Have you heard of Guillermo Rigondeaux? Probably not. Let me tell you about Guillermo Rigondeaux.
Probably the greatest amateur boxer of all time, the Cuban defector holds a pre-professional record of, I am absolutely not kidding here, 463-12. Of those losses, his last was in 2003, six years before his defection to the United States. During that lengthy amateur career, he was a rock star in his native Cuba; the country doesn’t technically allow athletes to make money from playing sports (hence not only the frequent defections to the United States, but the seemingly incongruous notion of “amateurs” competing well into their 30s), but the government highly values its star performers and rewards them accordingly: Rigondeaux never had to worry about money for himself or his family, as the Castro regime provided him with a plush residence, a sizeable (if unofficial) income and even a Lamborghini.
In 2007, however, Gamboa and current top-ranked pro Erislandy Lara failed to show for their scheduled fights at the 2007 Pan-American games, sparking rumors that they would follow the example of fellow 2004 Cuban Olympians Yan Bathelemy, Odlanier Solis and Yuriorkis Gamboa in defecting to the United States and turning professional. For Rigondeaux, however, this was a false start; he surrendered to police in Brazil and, despite expressing a desire to return to Cuba of his own free will, he was banned from competing for his home country for the rest of his life. His hand finally forced, Rigondeaux finally, officially, defected in 2009.
The arrival of a great, near-legendary amateur like “Rigo” is cause for much fanfare in the professional boxing world, though it does come with more than a modicum of caution. Odlanier Solis, for example, was a heavyweight sensation upon his defection, but, as a result of some truly freakish bad luck and his own personal lackadaisical training habits, he’s been seen as something of a bust: he beat world-class competition during his stellar amateur career, including defeats of Russian powerhouse Sultan Ibragimov twice, and a rare TKO of future professional heavyweight king David Haye.
In the pro ranks, he defeated Ray Austin and Monte Barrett on his way to a shot at Vitali Klitschko, but had to retire in the first round after a fluke knee injury. He’s recorded some losses in recent years, but lost his last two fights to credible journeyman fighter Tony Thompson.
Amateurs bring a different game to the table, no more so than someone like Rigondeaux, who had been competing and winning at such a high level for so long. See, while KOs and TKOs are not unheard-of in amateur boxing, it’s not really the first priority: the focus is on scoring points, so pinpoint accuracy and evasive technique are prized and honed. The transition from amateur to professional is, in that respect, interesting to witness.
Rigondeaux, stylistically, managed it pretty well, winning his first 11 fights, eight of them by some form of stoppage. Despite that, the fairly soft-spoken boxer garnered a reputation as “boring,” and while that designation is in no way fair, it’s not difficult to see why: though operating with pinpoint accuracy, Rigondeaux is not a volume puncher, preferring instead to feel out and study an opponent, getting their timing down, and then counter-punching them to death. So while there’s a payoff at the end, the route is not terribly exciting.
Because of this, the top-tier champions at 122 pounds consistently refused to face him, not directly citing, but implying a high-risk (Rigondeaux is, again, worlds ahead of most other fighters on the planet in terms of technique) yet low-reward (he doesn’t bring in a lot of money, is not very popular, etc.) scenario. Rigondeaux, though, continued to plug away and win in dominant fashion, until finally someone was forced to step up and face him.
That someone was the sensational Nonito “Filipino Flash” Donaire, who was riding a 12-year winning streak, and hadn’t lost since only his second professional fight. Famed for his ridiculous handspeed and monster left hook, Donaire was thought to be a compelling matchup for Rigo, and one that would truly gauge whether or not the Cuban could hang with the upper-tier, power-punching monsters of his division.
The fight wasn’t even close. Rigondeaux gave Donaire a boxing lesson, avoiding most of the Filipino’s punches and himself landing almost at will. And though he couldn’t finish Donaire, Rigondeaux visibly hurt him in the final round, punctuating a dominant victory.
Oddly enough, this is where it all went downhill for Rigondeaux. Boxing is a mix of the worst elements of both business and politics, and the butt-hurt factor is strong here; grudges are held almost indefinitely, and Rigondeaux was immediately, if unofficially, blacklisted for damaging a known commodity and money-maker in Donaire, an immensely popular fighter. Since then, Donaire has gone on to several high-profile fights, including a second win over former rival Vic Darchinyan and a losing, yet lucrative, effort to Nicholas Walters.
Rigondeaux, on the other hand, is in limbo. After the Donaire win, he rattled off three more victories against Joseph Agbeko, Sod Kokietgym and Hisashi Amagasa, known to most boxing fans as Who, Who, and WHO? And despite, again, finishing the latter two fights inside the distance, he hasn’t been able to get another fight since this past December. Not only that, since other top-ranked fighters refuse to face him and the WBO and WBA (sanctioning bodies of the two major titles he holds) won’t sanction his fights against the opponents who are willing to face him, he’s been stripped of his belts due to “inactivity.”
The WBO’s decision is particularly, spectacularly infuriating, since they will now order a fight between Cesar Juarez and Nonito Donaire for the vacant title. What do you think the over-under is on Donaire’s team granting Rigondeaux at shot at that title if he wins?
At 35 years old, Rigondeaux is still in top physical shape and appears to be all but unaffected by his age, but it is still a major concern for his future prospects, and his window for making a big impact on the sport is gradually shrinking. If nothing changes, he may become just about the greatest footnote in the history of sports.