The under-appreciated genius of Guillermo Rigondeaux

Mark Butcher
23/04/2015 1:00am

Genius is not always appreciated in its own time. Unnatural brilliance is too often misunderstood. The mercurial talents of Guillermo Rigondeaux have proven especially divisive.

In America, where the stylish Cuban is domiciled after his fractious defection from his homeland, his masterful brand of boxing has been unfairly maligned. The US boxing audience demands its fighters to be rock ’em, sock ’em robots and shy away from the finer fistic arts once espoused by the great Willie Pep and now master boxer du jour Rigondeaux.

The two-time Olympic gold medallist from Cuba refuses to compromise his talents for the loud and maddening crowd. Rigondeaux personifies the true art of boxing and his irrepressible brilliance, so criminally undervalued stateside, should be celebrated now before it has departed.

It was a slight on the WBA Super and WBO super-bantamweight champion that when HBO televised Chinese flyweight star Zou Shiming’s breakout win over Luis De La Rosa in Macao in July it chose to pass over Rigondeaux’s one-round blow-out of Thai challenger Sod Kokietgym on the same card. Afterwards an elated and animated Rigondeaux chatted to Boxing Monthly as music blared out of McSorley’s Irish pub opposite the Venetian Casino’s Cotai Arena where he had dismissed Kokietgym in the final fight of his promotional deal with Top Rank (Rigondeaux was in advanced negotiations with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation Sports, as this issue went to press).

Through his advisor and on-the-spot interpreter Alex Bornote, the unbeaten Cuban told BM why he has been so blatantly avoided by rival champions and contenders. “It’s because I always prepare properly for every opponent, train very hard and stay in optimum shape,” said the technically brilliant Rigondeaux, who regularly dined with former Cuban leader Fidel Castro before his first, unsuccessful defection attempt in 2007. “Other fighters are afraid because they don’t want to feel this power. They know they are going to lose the moment they enter the ring.

“I believe I am in the top three pound-for-pound - that’s where I am, that’s where I want to be and that’s where I am going to stay. Why am I underappreciated? I am sure it would be very different if I was American,” added Rigondeaux, 14-0 (9), who almost uniquely has never boxed a fighter with a losing record. In fact, the cumulative record of his 14 professional opponents is a staggering 357-60-12.

The Cuban maestro, who will turn 34 at the end of September, is arguably the most avoided man in professional boxing, especially after his 12-round dissection of the celebrated Nonito Donaire in April 2013, a win unfairly panned by the US fight fraternity. “It’s frustrating,” Rigondeaux’s affable Irish manager Gary Hyde told BM in Macao. “Floyd Mayweather has fighters jumping up and down to fight him because they receive big purses. But at Rigondeaux’s weight he poses too much danger. The purses are not there to tempt fighters into taking this big risk with no reward. They know they are not going to beat him. They know they will be sacrificial lambs.

“If Rigondeaux lost 30% of his speed he would still be the fastest super-bantamweight in the world. He is the most perfect specimen you will ever see. He has almost been moulded, like an action man with a six-pack and everything positioned perfectly. But nobody moulded him, that’s his natural state. He doesn’t have to do any weights. He’s a freak of nature, just unbelievable. “He has been at the same weight since 1999,” continued Hyde. “Rigondeaux walks around, at the most, 128lbs. The night of the fight the other guy has gone up to 140lbs and he’s still 127lbs. In Rigodeaux’s situation, it’s laser accuracy. Put him over 130lbs he would lose that sharpness. Donaire was 140lbs when they fought and launching in with big hooks. Rigondeaux made him miss by millimetres at times. In the last round, Donaire threw 30 left hooks and missed with every one of them. Rigondeaux decoded him, but then he was knocked for it.”

Rigondeaux is philosophical about the fallout from his dominant win over then ‘Fighter of the Year’ Donaire, which had the world’s leading super-bantamweights scrambling for cover. “I don’t think beating Donaire so easily hurt my career. It just made my rivals more afraid of me,” said the Cuban who was reunited with former trainer Jorge Rubio for his excursion to Macao. “But whoever comes my way, I will fight them. Let it be (IBF champion) Kiko Martinez, let it be (WBC title-holder) Leo Santa Cruz, any fighter. I don’t care who they are. I am just calling two out in my division, but I will fight anybody. I want to unify the belts at 122lbs and I am willing to compete at featherweight and who knows from there.”

For silky southpaw Rigondeaux there can be no doubts or distractions. This perfectionism perhaps explains why he has remained undefeated in both codes for 11 years, won WBA and WBO titles, two Olympic gold medals, two World Amateur Championships and run up a purported 475-12 amateur record. I was afforded a unique insight into the Cuban’s mind-state in the days before his defence against his overmatched Thai challenger in the cavernous Venetian Casino.

On my second day in Macao, master trainer Freddie Roach kindly allowed me to watch his fighters Shiming, Brian Viloria and Egor Mekhontsev work out on the pads in the custom gym secreted in the basement of the Venetian and I was still lingering when Rigondeaux and his entourage arrived for their afternoon session. The unbeaten Cuban eyed me suspiciously and started pacing around the makeshift gym. A fluency in the Spanish language was not necessary to gauge the tension in his mood, perhaps understandable given his experiences under observation in his native Cuba after his first attempt to defect the communist state. Advisor Bornote, who doubles as a bail bondsman in ‘Little Havana’ in Miami, politely explained that my presence was unsettling to the fighter in his current, edgy disposition. Moments later, the loquacious Hyde arrived with teenage son Tommy (who Hyde Sr light-heartedly describes as ‘the brains of the operation’) and instantly cooled the mood.

In 2007, Hyde was already Rigondeaux’s manager before the fighter’s first attempt to defect with team-mate Erislandy Lara during the Pan-Am games in Brazil. Two years later, Rigondeaux successfully fled Cuba along with 30 men, women and children via smuggler’s speedboat from Pinar Del Rio across hazardous, shark-infested waters to Cancun, Mexico.

The Irishman suggested we convene in a back room to appease Rigondeaux and respect his obvious misgivings. “Don’t hassle him when he’s in a bad mood like he is now,” Hyde told BM. “I’ve met him twice today. I saw him this morning and he had no time for me. I met him again at 2 o’clock and he was hugging me! I go with the flow with Rigondeaux. Before I used to be upset about it, but now I just let him be.” After his routine victory, Rigondeaux showed a gregarious nature rarely captured by the cameras. He smiles warmly when the mood takes him, but never on cue.

“There is a bit of a kink in him,” continued Hyde who first met the Cuban in a Belfast pub during the World Amateur Championships in 2001. “He believes he is so special that if ‘you don’t like me, just look at something else’. Rigondeaux is so good you have to respect that.” Hyde, who steers Rigondeaux’s career in association with Miami-based Caribe Promotions, is actively petitioning the Olympic Committee for replacement gold medals after the unbeaten super-bantamweight sold his prized possessions for a paltry $200 to feed his family during fallow times back in Cuba.

“Rigondeaux had a car parked outside but no fuel in it,” explained Hyde. “So he couldn’t drive it for two months, but he had two medals sitting there gathering dust then some guy says, “I will give you $200 for them.” Two hundred bucks feeds the family and puts a bit of fuel in the car. His belly feels nice and his kids feel like he’s a great provider and that’s what happened. It wasn’t because he sniffed it up his nose with cocaine or drank it away with whiskey. It was to survive. For $200 in Cuba you could live for four months. Rigondeaux knows what it’s like to be in the gutter.”

The fighter dearly hopes to receive those two prized gold medals he worked so hard for in the Sydney (2000) and Athens (2004) Olympiads. “Those are great memories that I will never forget. It would be very special to get those Olympic medals back,” he said, though the Cuban was mystified as to how Shiming received a gem-encrusted WBO ‘international’ belt in Macao and the same organization had not granted one to him, one of its most decorated world champions. “Maybe I will have to return to China to see if they can make a special belt for me!” joked the sharply-dressed Cuban. Rigondeaux already glitters inside and outside the ring having sported a pair of outrageously dazzling gold trainers for the pre-fight weigh-in at the Venetian Casino’s Bellini Lounge. “I bought them here in China. They were Versace! Very expensive,” laughed Rigondeaux, forever synonymous with gold.

Yet victory always carries a bittersweet reminder, with Rigondeaux remembering the family members he left behind in Cuba in 2009. “It makes me sad that my family are not able to be here to watch me fight,” lamented Rigondeaux, who was raised in a humble coffee farm in Santiago De Cuba. “I know they are watching back in Cuba and are okay, but I never feel 100% because I miss them.” Even at 33, where most elite fighters are considered veterans, Rigondeaux is looking at the fight game long-term. “Let’s see how far I can go,” he smiled. “Could I be the Cuban Bernard Hopkins? Absolutely. I want to emulate him and will be trying very hard to do the same things.” Appreciate his genius while you can.