Guillermo Rigondeaux – The Road To Cardiff

Guillermo Rigondeaux – The Road To Cardiff

Consecutive gold medals at the Olympic Games should ensure any boxer the love of his country and it should last well beyond his days in the ring.

That’s not the case for Cuban maestro Guillermo Rigondeaux (16-0, 10KO), whose world tour will again take place along way from home. Its next stop will be in the sixth country of Rigondeaux’s career, one with an especially proud pugilistic history – Wales.

On Saturday, the WBA super-bantamweight world champion will defend his shiny strap against Liverpool’s hungry Jazza Dickens (22-1, 7KO) in the co-headline attraction of Frank Warren’s show at the new Ice Arena Wales in Cardiff Bay, live on BoxNation (Sky Ch. 437).

The southpaw is arguably one of the greatest amateur boxers ever, having taken the top spot on the podium at the 2000 and 2004 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia and Athens, Greece respectively. However, Rigondeaux’s subsequent quest for freedom has cost him dearly and he’s traded the respect earned in a 500-fight career, which returned just 12 losses, for a very cold shoulder in his homeland.

Under the rule of a Fidel Castro’s communist regime, Cuban boxers are only permitted to compete as amateurs and denied the riches of the professional code. Rigondeaux hasn’t lost since 2003 but one failure to escape to free lands, along with current super-welterweight belt-holder Erislandy Lara, at the 2007 Pan American Games in Brazil confined them to be snubbed by their native society.

Considered traitors by their peers, including Rigondeaux’s father, their future in boxing and general life was unthinkable for ambitious artists whose skills could command millions across other seas. When they were forbidden from representing their country anymore, it made Rigondeaux’s desire for freedom desperate and the path a dangerous one.

That’s where an equally ambitious Irishman comes in to the story of secrets. Gary Hyde had been in negotiations, through fishermen and other undercover message carriers, with Rigondeaux for some time and had persuaded him to sign a management agreement when he was still on Cuban shores. Meanwhile, Hyde successfully arranged for a Mexican cartel to extract the talented heavyweight Mike Perez to Cancun and plans were in place for Rigondeaux to follow.

In 2009, it was a surprise to many when Rigondeaux did successfully land on American soil after escaping Castro’s clutch onboard a smuggler’s boat – including Hyde, who had been sidelined in favour of other human traffickers. The chosen destination was Miami, understandable given its strong sense of Cuban culture that began during the country’s revolution in the 1950s. A legal battle ensued before Rigondeaux could do what he does while his wife, child and stepchild now coped with life without their breadwinner.

Hyde, who first became aware of Rigondeaux when he won the 2001 World Championships in Belfast, won the case and retained his rights to represent Rigondeaux as manager. The electric southpaw raced to a 6-0 ledger in 15 months, scoring spiteful stoppages with an assortment of specialist head and body shots. Sometimes his output was low but when he threw, he made it count and onlookers were amazed at his accuracy and Matrix-like movement.

It was more than enough to attract the attention of Bob Arum’s Top Rank, arguably world boxing’s most experienced promotional outfit. The first task came on the biggest of stages, on the undercard of a Manny Pacquiao fight at the Dallas Cowboys Stadium in front of 70,000 fans. Rigondeaux clearly beat Ricardo Cordoba to capture the WBA Interim belt and he should have been ecstatic. That wasn’t the case, though – a misleading Split Decision was announced and he left the ring with an almost vacant expression that stayed just under the surface for some time.

A quick-fire stoppage of Dublin’s overmatched Willy Casey followed but Rigondeaux would have to wait 10 months until a shot at the WBA’s full title. It was around this time that the governing body began their greedy three-tier system and interim status was the lowest. When the real shot came, he dispatched of Rico Ramos in six sessions, looking as comfortable as ever. Keen to immediately face the best, as he had in a vest and headgear, Rigondeaux visibly grew disillusioned with the politics of the sport and often appeared lonely.

Soft defences followed and Rigondeaux barely lost a minute as he cruised past Teon Kennedy and Roberto Marroquin. He did lose some of his nastiness, though. Rigondeaux was too naturally gifted to be motivated by lesser challengers and he too often owned a passive complexion. Part-time blood thirsty fans turned off and even the patience of hardcore purists was tested. There were murmurings of trouble in camp but there wasn’t much more Hyde could do to persuade the other champions in to unification fights. One of the world’s best, across any weight category, was in danger of watching his career pass him by.

Guillermo RigondeauxA breakthrough did finally come. The Philippines’ Nonito Donaire was considered the 2012 Fighter of the Year after a solid quartet of wins. He was the darling of Arum and HBO, charming and extremely entertaining. Aptly named the ‘Filipino Flash’, Donaire only managed a flash of real success in 36 minutes against Rigondeaux, finding a left hook to bundle his off-balance opponent to the floor. Aside from that, it was a one-sided beating that left a legitimate world champion cowering and stumbling from corner to corner. Donaire spent the 12th round covering his bloodied face from further punishment; such was Rigondeaux’s dominance.

It wasn’t a fight the executives thought he would win, let alone wanted him to at the expense of their golden goose. Now recognised as lineal champion, it was probably the worst thing Rigondeaux could have done for his career progression. Again, the judges scored a one-sided fight far too close and critics of his pure expertise, even including some members of HBO’s broadcasting team, unfairly undermined a master class in a reoccurring episode of stylistic snobbery.

It took eight months for Top Rank and HBO to forgive Rigondeaux and give him another fight. Rigondeaux’s performance, a dull shut-out decision against Africa’s Joseph Agbeko, almost seemed a protest against the establishment. It was lazy, unsatisfying and most of all, costly. In return for an insultingly low output, HBO dumped Rigondeaux and opted not to broadcast his angry one-round blowout of Sod Kokietgym.

Very soon after, Arum’s Top Rank deserted too and by the time of his next fight, it was Hyde’s time to jump from a ship that was seemingly sailing nowhere. It almost sunk in 2014 when Japan’s crude Hisashi Amagasa, who isn’t in the same league and was eventually battered in to quitting by the 11th round, dropped Rigondeaux twice in a turbulent title defence. It was worrying, especially as Amagasa would be unlikely to find himself a sparring partner for Rigondeaux. Again, ‘El Chacal’ looked alone.

Guillermo RigondeauxRigondeaux’s subtle reactions that put him far beyond the abilities of almost every other boxer are so underappreciated that they are sometimes invisible in real time – at times he even seemed to overlook them against Amagasa. On more than one occasion, he has been an enemy to himself but his biggest crime has been that he’s too good for his own good. So much so that the WBA stripped him at the end of 2015 for no apparent reason, other than to allow Scott Quigg and Carl Frampton to unify belts – even though the option of facing Rigondeaux has been available to both for long enough.

Seemingly in no man’s land, Roc Nation – the big spending sports company covered under the umbrella of rap star Jay Z – became involved in November to end 11 months of inactivity. In cooperation with Caribe Promotions, who have always had some sort of ties with Rigondeaux, they handed their newest recruit, who was signed in the same period as megastars like Puerto Rico’s Miguel Cotto and America’s Andre Ward, a prime slot to showcase his skills.

It came on the undercard of Cotto’s WBC world middleweight title defence against Mexico’s Saul Alvarez… and back on HBO. The opponent, another tough but limited operator, Drian Francisco, lost all 10 sessions of the non-title fencing as Rigondeaux boxed well within his limits and turned off American audience despite being capable of so much more. Sound familiar?

Four months ago, it was the final straw of most people’s patience when Rigondeaux didn’t secure a visa for his scheduled fight with Dickens and pulled out at the last minute. It left fans confused, while promoter Frank Warren was out of pocket and understandable angry. It wasn’t clear whether Rigondeaux or his team were at fault but seeing as he’s now on to his sixth trainer, Pedro Diaz, it suggests the once-in-a-generation maverick may not be the easiest to work with.

To Warren’s credit, he persisted and Rigondeaux is due to land in London early tomorrow morning. What version of Rigondeaux will come, is another matter. Dickens’ chances of winning surely rely on the ageing 35-year-old performing like he did against Amagasa or just landing 73 punches like he did against Francisco. In reality, Rigondeaux should still have plenty left to win.

Fighters like Rigondeaux rarely visit Wales and all that neutral fans want to see is one of our sport’s best give his best, which should be sublime.