaux is so confident, in fact, that he plans to unveil a new nickname following his victory. “After I win, I will change it,” says Rigondeaux, whose current self-appointed nickname, El Chacal comes from a Cuban reggaetonero by the same name. “We are thinking about what other name I will go by…but after I beat Lomachenko, I will change my nickname.”
2017 has been a great year for boxing and even if not the most anticipated by casual fans of the sport, Saturday’s fight between Guillermo Rigondeaux and Vasyl Lomachenko may be the best. Both are among the most skillful boxers of this generation and on the short list of boxing’s greatest amateur boxers. As professionals, however, Lomachenko and Rigondeaux’s careers have taken divergent paths. For all the breaks that Lomachenko has received, Rigondeaux has been given challenges. Granted, none of Lomachenko’s good fortune is without merit, but conversely, obstacles placed in Rigondeaux’s path are excessive. This includes last week’s decision by a sanctioning body to strip Rigondeaux of his 122-pound title if he loses to Lomachenko – even though they are not fighting for that title.
As a result, Rigondeaux has unfortunately lost part of his prime due to politics both in and out of the sport. If Rigondeaux wins, we may be witnessing the greatest boxer of the last half-century. And yet, like so many masters whose nuance of their talent is not greatly understood and thus, misrepresented, Rigondeaux lacks proper appreciation. And if he loses, which seems like the greater likelihood, it will be because age finally caught up with him and at this point of his career, he cannot overcome all the disadvantages he’s faced, and – at least against Lomachenko – has willingly taken on.