On the last day of one of boxing’s lamest years, its master craftsman, Guillermo “El Chacal” Rigondeaux (14-0), steps into the ring where he’ll seek a upbeat conclusion to a downcast twelve months. He’ll probably be successful, because his opponent, Japan’s Hisashi Amagasa (28-4-2), is levels below the gifted Cuban. Truthfully, I know so little about Amagasa that any more specific criticisms would be disingenuous. He is an experienced pro in his home country, where all of his fights have occurred, but he’s fought poor opposition and that Rigondeaux is facing him at all is disappointing. There is bigger game to bag at featherweight, but as “El Chacal” lamented this week, venting his frustration to reporters about the reluctance of his peers to fight him, it has all retreated to the forest.
Wednesday’s fight won’t be covered by HBO or Showtime, so ambivalent are they about Rigondeaux’s career. He fought on HBO before, of course, when he brought down Nonito Donaire in an impressive display of pugilistic skill. Rigondeaux dominated so easily that it was more a boxing exhibition than a prizefight, and drew boos from a crowd that wanted violence, rather than technique. Bob Arum, who promoted Rigondeaux at the time and whose company, Top Rank, subsequently dropped him as a client, said that because of his conservative, defensive style and Cuban lineage he is impossible to promote, a losing proposition, financially. There have also been rumors of virulent opposition from HBO executives to featuring Rigondeaux again, like regurgitation at the mention of his name.
Networks answer to shareholders, who typically care more about dollars than a fighter’s aesthetic merits, so the opposition to Rigondeaux is, in one sense, understandable. Many fight fans do care about technique, as the popularity of Lee Wylie’s video breakdowns proves, but most prefer action, and for the two-time Olympic gold medalist, action is ancillary to craft. Rigondeaux doesn’t fight to appease his critics so much as he does to prove his superiority. There have been quick knockouts, like when he violently did away with Willy Casey, but also long stretches in which he’s destroyed his opponent systematically. The latter is impressive but it’s bereft of drama, and while a clinical exhibition might leave you awestruck, it can also leave you cold.
I find Rigondeaux’s indifference to courting fandom attractive, rather than off-putting, because he doesn’t betray himself by providing cheap thrills. It seems insensible to me that a fighter as decorated as “El Chacal”, who has won two gold medals in a truly historic amateur career, and risked his life by defecting from Cuba, should behave and fight in a way that’s anathema to him simply because it will make him more popular. He understands the sport too deeply to deviate from what has made him successful, and seems too proud to debase himself by becoming something he isn’t.
Prior to his fight with Nonito Donaire, HBO gave us a ‘Road to the Fight’ feature, which profiled both boxers. Fast forward to 6:56, when Rigondeaux is sitting on the edge of the ring apron. Sporting the immobile face of a person who’s already worked out the answer to the question, he says “I’ll beat anyone who says 11 fights isn’t enough experience. They’ll see my results once the bell rings. It’s simple.”
The last two words are telling. Rigondeaux’s self-confidence stems from his absolute faith in his boxing acumen. In other words, he believes he can identify his opponent’s flaws, make the preparations necessary to exploit them, and execute his plan without fail. Just witness his destruction of Donaire. Rigondeaux clearly had an objective understanding of Donaire’s habits, and he made an otherwise dynamic fighter look plodding. Objectivity, some have written, is the hallmark of genius, because the more clearly and distinctively the world presents itself to you, the more comprehensive your understanding of it will be. While genius is a lofty concept, Rigondeaux’s boxing intellect is as sharp and probing as anyone’s. He always shows a clear understanding of his opponents strengths and flaws; the former he neutralizes, the latter he exploits.
And, because he makes people look so bad, it’s hard to find willing opponents. Rigondeaux has boxed only once this year, in July, when he knocked out Sod Kokietgym in the first round in Macau. Kokietgym is not one of the best 122 pounders, but neither is Amagasa, who is coming down from 126 lbs. Such is life when literally none of the other fighters in the division, whether Leo Santa Cruz, Carl Frampton, or Scott Quigg, have any interest in taking on “El Chacal.” As Rigondeaux recently told The Ring, “I am very frustrated that the other world beltholders are running scared and won’t fight me. It’s disgraceful that we couldn’t find a world-class, 122-pound fighter to fight me.”
But for his no-show rivals, the fact remains Rigondeaux represents a high risk for little financial reward. No longer with Top Rank, he has no promotional weight nor, unlike fellow defensive savant Floyd Mayweather, does he have his own company to manufacture interest in his career. He is managed by Irishman Gary Hyde, who told The Ring that only Asian fighters are willing to face Rigondeaux. This is why, for the second time this year, he will play his trade in the Orient rather than in America.
Perhaps he merely needs a divisional change to regain his professional momentum. A move up to featherweight would present new and interesting opponents, namely Vasyl Lomachenko and Nicholas Walters. This past summer, Walters might have ruined Nonito Donaire as an elite professional when he knocked him out in the sixth round on the Golovkin-Rubio undercard. Lomachenko is a relatively unseasoned professional like Rigondeaux, but like “El Chacal” he is a man with a fabulous amateur record and an Olympic gold medal. A match with either would probably give Rigondeaux his greatest challenge.
So, why do we care about a contest in a faraway place against an overmatched opponent? Because there might be an upset, reminiscent of Japan’s last great international shocker, a seminal event now approaching its silver anniversary? No, probably not; Rigondeaux is too focused to be done in by bad preparation, as Mike Tyson was that day at the Tokyo Dome. Instead, we care because Rigondeaux is a spectacular talent, and talent that pure, both in its depth and abundance, always begets new wonders. Put another way, we learn new things by watching Guillermo Rigondeaux. So we’ll follow this fight to find out the result, even though the inexcusable apathy of leading broadcasters prevents us from watching it live. After all, where the financial bottom-line is concerned, talent is always subordinate to popularity.
— Eliott McCormick