Back in 2011 this writer travelled to Dublin, Ireland to support Willie “Big Bang” Casey’s unexpected and premature world title tilt. The venue was the City West Hotel and the scene more resembled the airport of a war-torn country than the setting for a boxing match. It was standing room only, a sell-out, with everyone searched before entry and armed guards patrolling the perimeter.
The Irish came in hope, staking their confidence on the power and hostility of partisan noise that can often inspire the inner being of a fighter’s soul and summon a deeper will and drive. This was not long after Bernard Dunnes’ improbable victory over Ricardo Cordoba so the collective belief of the punters that night had recent precedent.
We knew the opponent, a rebel Cuban and two-time Olympic champion, had arrived with a dangerous collection of weapons, but the situation required a suspension of logic as the pints were sunk with ever increasing speed. Reason was summarily dispensed with as we awaited the arrival of our hero for the night, “Big Bang.” But first the Cuban entered. Guillermo Rigondeaux. We approached the barriers, whistling and jeering, seeking to rattle the diminutive fighter. His reaction, or rather the lack of any reaction, became an immediate cause for concern beneath the warm glow of lager and vodka. He entered the ring and moved about like a prowling panther, the embodiment of stoicism, stealthy and limber.
Casey made his way to the ring and we exulted as one, cheering on our man. But what followed was a swift mismatch, a ludicrous, canyon-sized gap in skill and ability that seemed beyond cruel. Casey’s lifelong dream was brutally extinguished in less than three minutes of action and the armed guards could have taken the night off. The despondent crowd was in no mood for trouble as the fans quietly slunk away. We consoled ourselves with the certain knowledge that we had witnessed something extraordinary, a future superstar in the infant stages of what would surely be an epic career.
Since that night almost seven years ago, Rigondeaux has fought ten times. Ten times in seven years, his opponents holding a combined record of 257 wins and 17 losses. Four of those victories came by stoppage, five if you want to include the recent Moises Flores win, which was changed to a no contest. Out of a total of 108 professional rounds Rigo’s KO rate is 61 per cent.
The “boring” label thrown at the Cuban is a smokescreen utilized by rival promoters and fighters to justify complete avoidance. This persistent false narrative has benefited the careers of lesser fighters while Rigondeaux appearances are like sightings of the Loch Ness monster. The greatest boxing talent of this century has never been allowed to blossom. Regular consistent activity has escaped the Cuban master. He can’t get fights, but when he does we expect nothing but brilliance.
Rigondeaux is like an opera or a classic piece of literature. Everyone recognizes its genius, but people would rather watch an X Factor singer butchering a Michael Bolton dirge. But they are missing out. Take it from me, witnessing Rigondeaux in action is like straying from the safari tour guide and finding yourself crouching behind a hedge, soiling yourself as you observe a fully-grown Bengal tiger languidly moving around meters away. But the skills forged in three decades of dedication, discipline and competition have been ostracized from their natural habitat.
Money-hungry promoters avoid “El Chacal” like the plague because Rigondeaux can eradicate a fan base in minutes. He turned a crowd of drunk Irishmen into meek altar boys before a single round was over. As a result, he’s been treated like a rare piece of China that your mother only brings out on Christmas Day. Was it for this that he became an exile, never allowed to return to his home? How did he feel when a fellow double Olympic champion raced through the pro ranks, despite an early loss?
Vasyl Lomachenko’s pro career originated from the same template as the Cuban prodigy, yet his path to glory has brought widespread acclaim and much greater financial reward. It is impossible to envision Lomachenko accepting an undercard bout on a Frank Warren promotion in England anytime soon, yet that is what Rigondeaux did, squaring off against an overmatched Jazza Dickens for chump change while Lomachenko was becoming a new and valuable top-tier attraction. “Hi-Tech” is flashy, dedicated and the frontman of a marketing and advertising machine engineered by Bob Arum, who no doubt sees potential superstardom in the Ukrainian. Lomachenko has replaced Rigondeaux as the master of boxing artistry and, unlike the Cuban, has attracted sustained attention from the mainstream.
The bottom line is this: two of our era’s greatest, most talented boxers squaring off, that’s what’s going down on December 9. Everything else in the boxing world should seem trivial in comparison to this clash of ring wizards, two pugilists of otherworldly ability who are about to confront each other and be tested like never before. This is monumental. This is, for me, the fight of the decade.
Lomachenko vs Rigondeaux will provide a treasure trove of technique, of subtle nuances and ring semantics. Each round will carry layers of subtlety rarely seen in the squared circle, or, indeed, in any sport. It is difficult to overstate the weight of skill and ability that is about to collide on December 9. And yet weight itself may indeed prove to be the difference. Onlookers will be shocked when both fighters square off for promotional duties, and when Lomachenko, after rehydrating, enters the ring with likely an extra dozen or more pounds on his frame. If this premise involved any other two boxers, the idea would have been dismissed outright. An undersized bantamweight stepping up two divisions to take on a world class boxer and concussive puncher? Absurd.
Thus, it’s a testament to Rigondeaux’s greatness that no one will dare to completely rule out his chances against a younger and bigger opponent with the talent of Lomachenko. Rigondeaux’s pro career has consistently involved travelling to compete on foreign shores where all possible advantages are in the home fighter’s corner; otherwise, no one will face him. The fact remains, this duel represents a rare convergence of boxing brilliance, where two genius composers of controlled violence will do battle, the stakes nothing less than their historical legacies. And my educated guess is that the footnote of Lomachenko’s extra weight will gradually dissolve under the weight of history itself.
Stylistically, Rigondeaux is at his most effective as a counter-puncher, with that piston left hand ready to deploy and mutilate, and Lomachenko is the more aggressive jouster. While not a relentless pressure fighter per se, “Hi-Tech” keeps his opponents on the defensive through his mastery of footwork and manipulation of distance. He continually fools his opponents, shifting in and out of shooting range, his “matrix” like movement freezing his adversary or forcing him to panic and backpedal away.
But while he is endlessly inventive and creative, Lomachenko may be forced to second-guess himself against “El Chacal.” Will he be at all inhibited, perhaps a split second more cautious, considering the deadly counter-punching arsenal that will be threatening him at all times? In my opinion, that is the key question of this match, though it is only one amongst many other complex elements.
Lomachenko enters the ring as the bookmaker’s favourite but make no mistake, Rigondeuax represents a live threat. Regardless of the outcome, the movement, the feints, the counters, the combinations, the psychological games, and many other ingredients will provide aficionados of elite-level fisticuffs with an early Christmas feast. This is going to be epic. Historic. Riveting. And I’m picking the Cuban enigma to buck the odds and carve his entry as one of the all-time greats following a masterclass performance and a unanimous decision win.
A Rigondeaux victory cements his brilliance in history and sets up a potential trilogy, enough to finally secure the Cuban’s financial security after a lifetime of dedication to his calling. Simply put, a Rigo win means more than a Lomachenko victory. He enters the contest as the underdog, with widespread expectations that he will lose, a situation he has never encountered in three decades of combat. And it is for that reason that I tip him for the upset, despite the roadblocks placed in front of him not only for this fight but for his whole professional career. He has more to prove, an absurd situation but one he will relish. Boxing needs a Rigondeaux win and he will deliver. — Gary Elbert