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Brin-Jonathon Butler’s “Split Decision” brings Guillermo Rigondeaux to the Screen Pt. 1

Guillermo Rigondeaux
Guillermo Rigondeaux

In 2000, during the Elian Gonzalez controversy, New York-based author and boxing trainer Brin-Jonathon Butler made his first trip to Havana, Cuba. It was a trip that began a love affair with an island cut off from the rest of the world. Among those fighters is Guillermo “El Chacal” Rigondeaux, A 122 pound artist of a southpaw with dynamite in both hands, a strategist’s mentality who possesses one of the most twisted tales of national pride, tragically doomed love and one man’s need to show the world he above all is the best fighter the game has ever seen. “Cuba is the home of some of the greatest athletes you will never see where their talent is government property and their only chance at turning pro is the risky boat ride to Florida.” Butler says in the narration of his forthcoming documentary “Split Decision,” (formerly “Hero, Traitor, Madness”) which discusses the plight of Rigondeaux as well as explores the Cuban Conundrum; The decision to stay in a country where freedom is limited but loyalty is repaid by a government subsidized life or defecting to an uncertain outcome in the US.

“Split Decision” new trailer


Original trailer and website

One of the key players in the film is Rigondeaux. If you don’t know him already, Guillermo Rigondeaux is a two-time Olympic Gold medal winner. With an estimated 374-12 record in the amateurs and a 9-0 with 7 knockouts pro record to go with his world title belt he won in January, Rigondeaux is not only one of the best fighters in the world, in the eyes of some, he is potentially one of the best ever. To watch him in person, not just in a fight, but in the heat of a gym, is to see a true artist at work. If you love defense and understand that there is not only no shame in dodging a blow repeatedly while waiting for that perfect moment to strike, there is both a beauty and honor in it. But watching him in the gym back when he was training at the Wild Card Boxing Club in Hollywood, CA nearly two years ago, I had no idea of the struggle and the sacrifice Rigondeaux made. When one hears the term “defected,” it’s hard not to just roll over the details of what that might entail. What I remember was a proud man who at 5 wins was already talking about fighting for titles. There was the kind of absolute self-belief that I imagine an Ali or Michael Jordan.




“He’s a winner,” said Butler. “A consummate winner.”




To endure what he has, Rigondeaux has had to be more than a winner.




I met with Mr. Butler in Los Angeles in late March at a Cuban restaurant just up from the Wild Card Boxing club on Vine in Hollywood, CA. Butler has the eyes of a seasoned traveler and the storytelling ability of professional observer. His passion for the story of not only Rigondeaux but Cuban athletes in general was palpable. We talked for an hour and half over lunch (I think I got his and he didn’t say anything) on the subject of Cuban boxing and the choice they make in a near impossible to have a happy ending situation. The knowledge he laid on me was eye opening. Because of that, this will be a short series based on our conversation. The story of his filmmaking plus the plight of the Cuban boxer are subjects his documentary will illuminate further but hopefully through this process, both of us can learn a little more before walking into the theatre.




If a Cuban boxer stays loyal to the state, he can expect a government subsidized life. If he medals, he gets a house or a car. His kids get clothing and schooling. Food will never be a problem. But the standard of living would be considered very poor here in the US.




Rigondeaux first defected in Brazil back in 2007 but was caught by Brazilian authorities. He asked to be returned to Cuba but upon his return, he was denounced by Fidel Castro as a traitor and was disallowed from competing in the 2008 Beijing Games. And so he defected once again. Only this time, Rigondeaux had worked things out so his family could come along. Or so he thought.




Instead, Rigondeaux arrived in the US alone and now, promoted by Top Rank, he sits in the 122 pound division set to defend his WBA title against Teon Kennedy June 9 on the undercard of Bradley-Pacquiao. He does so with his wife and two sons back home in Cuba in the house his gold medals bought. Whether he will ever see them again remains to be seen.




Like any artist intent on telling a particular story, Butler’s journey hasn’t been any easy one. He’s made his sacrifices and calculated gambles along the way. In Ireland to follow Rigondeaux and shoot his first title defense against local favorite undefeated Willie Casey, Butler’s equipment was stolen right out of the back of the crew’s van. Desperate to finish the movie but with funds down to $1,000, He was desperate missing the crucial footage with Rigondeaux’s family back in Cuba. But $1000 was not going to accomplish any of that. Ultimately, Butler had an idea that should have a movie of its own.




“I don’t gamble at all,” Butler explained. “Lottery tickets really offend me on principle. It’s exploiting poor people so that they can buy into a welfare system that pays them back. I hate this shit. But I went to see what the odds were. Twenty to one on the first round, 6-1 that he beats him in the first three. I talked to everybody in the camp and they said ‘Don’t do this.’ I had $1000 left in the film budget. They said ‘Do not gamble on this.’ So I went to everybody and I had no way to make a film on $1000 and go back to Cuba. So I went to Rigo and knock on his door. ‘Can you do this?’ And he said ‘Bet your fucking life savings on it. I’ll knock him out in one.’ So I did it. I bet most of it on the first round and the rest of it on the 6-1.”




In his previous fight on the undercard of Pacquiao-Margarito, in a fight that was supposed to yield him a title and introduce this phenom to the world, Rigondeaux stunk out the joint in a winning effort. What was supposed to be a coming out party became a go away party as El Chacal countered and moved away en route to a unanimous decision over Ricardo Cordoba in November of 2010. In the wake of fan backlash, Top Rank nearly disowned the fighter citing how boring the fight had been and how lackluster his effort appeared. No one knew the truth about why he looked so bad. No one except a woman who loved him back in Cuba. Rigondeaux was subsequently banished to fight unheralded Willie Casey in Ireland in a bout no one would see unless they had an internet stream or Irish TV.




Going into the Casey fight, Rigo’s trainer at the time, Ronnie Shields out of Houston, TX, went out of his way to explain what TV audiences wanted was a risk taker who could knock an opponent out. They wanted to be entertained. If Rigo could not deliver this, Top Rank and certainly no other promoter would get behind the 28 year old amateur legend. So when Butler, a man who had taken absolute interest in the plight of the Cuban fighter in general and Rigo in particular, came to El Chacal with a request of assurance, he had come to the right man.




Rigondeaux came out confident and quick, shooting the left hand off his right jab again and again at Casey’s head, lulling him to sleep. A left to the body hurt Casey but still, Rigondeaux stayed economical but close.  With 1:14 to go, Rigo landed a long left hand that dropped Casey to the canvas. He rose but was shaky and Rigo ramped up the pressure. He kept going and going at Casey with the left hand and body shots that kept the kid from getting another wind. Dow Casey went again from another left at long range. This time he got up even shakier, nodding at the ref he was fine when he clearly wasn’t. The ref let it continue and with :22 left and an entire movie budget hanging in the balance, Rigo scored a first round stoppage of Willie Casey.




“I made $12,000 grand. You can see on our trailer. After he knocked out Casey, he says to his translator, ‘I did it for him.’ You can see him reach out his hand and said ‘Where’s my cut” smiled Butler who is now in final editing for the film. “It literally would not have happened. I took that money and literally went straight over to Cuba and interviewed his family which is probably why I can never go back.”




Back home in Cuba, there are those who revere and revile Rigo in equal measure. While he still remains loyal to Cuba, residents there feel he abandoned the cause to be an American. However, Butler found one group of people who still loves Rigo to the core.




“I found his family,” said Butler. “Nobody would tell me where he lived. They are under twenty-four surveillance. He’s got two cameras on his house. Nobody seized his house because he’s got two children. A step-son, his biological son and his wife is who he left behind. This is the house he got for his first gold medal.”




Rigo’s second gold yielded a car, a Mitsubishi Lancer, or as Butler referred to it, a Cuban Bentley. When Rigo defected, the government took his car. So far, they have left the family alone save for the cameras watching. Getting to Rigo’s family was no easy task for a Canadian national in a Rigo-divided Cuba.




“So what I did, I met a businessman. A Spanish businessman. He was building up a house in order to sell it on the black market in order to get out,” explained Butler. “I said, ‘So if you can sell this place, would you leave tomorrow?’ He said ’Tomorrow? I would leave tonight.




“This is 12 years he has been there,” Butler continued. “He said it was one of the most beautiful places to vacation but one of the worst to live. It’s a nightmare to be there.”




The man hipped Butler how to get to Rigo’s house but at the same time, showed him the landscape.




“I said ‘Well I am trying to find Rigo’s house.’ And he said ‘What do you mean? Everybody knows where Rigo’s house is.’  So he draws a little map on a napkin and he says, ‘I will prove it to you. This is the address. Stop a car on the street and ask them if they will drive you someplace. Once they agree to it tell them the address.”  




Being the pro observer he is, Butler agreed.




“So I stop a car. ‘Can you take me someplace?’  ‘Yeah five bucks.’ So I showed him the address and he said ‘No I am not driving you.’ Just a random guy. So I come back to [the Spanish businessman] and he said ‘See?”




Left to his own devices, Butler followed the handwritten map to Rigo’s family’s house. It was here he found Rigo’s heart, his long lost wife and kids.




“I followed his little napkin right to the green house. And I remembered it because it was the same one they showed on CNN right after Brazil in 2007. And there is the wife and kids. So I am looking around for a camera. I don’t see it. But he lives across from a government building so I am assuming it’s there.”




The reason no one wanted to help Butler is that to collude in helping a foreigner talk to Rigondeaux’s family could have consequences. But he had made his way there after going through so much, the time was now to risk in order to be rewarded just as Rigo did in Ireland.




“So I said to them, ‘You don’t know me but I know a lot about your family’s situation. Would it be possible to sit down with you and talk. They said ‘Yeah. Come in.’ So I got an hour with them. His trophies are still there. He just hasn’t come home. She lives in a duplex. Two rooms. And it was interesting because I haven’t really had anyone speak well of him as a person. I said "Did this guy abandon you? I know the contract originally was to bring the wife and kids with him on the boat.”




Real love endures. It understands and it sacrifices for another’s happiness. If anyone knows this, it’s Guillermo Rigondeaux’s wife.




“She said ‘He still supports us,” said Butler with a smile on his face at the thought of what this woman has been through and yet she still loves her man thoroughly.  “And she said ‘This man is my hero. I’ve known him for fourteen years. I have been involved with him. I have a child with him. He looked after the other son I had with somebody else.”




There are those that don’t believe in love. There are those that do. But there’s a special group that believes in that rarest of rare things: love at first sight. Apparently, Guillermo Rigondeaux is one of those people.  




“She met him at a boxing match. He was in the corner and he peaked over his shoulder and he saw her in the crowd and they’ve been together ever since,” explained Butler.




When you think of what this woman endured, planning out a future in America with her husband and two kids only to be left alone to care for them while Rigo fights on in the US looking for glory and riches that may not exist in a sport for the young it’s staggering. But again, true love endures, it understands and it sacrifices.




“The only time she cried,” explained Butler. “Think about the all the things she has lost. The husband. The father to her kids. The only time she cried was because she said ‘His performance in Dallas.’ The reason that he looked so bad was that his mother died and he couldn’t go to the funeral. He couldn’t get permission to go back for the funeral. And his father disowned him for trying to leave. The collateral damage for him coming here to chase the American dream on a smuggler’s boat has been tremendous, the loss.”




For love and art, we sacrifice. Sometimes you have to choose one over the other. But sometimes, there is another choice. One of country. And for another Cuban boxer who could have been an all-time great, amateur heavyweight legend Felix Savon, the other side of the Cuban coin, remaining at home, can be a difficult choice all its own. We shall explore that as this series goes on.


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