Why Guillermo Rigondeaux Is the Most Compelling Fighter in Boxing

Kelsey McCarsonFeatured ColumnistJanuary 6, 2015

Rigondeaux is the most compelling fighter in the world.
Rigondeaux is the most compelling fighter in the world.USA TODAY Sports

Don’t believe the false narrative in boxing that tells you undefeated junior featherweight Guillermo Rigondeaux isn’t noteworthy or interesting—that he’s boring. It’s wrong. Ridgondeaux is probably the most compelling fighter in boxing today.

Storytelling is important in boxing. The sport is driven by such techniques. It’s something boardroom executives at HBO and Showtime certainly spend long hours crafting, and it’s what boxing promoters and fight managers pay good money to teams of public relations experts to help do too.

Rigo bested Donaire in 2013 to become lineal champ.
Rigo bested Donaire in 2013 to become lineal champ.USA TODAY Sports

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. After all, these stories are what help drive the sport forward. They make big-money pay-per-views even more lucrative for fighters and help bring as many eyeballs to the sport as possible.

But here’s the thing about stories: Not every one of them is true. Because Rigondeaux is as interesting a person as the world has to offer.

Next time your head hits your pillow at night, think about this: Rigondeaux has no home. He was branded a traitor in his home country of Cuba because he wanted to come to the United States to fight professionally.

He made it here in 2009 but was essentially kicked off American television last year because the reigning narrative about him as a prizefighter is that he’s boring.

So the closest thing Rigondeaux has to a home now is the intentionally unfriendly confines of the boxing ring.

It’s there, gliding to and fro upon the stretched blue canvas, fenced in by multicolored ropes while bloodthirsty fight fans hurl a combination of accolades and insults at him from the safety of the surrounding darkness, that Rigondeaux—the Transnational Rankings, Ring Magazine and WBA 122-pound champion of the world—finds himself most comfortable.

There, he is master of his domain. There, he is king. There, he is “El Chacal” (The Jackal).

Rigo is one of the most successful amateur fighters ever.
Rigo is one of the most successful amateur fighters ever.Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Rigondeaux is among the most accomplished amateur fighters ever. He won the gold medal at both the 2000 and 2004 Summer Olympics and ended his stellar amateur career with a 374-12 record, including seven Cuban national championships and two amateur world championships.

In fact, it has been posited by some that Rigondeaux is one of the greatest amateur fighters ever. Some might argue against that. Cuban heavyweights Teofilo Stevenson and Felix Savon each won three Olympic gold medals, as did Hungarian middleweight Laszlo Papp.

But they’re the only three.

And Rigondeaux might have matched them had not the Olympic captain been tossed off his Cuban national team in 2007 after being caught attempting to defect with teammate Erislandy Lara at the Pan American Games in Brazil.

Wherever one ranks him historically as an amateur, though, Rigondeaux’s talent is unparalleled.

Back in 2012, then-trainer Freddie Roach told ESPN.com’s Igor Guryashkin that Rigondeaux was probably the greatest talent” he’d ever seen.

That’s right. Manny Pacquiao’s trainer said that about someone not named Manny Pacquiao.

And that wasn’t all:

Hes the best counterpuncher Ive ever seen. When I did the pads with him, I simply could not get through his defense. I tried. I couldnt, though. On his first day in the gym, he wanted to spar with Manny Pacquiao. I didnt allow it. I dont want Manny getting that kind of work in sparring. Manny is a bit big for him, but hes an offensive guy and with countering like that, he was more work than I needed.

That shouldn’t surprise you. Rigondeaux’s fighting style is difficult to beat. He is the embodiment of Cuba’s stalwart, risk-based boxing approach. He fights with fast hands from a distance and mitigates his opponent’s offensive opportunities with expert footwork and sharp counterpunching.

A Cuban boxer knows better than anyone when to throw punches. He throws them when he is least likely to be hit in return, and he lands them with great precision.

The strategy is ingrained into Cuban fighters from the moment they pick up boxing gloves and has helped Cuba become one of the world’s consistently excellent amateur boxing programs.

Rigo's best punch is his straight left.
Rigo's best punch is his straight left.Ken Ishii/Getty Images

And if anyone was born with the physical tools required to maximize the Cuban style to its fullest measure, it is Rigondeaux. He’s fleet of hand and foot, has legitimate knockout power in both hands and is blessed with the dexterity of a juggler and the balance of a trapeze artist.

Rigondeaux wasn’t just born to fight. He was born to fight like a Cuban.

Add to it that he’s a southpaw, a stance that gives conventional fighters fits on its own merits, and you may just have in Rigondeaux the perfect fighting machine.

Despite it, Rigondeaux has been a hard sell to American fight fans. Or was it that they were told over and over again by Bob Arum he wasn’t something they should buy?

Whatever the case, he was unceremoniously dumped by both HBO and Top Rank last year, despite dominating Nonito Donaire the year prior to become lineal junior featherweight champion of the world, and he has had a hard time since finding his way back onto American television.

Rigo has knocked out 10 of 15 opponents.
Rigo has knocked out 10 of 15 opponents.Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

But why?

For one, mainstream boxing media experts have driven home hard the narrative that Rigo’s fights are not entertaining.

After his dominant win over Donaire in 2013, arguably the best win of any fighter for that calendar year, boxing’s two most popular writers, ESPN.com’s Dan Rafael and Yahoo Sports' Kevin Iole, both lambasted Rigondeaux for his fighting style.

Nevermind that Rigondeaux’s skills are without equal in the world today.

Nevermind that he’s knocked out 10 of the 15 fighters he’s faced as a professional.

Nevermind that he’s been knocked down four times himself over that same stretch.

Nevermind the aforementioned amateur success and eye-popping natural talent either.

According to those two, Rigondeaux is a boring fighter.

Still, while boxing fans are as easily influenced as anyone by what they see and read about a subject, they’re capable of making up their own minds too.

If you follow the sport via social media, you know the idea proposed by Rafael and Iole are also shared by many in the boxing community at large.

But excellence has its place in our sport too. If not, Floyd Mayweather, a fighter who is as adverse to risk as any fighter in recent memory, would not be the pre-eminent figure in the sport today.

But he is, and perhaps Rigondeaux can become that someday too.

For his part, Rigondeaux has done just about everything he can do to help make that happen. We could stop at him braving the unforgiving waters between Cuba and the rest of the world and be done with things.

Rigondeaux did that in 2009 and has sought his fortune as a professional ever since. But there’s so much more.

Because of his age, Rigondeaux has been in a race against the clock during that time too. He won an interim alphabet title in just his sixth fight, just one year after he turned professional and was the full WBA junior featherweight titleholder just two fights later.

Seth Wenig/Associated Press

He has consistently sought fights against the biggest and best names in his division, proved his worth against Donaire in his biggest win, and he and his team have lobbied for fights with any and all fighters in and around 122 pounds, such as in this interview with BoxingScene.com's Ryan Burton.

Most recently, Rigo and his manager, Gary Hyde, have gone so far as to offer to be ready on short notice to set a bout against popular pressure fighter and IBF titlist Leo Santa Cruz.

Luckily for Santa Cruz and other big-money fighters in the division, the narrative that Rigondeaux is boring can be used as an excuse to avoid facing him, as evidenced by Santa Cruzs comments to Fight Hub TV (h/t Bad Left Hooks Scott Christ).

If all that wasn’t enough, Rigondeaux upped the ante in his last bout and let his fists do the talking. Rigo fought like a man possessed in his stoppage win over Hisashi Amagasa last month, a fighter who usually campaigns at 126 pounds and stands half a foot taller than Rigondeaux. By the end of Round 11, Amagasa's face was a disheveled mess of swelling and brokenness, and the fight was halted.

So let us revisit that tired Rigondeaux narrative once again.

Rigondeaux, a man who left his country to seek fame and fortune in the seedy but spectacular world of professional prizefighting, a man who is more accomplished than most all other amateur fighters ever, a man who might be the most naturally talented fighter of the last 50 years, one who at age 34 is forced to move up through the ranks as fast as humanly possible—this fighter, the same one who has knocked out his last two opponents in what seems like an effort to better give fight fans exactly what they want, this fighter is boring?

I’m not buying that, and you shouldn’t either.

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