Sphinx-like and solitary, Guillermo Rigondeaux sits in repose on his desert throne. Despite his bleak environs he has ample supplies and is impressively ornamented. In one sense, Rigondeaux is fortunate, for he’s the rare outcast whose belly is full and whose throat is moist. The struggle for survival that has marked his adult life has already been won. He lacks for no material goods, only company. Few dare venture into the badlands he now occupies.
Is Rigondeaux to blame for his isolation? Does his considerable pride only seclude him? Is the problem those he surrounds himself with? The reasons are many but the reality is bleak: his sun will soon set for good, and the only visitors to Rigondeaux’s outpost will be the vultures that twirl and screech around his carcass.
Last week, this Cuban southpaw nonpareil with the artist’s touch and the statue’s countenance, was stripped of his featherweight title by the World Boxing Organization, citing inactivity. According to its rules, he had not defended his title within the allotted nine months, which gave the WBO cause to turn ‘El Chacal’ into a former champion. Rigondeaux’s team protested, citing a “lack of appropriate available opponents willing to fight,”, arguing that “it would be an abuse of discretion to vacate because Mr. Rigondeaux has never failed to defend against the mandatory challenger.”
A small firestorm erupted over Twitter when the WBO announced its decision. Reaction was mixed, as some decried the organization’s hypocrisy while others blamed the fighter and his team for their poor stewardship of his career. To add further injury, on Monday the WBA followed the WBO’s lead and took back Rigondeaux’s title for the same reason, including a provision in which he is ‘Champion in recess’ and must fight Scott Quigg or whomever holds the title by May 1st of next year.
Rigondeaux hasn’t fought since last New Year’s Eve in Japan, when his punches created a patchwork of goitres on Hisashi Amagasa’s face. In the past five years he’s boxed only eight times, almost always in front of small crowds, sometimes at nondescript venues. The lone exception was his 2013 fight versus Nonito Donaire at a splendidly-lit Radio City Music Hall (one of boxing’s most beautiful backdrops, the ring glowed in gold that night).
Before that, his highest-profile appearance came against Ricardo Cordoba on the Pacquiao vs Margarito undercard at Cowboys Stadium. Rigondeaux won that bout but squandered the opportunity, turning in a forgettable performance in which he was knocked down but still won easily. It did little to ingratiate him to Top Rank, then his co-promoter, or HBO, and armed critics of the technical Cuban style with more fodder for their dismissal of it as boring.
He doesn’t fight frequently and brings little money to the bargaining table. For opponents who follow the sport’s contemporary template for success, which privileges financial reward over career risk, most will opt for an easier foe than Guillermo Rigondeaux. His comeback may be in Ottawa on next month, assuming a suitable opponent can be found. On Friday night Boxrec Canada’s Philippe St-Martin reported the Cuban was to face Cesar Sada, who the WBA eventually rejected as an opponent. Once again, Rigondeaux finds himself in limbo.
It is worth pointing out that the card slated for December 4 is headlined by James Toney, who has somehow been judged fit to box by licensed medical professionals in Ontario. Toney, once great, is a walking advertisement for boxing’s abolition. Rigondeaux, who’s great right now, should not be fighting on the undercard of an event many will dismiss outright because of Toney’s involvement. And, for the good of his career, the Cuban should not be performing in Ottawa, which last hosted boxing of any significance in 1998 when Otis Grant stopped Ernesto Sena at the Corel Centre. As an Ottawa native, I’m thrilled at the idea of Rigondeaux fighting there and I applaud the promoter’s ambition; but as an unabashed fan of ‘El Chacal,’ I wish he had a grander gallery in which to exhibit his art.
This past week’s clusterfuck, and the uncertainty of what comes next, encapsulates just how poorly-handled Rigondeaux’s career has been. This September he broke away from manager Gary Hyde, who had been instrumental in helping him defect from Cuba in 2007. Last week Hyde told The Ring’s Michael Woods that while he’s saddened by these recent developments, Rigondeaux is surrounded by “reptiles” whose poor decisions have ruined his career. According to Hyde, “No promoter or manager would touch Rigo with a 10-foot pole because these people are too difficult to deal with and they put hurdle after hurdle in front of every opportunity offered to Rigo.” He also placed part of the blame on the fighter himself, who Hyde claims turned down several lucrative offers for prospective bouts.
Rigondeaux is promoted by Caribe, whose Twitter banner features CEO Boris Arencibia posing with a seductive Latin woman in what appears to be a gaudy hotel room. A recent tweet contains a picture of Arencibia pointing backwards at a shapely, thick-thighed lady in a cocktail dress, her breasts half-exposed, grinding into his back. The smaller profile photo is yet another picture of the CEO, speaking into a microphone as a shirtless Rigondeaux looks on. A cursory glance at the page might lead one to conclude that it belongs to a real estate agent with garish predilections, not the promoter of the world’s most talented boxer.
Caribe doesn’t have the institutional weight of Golden Boy or Top Rank, or even a respectable website. It cannot deliver Rigondeaux to the masses by itself. Ideally, his backers would enter into a co-promotional agreement with a larger player, and it was rumoured the boxer was on the verge of signing deals with Roc Nation and Al Haymon, neither of which materialized. In the past, Rigondeaux worked with Top Rank and Bob Arum, a partnership that produced a few notable moments but is memorable mostly for Arum’s disparagement of Rigondeaux after the fighter’s dazzling win over Nonito Donaire.
“Running the way he does really makes it not a watchable fight,” Arum said, moronically dismissing what was a historically-impressive performance. Rigondeaux is no longer with Arum, and under Caribe his progression has been preposterously slow. Why, so many have asked, is the boxer so loyal to a business that doesn’t have the power or the ingenuity, to advance his career?
There is no evident answer to that question. Rigondeaux, clearly a guarded person whose life has been inconceivably dramatic, doesn’t appear to easily trust others. Maybe the machinery of large-scale boxing, and dealing with men like Arum, who prefer spectacle to subtlety, has left him sour. Whatever the case, his motivations are not easily discernible. Rigondeaux owns boxing’s finest poker face, and whether on camera, where he stares blankly at his interviewers, usually unimpressed with their questions, or in the ring, where he moves so economically that opponents can’t anticipate his next punch, he rarely gives himself away.
To some degree, Rigondeaux’s personality informs against him. He seems too private a man to share himself with the public and too proud of his pedigree to turn heel in the interest of cheap entertainment. He is content to let his skills speak for themselves, and they do so authoritatively whenever he’s given the opportunity to exercise them. Unfortunately, opportunities are rare.
Professional boxing is institutionally unsuited to a fighter like ‘El Chacal’ because he doesn’t fit within its tightly circumscribed rules for economic gain. His style is too subtle to gain a wide audience but he won’t indulge in brash vulgarity as a way of drawing attention to himself. His skills and preternatural instincts pose a great threat to other fighters, and he doesn’t bring in enough cash to warrant taking on the risk. Rigondeaux is too good for his own good, as Charles Farrell recently wrote on Deadspin. This makes promoting him a test of one’s intellectual resourcefulness, and it’s one his handlers have failed badly.
To return to Arum, he said that to successfully promote Rigondeaux he might have to enlist Fidel Castro’s help. This was a foolish remark and one that showed little sensitivity for the boxer’s fraught relationship with the Cuban revolutionary, who publicly shamed him after Rigondeaux tried to defect while in Brazil for the 2007 Pan-American Games. “I don’t know what I’m gonna do,” Arum continued, showing little imagination on how to handle ‘El Chacal.’ “I have to look for someone to fight him. He’s one of the best defensive fighters I’ve ever seen, but it’s not a very pleasing style. He’s a very good fighter, but it’s not pleasing, so we will have to see.”
If Floyd Mayweather proved anything during his career-long march to material riches, it’s that one need not be Arturo Gatti to become a draw, though it can be argued that Rigondeaux is more exciting than Mayweather because he actually stops people. But the suggestion here isn’t that Rigondeaux could become a Mayweather-type attraction, as that will never happen. ‘El Chacal’ doesn’t speak English, refuses to self-promote, has no sophisticated control over the sport’s business side, and fights in a less popular weight class. He could, however, become bigger, if only he fought more frequently and those in charge of his career were creative enough to shape a narrative fans could invest themselves in.
And what a narrative there is! Born into poverty in Santiago de Cuba, schooled in the mythical Cuban amateur program where his absurd capacities were honed, having enjoyed near-perfect success at the international level that culminated in two Olympic gold medals only to be publicly excoriated by the very man, Fidel Castro, whose policies Rigondeaux’s success had been engineered to vindicate. After his failed defection he became an outcast in his own country and could no longer ply the trade that made him legendary, so rather than risk living out his life in squalid shame with his country’s most powerful men mobilized against him, Rigondeaux left his family to cross that perilous stretch of water between Cuba and Miami.
It is a tale of sadness, danger, and extreme self-belief, and has as one of its central characters Fidel Castro, who functions as a stock villain in the American psyche and should have been leveraged as a spiritual foe to the gallant, mysterious, profoundly individualistic, and, in this one sense, spiritually-American, Guillermo Rigondeaux.
An immensely talented aesthetic marvel, at once exotic and unknowable, Rigondeaux’s career would benefit from more assertive mythologizing. Of course, fostering a cult of intrigue won’t solve his problems, but pushing a narrative that illuminates the stakes of Rigondeaux’s journey and celebrates the sophistication of his style will make him more interesting to a public for whom he’s completely alien. The other half of the divide concerns what happens inside the ring, where ‘El Chacal’ rarely finds himself. He is getting old, regardless of how conducive his style is to longevity, and that alone should motivate his handlers to get moving.
Rigondeaux is a sphinx whose impassive gaze guards his secrets. He is so interesting precisely because we have so little insight into his soul, but mystery alone cannot sustain a prizefighter. ‘El Chacal’ must box, because unlike the Egyptian monument from which the analogy is drawn, he will not find eternal fame in his own figurative desert. There, Rigondeaux will merely expire. And that reality is too cruel a fate for a man whose abilities should place him among the immortals.
— Eliott McCormick