Frontline Diary: When Rigondeaux came to Cardiff
There's a long and proud history of Welshmen appreciating lighter weight boxers in their capital city. "Peerless" Jim Driscoll was the first ever British featherweight champion, claiming the inaugural title by stopping Jack Roberts in the seventh of a scheduled 15 rounds 110 years ago at the National Sporting Club in London. A Cardiff legend, Driscoll's name is immortalised in the International Boxing Hall of Fame and a statue was erected 20 years ago in the city centre, where Driscoll's likeness stands calm and proudly with his livelihood, his hands, linked behind his back and gently pressed against his boxing shorts.
The Cardiff Ice Arena is situated in the Cardiff Bay area, a 10 minute drive from Driscoll's statue. Many of those attending a packed Queensbury Promotions bill on 16 July were present to witness the unlikely and welcome appearance of a peerless modern little man, the great Cuban, Guillermo Rigondeaux.
Given his status as one of the very finest boxers on the planet, Rigondeaux's career trajectory of late has stuttered. Of the two championship belts he entered the Cardiff ring with, one (the Ring Magazine championship) has officially been stripped from him due to a perceived lack of recent quality opposition. The other (WBA "Super" world super bantamweight title) had been similarly removed, handed temporarily to Carl Frampton and then subsequently returned to the Cuban. Even by WBA standards, a farcical sequence of events. In a nod to the owner of the promotional company he's now signed to, Roc Nation, Rigo entered a chilly ring to the sound of rapper Jay Z. Let's hope his team can secure the challenges the Cuban's talent deserves in the autumn of his career.
Although Rigondeaux's style is widely regarded as boring, it's a rare pleasure to watch him work up close in the flesh. When in fight mode, the little man wears the calm expression of an assassin, incredibly relaxed in the ring. Of course, this line of work is second nature to the double Olympic champion. For his part, his opponent, Jazza Dickens had entered the ring far more calmly than he had any right to be, and after a cagey, tense opening round, the scouser scowled at the unbeaten champion.
Rigo's judgement of distance is superb, as is his timing. An incredulous colleague had filmed the champion demonstrating incredible hand eye coordination with a ping pong ball earlier in the week. The ability to slip punches as he did on this night against the British champion almost suggests time passes for him in slow motion, like a fly.
A powerful left to Dickens jaw in the second round caused a loud crack to emanate, to audible gasps at ringside. Sadly, for those of us enjoying a master at work, proceedings were over at the end of round two.
One ringside photographer had captured 'the punch' perfectly, proudly displaying his work to the press. Rigo climbed up the ropes in one corner, nodding 'thank you' to an appreciative Welsh crowd. The champion and his team are extremely well liked here and conducted themselves with class before, during and after the contest. Talk at ringside was of a welcome return to Cardiff, possibly in September.
Press row had a somewhat old fashioned feel due to the absence of a Wi-Fi network at the arena and thick walls resulted in 3G and 4G being unavailable. Dev Sahni, responsible for digital media at Boxnation joked, "this makes me virtually powerless. I can just about pick up 4G when I pop outside through all the smokers”.
The joke at the press conference afterwards as Mzonke Fana was introduced was that Guillermo Rigondeaux had brought his grandfather along for the trip. Of course, with Rigo no youth himself, it's to Fana's immense credit that he was able to frustrate unbeaten WBO lightweight champion 'Turbo' Terry Flannagan for the full 12 rounds.
Fana had entered the ring to the Bob Marley classic "Buffalo Soldier", though with the champion uncharacteristically wild and anxious and with his own wily experience to draw upon, the challenger was never quite forced to "fight for survival".
Flannigan's preferred weapon, a left uppercut, was triggered often enough to seem somewhat telegraphed. In truth, the styles didn't make for a good fight. Fana was cagey enough when hurt to use excellent head movement to evade the champions methodical follow up blows. With a knockdown in the final round, all three judges scored it 120-106 for the Mancunian.
Journalist Glynn Evans had organised a poll for Boxnation for the upcoming Terence Crawford v Viktor Postol light-welterweight unification, also to be shown on the channel. The poll was balanced heavily in Crawford's favour so Evans, tongue firmly in cheek, joked he was on a mission to find some Postol fans. I congratulated Evans on his "Seven random facts about Rigondeaux" piece I'd read earlier in the day. Glynn dryly said it was a pleasure to receive anything but the usual abuse for his work and revealed most of his research was from scouring through old Boxing Monthly and Boxing News magazines. "It's surprising how little was written about Rigo in the early 2000's," Evans stated.
Local man Gary Buckland was out early against Ellesmere Port's Matty Fagan. Despite his main sponsorship coming courtesy of a cafe (Fagan's cafe), Matty proved very fit and active throughout. Buckland appeared slightly out of shape around the middle for this contest but won a close one on points.
Welsh middleweight Alex 'Bad News' Hughes was pitted against Huddersfield's Alastair Warren. Warren has been stopped by several Queensbury Promotions boxers, and a repeat was surely scripted for Hughes. The good news was that Hughes started well and looks a handy operator. The bad news was that it went to points, with Hughes declared the 80-75 winner.
A photographer colleague had applied late for her press credential and was therefore situated on the balcony, although allowed at ringside while the preliminary bouts were underway. "Can't you pull rank?,” I had asked, "since you're at all these events."
"I can't pull rank. They (Press Relations) want 'Getty', they want 'Action Images' at ringside. I'm up there," she said, pointing up and rolling her eyes ruefully.
Popular Southampton man Joe Pigford continued his professional education, moving to (11-0, 10 KOs) stopping Sam Omdi in the fourth of a scheduled eight rounds. Omdi complained after the stoppage but could have even been stopped earlier since he suffered three knockdowns in the third. Pigford brought a sizeable and vocal support from the South coast, shouting "Release the Pig" among other chants.
Former WBO cruiserweight champion Enzo Maccarinelli, working as a pundit for the night, looked close to fighting shape dressed in a grey suit. The Boxnation TV makeup artist was busily working on the Welshman while the former champion struggled to maintain a straight face. Maccarinelli is incredibly popular here and accommodated everyone who asked for a photo or handshake.
Following a gruelling fight of the year candidate against Anthony Nelson at the Copper Box arena in April, Jamie Conlan (17-0, 11 KOs) perhaps deserved an easier match. He certainly had it against flabby, anxious looking Czech southpaw Patrick Bartos. The bout was waved off in the second after combinations to head and body resulted in two knockdowns.
Lee Selby was seated at ringside looking relaxed, and wearing a jacket which appeared a dead ringer for the one Bruce Willis's character (also a boxer) wore in ‘Pulp Fiction’.
Kent based Londoner Bradley Skeete (24-1, 11 KOs) is riding high in the welterweight division and kept busy with a seventh round stoppage of Alex Lepelley, a defence of his WBO European strap with an eye on maintaining a top 10 WBO ranking. Next up is likely a defence of his British title as he aims to win the Lonsdale belt outright before pushing on for world honours. Skeete confirmed he would fight WBO champion Jessie Vargas immediately if the chance came up.
Tommy Langford (17-0, 6 KOs) is mandatory contender for Chris Eubank Jr's British middleweight belt. Langford beat both Callum Smith and Anthony Fowler in the unpaid ranks and had far too much for Timo Lane, stopping the Finn in round seven. The bout was also contested for a minor WBO title, and it seemed a hopeful gesture from the Helsinki man with unusual taste in tattoos in sporting a WBO badge on his shorts. It was essentially a sparring session, one which showcased Langford's neat and tidy boxing and thumping body punching. With Eubank's reputation damaged by what has been widely considered ludicrous demands during negotiation with Gennady Golovkin, it's difficult to see how he declines the mandated Langford bout without something very meaningful in its place.
Revealing advanced age, I referred to Williams v Corcoran as like "an old fashioned nobbins fight" to a couple of colleagues. Not everyone present knew the phrase. Of course, "nobbins" is the slang term for money once thrown into the ring to supplement the purses by an appreciative crowd after a particularly hard fought bout.
It was late in the evening when the heated domestic dust up between Welshman and Londoner got underway, and there was some unwelcome trouble in the crowd. Amid the distraction outside the ring, referee Terry O'Connor strangely failed to credit Williams with a knockdown when only the ropes bounced Corcoran upright. Enzo Maccarinelli left the section reserved for TV staff and over to the melee to calmly plead for the trouble to stop.
It's a minor irritation for those of us of a certain vintage that the 11st weight division has been officially rebranded super welterweight by the British Boxing Board of Control, in line with US and world sanctioning body preferences. Since the superb British title bout between Williams and Corcoran shares direct bloodlines to memorable wars between Andy Till and Wally Swift Jr, Jamie Moore and Ryan Rhodes and Robert McCracken and Steve Foster, let’s call it what it was: a great, old fashioned British light-middleweight battle.