The boxer Freddie Roach described as “probably the greatest talent I’ve ever seen” defended his super bantamweight title yesterday and, outside Japan, nobody saw it live. People rarely see Guillermo Rigondeaux live these days.
Since 2010, when the Cuban’s performances against Jose Angel Beranza in Tijuana and Ricardo Cordoba in Dallas drew yawns and jeers from the crowd in equal measure, El Chacal has become a dirty word in the boardrooms of HBO and Top Rank.
A style as cultured, measured and clinical as Rigondeaux’s is an apparent affront to the sensibilities of the average American/Mexican fight fan who values blood and guts over technical excellence. Sad, but perhaps not that surprising in a world where a girl who couldn’t sing or dance became Madonna, the best-selling female recording artist of all time.
The man who was shunned in his own country following a failed 2007 defection suddenly found himself persona non grata in the boxing circles of his adopted land. As the author of the brilliant A Cuban Boxer’s Journey, Brin-Jonathan Butler, puts it, “he left one abject political situation in Cuba to enter into boxing’s equivalent.”
And so on Rigo has laboured with his Irish manager, Gary Hyde, working overtime to find venues and opponents even remotely fit for one of the top pound-for-pound fighters on the planet. Nonito Donaire in New York aside, his bouts have flown largely under the mainstream radar with only the hard core scouring the internet for reliable streams to witness the Cuban master at work.
The unwelcome shadows have proved fertile ground for the Rigondeaux legend to flourish. Aficionados are never shy to wax lyrical and declare him an unbeatable genius. Some have even crossed genres, continents and centuries to compare him with Mozart. Detractors, meanwhile, speak disparagingly of performances that could bore the paint off the walls and a totally unmarketable entity.
If all the reports are to be believed, the man from Santiago de Cuba is as good, yet boring, at boxing as he is bad at ticket/PPV selling. Needless to say, this has resulted in fellow super bantamweight stars in a stacked division being unwilling to go near him.
Carl Frampton’s manager, Barry McGuigan, summed up the general feeling recently when he told ESPN, “We’re not interested in Rigondeaux. He brings no money and no TV. He can’t draw 500 Cubans in Miami and he’s awkward and negative.”
With little else to do with his time, Guillermo found himself seeing in the New Year’s bells alongside Hisashi Amagasa last night in Osaka, Japan. It was billed as a keep-busy fight against a relatively unheralded featherweight and Team Chacal promised a firework display to rival the skies over Sydney Harbour. They delivered, kind of.
By the time Amagasa’s corner saved him from himself at the end of the penultimate round, his face looked like a sock stuffed with irregular-sized rocks. The grotesque swelling of the left side of his jaw gave him the appearance of a man attempting to conceal a billiards ball in his cheeks. He was already well beaten and totally exhausted and it was the correct decision.
But it is the seventh round that captured the headlines. Rigondeaux was sent to the canvas twice in the final 30 seconds of that stanza. It would be highly fanciful to suggest the bell saved him from anything drastic, and he resumed complete control from the opening second of the eighth, but it was certainly a welcome relief for him to sit on his stool for a moment and fully recalibrate the senses.
It didn’t take long for social media to react to the news with tongue-in-cheek conspiracy theories that El Chacal was faking vulnerability to lure Frampton, Santa Cruz and Quigg into battle in 2015. By the fourth or fifth Twitter iteration, the theory even appeared to be repeated by the more gullible as a semi-plausible explanation for the great man hitting the deck against a limited adversary.
The reality may be much more straight-forward: whisper it quietly but, for all his undoubted talents, Guillermo Rigondeaux could very well be chinny.
In only fifteen pro bouts, many against fighters BoxRec would fail to recognise on the street, Rigo has now been down four times. Amagasa carried the power in his arms that you would expect an emasculated, five foot ten and a half, featherweight fighter jumping down a division to have. Yet he, like Cordoba and Donaire before him, had enough in his arsenal to drop the super bantamweight king.
Could this be the inevitable legacy of an extended amateur career and late professional start? Rigondeaux was peerless in almost 500 short-form fights while sporting vest, head guard and 10 ounce mufflers. With just a pair of 8 ounce gloves to protect himself over 36 minutes, however, this crucial chink in the 34 year old’s armour has appeared at a rate of once every 24 rounds.
If accusations of a crystal mandible turn out to be founded, it begs the question what would happen if Rigo was required to rise twice in the seventh round against a boxer with the poise, and more importantly, one-punch knock-out power of a Carl Frampton? It is unlikely the Belfast man would let him off the hook so easily. The relentless Leo Santa Cruz, and even Manchester’s Scott Quigg, would also be confident of taking full advantage in such circumstances.
Does it also call into question the widespread belief that Rigo is the Cuban School’s most technically proficient graduate? That he truly is a genius that has mastered the sweet science as Einstein did physics or Archimedes mathematics?
A recent in-depth analysis of his ring craft certainly looked impressive. But on closer inspection it was largely based on a performance against Roberto Marroquin, who in his next two fights lost to Daniel Diaz (22-6-1) and drew with Alejandro Rodriguez (21-15-1).
That is akin to using footage of Roger Federer’s best moments while destroying a teenage wildcard debutant at Wimbledon to illustrate the Swiss’ brilliance. Does it mean Rigo is not something very special? Of course not. But should we maybe wait until he regularly dissects more worthy foes in similar fashion before we crown him? I believe so.
Before the seventh round in Osaka yesterday, no one was predicting 2015 to be the year Rigondeaux returns to our screens to confront the calibre of boxer he deserves to be matched with. It still may not be, but it can’t be denied that the latest signs of vulnerability make the prospect more likely than before. And for that we all owe the very game Hisashi Amagasa, and Rigo’s alleged glass jaw, a huge debt of gratitude.
Postscript: My New Year’s resolution is to play devil’s advocate more.