To appreciate Guillermo Rigondeaux is as much about acknowledging what he negates in his opponents as it is about marveling at his precise and explosive counter-punching ability. But in a sport that values furious exchanges and disproportionate acts of courage, Rigondeaux’s defensive acumen and savvy, to some, is perplexing and unappealing.
In defeating former WBO junior featherweight champion Nonito Donaire—a top pound-for-pound fighter and three-division champion (excluding interim belts)—to unify 122-pound titles at New York’s Radio City Music Hall on Saturday, Rigondeaux (12-0, 8 KO) secured validation. Unanimous recognition as an elite fighter, however, doesn’t necessarily imply that Rigondeaux will secure big fights and suddenly become marketable.
Against Donaire (31-2, 20 KO), Rigondeaux’s brilliance was evident in how he befuddled Donaire with deliberate movement, precise counters and aptly timed bursts of offense. Donaire, one of the sport’s most explosive offensive fighters, was reduced to plodding and confused chasing as he desperately searched for a homerun, fight-ending punch.
But there was also something subtler at play. Rigondeaux had a complete game plan and executed it almost to perfection. While Rigondeaux did tag Donaire with overhand lefts, hooks with his lead right hand, body punches and deft counters, it was ultimately the threat of what Rigondeaux is capable of that froze Donaire.
It would be too easy to focus on Rigondeaux’s inability to knock Donaire down or out. Even though Rigondeaux staggered Donaire in the opening round and landed big shots over the final two stanzas, cynics will highlight the fact that fight’s pace was lacking and that Donaire’s preparation was underwhelming.
Realistically, Rigondeaux’s performance must be described as tactically brilliant, and it is fair to wonder whether he is on the verge of becoming the sport’s best defensive fighter.
Out of respect and deference, Floyd Mayweather Jr. should retain this title until one can assess his next fight against Robert Guerrero. That said, given the way Rigondeaux befuddled Donaire, it is clear that the two-time Olympic gold medalist belongs in the discussion.
If Donaire-Rigondeaux lacked drama, an analysis of the punch stats reveals the extent of Rigondeaux’s subtle dominance.
To refer to a fighter’s performance as subtly dominant might seem oxymoronic, but the way Rigondeaux made Donaire, the 2012 Fighter of the Year, appear confused, tentative and inexperienced was stark. Donaire, after all, entered the fight having defeated Wilfredo Vazquez Jr., Jeffrey Mathebula, Toshiaki Nishioka and Jorge Arce in a remarkable 2012 campaign.
Rigondeaux, somewhat understandably, was a significant underdog—pundits on RingTV, for instance, voted 18-3 in favor of Donaire winning—despite having shown flashes of defensive and overall brilliance against highly competent, though not elite, opposition.
Through 11 fights leading up to his unification clash against Donaire, Rigondeaux had hinted at his ability to thoroughly outbox an elite opponent. For instance, consider the punch stats from Rigondeaux’s unanimous decision victory over Robert Marroquin.
In that fight, Rigondeaux held Marroquin to 54 landed blows out of 342 total punches thrown, which amounts to an astonishingly paltry connect percentage of 16. Marroquin only managed to land 41 of 206 power shots, and his per round averages were 4.5 connects out of 28.5 attempts.
While Donaire was certainly more competent than Marroquin, the dip in his punch stats was noticeable and decisive.
Coming into his fight against Rigondeaux, Donaire, over his past four fights, sported balanced punching averages that were still well below junior featherweight averages. Donaire averaged 45.8 total punches per round with 15.1 connects compared the division standard of 60.3 and 19.3 respectively. By throwing 23.5 jabs and 22.3 power punches per round, Donaire clearly had exhibited patience and control in a weight class where the average fighter throws 12.6 more power punches than jabs.
What this ultimately reinforces is Donaire’s fight-ending power. While miniscule fighters often thrive on high punch volume, Donaire sits on his shots and picks his spots.
Such was the case in his 12-round victory over Jeffrey Mathebula, as Donaire was out thrown by 404 punches and out-landed by 80 blows. And yet, Donaire landed the more purposeful shots, connecting on 102 power punches to Mathebula’s 91 while landing nine percent more of those bombs.
The problem for Donaire is that Rigondeaux is also a patient and explosive counter-puncher, and perhaps a more effective one.
Rigondeaux, on average, is even more contemplative than Donaire, averaging 40.3 punches per round and 11.3 connects. Balance is also essential for Rigondeaux as he averages 21.4 jabs per round to 18.9 power punches. Though not as statistically accurate as Donaire, the numbers suggest that their counter-punching tendencies have similar foundations.
The most fascinating element of Donaire-Rigondeaux was that the fight would ultimately determine who could beat the other at his own game. That Rigondeaux thwarted Donaire’s offense so seamlessly is the true standard to which his performance should be held. To put it mildly, the drop in Donaire’s output was the difference.
Donaire connected on only 82 of 352 punches for a connect percentage of 23. Donaire’s accuracy, overall, dipped by 10 percentage points against Rigondeaux, and his average of 6.8 landed blows out of 29 attempts per round were 8.3 and 16.8 fewer than his normal output heading into the fight, respectively.
But perhaps the best evidence of Rigondeaux’s superiority was power punching. Donaire threw 38 more power shots (214 to 176) but landed nine fewer (64 to Rigondeaux’s 73). More telling was that Donaire’s accuracy dipped from a four-fight average of 47.4% to 30%, whereas Rigondeaux was right on point, landing 41% of his crosses, hooks and uppercuts. In fact, Rigondeaux out-punched Donaire, in terms of accuracy, by at least 10 points in every applicable category.
If Rigondeaux is supposedly boring or a spoiler, why wasn’t Donaire able to overcome this and throw more, press the action and land anywhere near the ballpark of his standard averages?
Words like “dominant,” “shocking” or “clinical” don’t adequately define Rigondeaux’s win over Donaire. Regardless of one’s personal scorecard, Rigondeaux must be acknowledged for what amounted to a comprehensive victory, excitement be damned.