If boxing were an organism, talent would be the marrow strengthening its bones. Beneath the pageantry, in a place untouched by politics and careerism, a firm structure exists without which boxing would collapse. This is the core, its most substantive part, the sport as a sport, boxing as boxing: a physical competition whose health and legitimacy are proportional to the excellence of its practitioners. In the absence of talent, the organism atrophies.
This Saturday, Guillermo Rigondeaux, the sport’s foremost possessor of skill, fights for the first time in eleven months against Drian Francisco. It will come on the Canelo-Cotto undercard, which means that Rigondeaux will find himself on pay per view for the first time in years. Until last week he had been exiled to a land so foreboding it discouraged even the most intrepid visitors. There he sat idle while lesser talents made dubious claims on the featherweight crown, each of them big and brave toward everyone not nicknamed ‘El Chacal’.
The other bit of news concerning Rigondeaux, even more important than his return itself, is the boxer’s new promotional deal with Roc Nation. For some time it was rumoured the Jay-Z-fronted operation was interested in his services, but the deal was only ratified last week. At the very least Rigondeaux should be more active now, given the four year, $10 million contract he must fulfill. Under Caribe, the small Miami outfit whose best work may have been done by Boris Arencibia’s libido, his career stalled miserably. With Roc Nation as his co-promoter, let’s hope Rigondeaux will not be a prestige piece for an enterprise still trying to establish itself, but a featured attraction whose fortune will rise with that of his new promoter.
Drian Francisco, his opponent on Saturday, is little known to North Americans and is being brought in to test Rigondeaux and lose in concussive fashion. He has a role to play in the arc currently (hopefully) being constructed by Bob Arum, Rigondeaux’s former manager, who sees the Cuban as a potential foil for Vasyl Lomachenko—the Ukrainian double gold medalist whose amateur career and Olympic pedigree are rivalled only by ‘El Chacal’s’. That meeting would represent boxing’s acme, and might be as useful for Lomachenko as it would for the avoided Rigondeaux.
A great source of criticism for boxing fans two weeks ago was the gusto HBO’s broadcasting team showed Lomachenko during his preposterously easy beatdown of Romulo Koasicha. Innocuous stylistic nuances, like spastic shifts in position, prompted gushing commendations from the HBO crew, and their enthusiasm, so transparent in its intention, became effluvia as the fight wore on. Too experienced to be told who to worship, the Twitter crowd caught an early whiff of the aroma and noisily called HBO on its shit.
It is not Lomachenko’s fault he is so highly praised (which Jim Lampley made a point of mentioning between approbations), but it is telling of the network’s prejudices; only three years ago Guillermo Rigondeaux showed even more thrilling skills against a far better opponent in Nonito Donaire. Unlike Lomachenko, ‘El Chacal’ was criticized for his brilliance and labelled ‘boring’ by boxing kingmaker-cum-Mayweather lackey Dan Rafael, after which he was banished to the sport’s hinterlands, from which, only now, he’s made a labyrinthine return. There is no obvious reason for his mistreatment beyond the backdoor politics that colour so many negotiations in boxing, politics that are often invisible to those who observe the sport from a distance.
But to focus on the negative is to step backwards and lose one’s feet in the molasses-filled swamp where the boxing cynic seeks refuge. We have bemoaned Rigondeaux’s lack of action before, acted bemused that his comeback may be staged in Ottawa, and maligned the unimaginative way his promoters have handled him. At least now his return will occur on a card fans care about, where they can gawk at his talent and there is legitimate hope for premium future fights.
Rigondeaux will only realize his potential if his peers willingly step into the ring with him. Whether it be Carl Frampton, Scott Quigg, or ideally, Vasyl Lomachenko, his career will seem a waste if—because of reasons beyond his control—he retires without having consistently met the best. While Francisco doesn’t meet this criteria, he might be a useful intermediary. It should be mentioned that, even though last weekend reminded us how the most impervious of fighters can be brutally subdued, don’t expect an upset Saturday. Where Rousey, having not mastered every facet of her discipline, was limited, Rigondeaux, the most erudite artisan, possesses the full spectrum of boxing skills.
‘El Chacal’ is supposedly 35 but his face bears the hardened skin of someone several years older. In spite of his growing age he represents true vitality: a sport whose objective is to inflict neurological damage becomes slightly more defensible when those delivering the punishment do so at a level where artistry succeeds brutality. Rigondeaux, already the ‘boxer-painter’ that Vasyl Lomachenko aspires to be, will invigorate boxing with his return for this very reason. And his return is utterly necessary. Like any living, breathing organism, the sport’s health depends on an inner structure fortified by actual substance.
— Eliott McCormick