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Rigondeaux claims his place among the best

(Photo © Chris Farina / Top Rank)
(Photo © Chris Farina / Top Rank)

By Gabriel Montoya

I once had the pleasure of witnessing unified super bantamweight champion Guillermo Rigondeaux dance across the canvas to some of the most violent artists the world has ever known at the Wild Card Boxing Club in Hollywood, CA. The southpaw Cuban legend known as “El Chacal” (The Jackal) was preparing for his fifth fight as a professional after an amateur career that boasted 2 gold medals among top honors at every world championship you can think of for a grand total of some 400 fights. The wins column varies from 374 to 388. The losses are always counted at 12 from what I understand. It was here under veteran trainer Freddie Roach, Rigo searched for his professional mojo briefly.


I wrote at the time, watching him work with various pros over a January morning in 2010:


Watching him in the gym on this particular day, I saw him work with three separate sparring partners; an unknown Armenian kid who was rough, tumble, and too slow to get to Rigondeaux, Gerry Penalosa, who couldn’t hit him with a bucket of water, and Bernabe Concepcion, who made Rigondeaux pick up the pace both with his feet and hands in the final rounds of the session. It’s like watching a scientist in the lab. Rigondeaux is a southpaw who understands how to make that work for him. Always shifting his feet side to side, back and forth, but never in a hurry. Relaxed and calm in what he calls “the Cuban style” of holding his lead hand down in an “L” around his waist, ala Floyd Mayweather Jr., while picking off shots with his rear hand. Nothing is rushed; each movement is used to keep his opponent off-balance and unsure, and all of it worked on this day. I got the sense he wasn’t toying with his opponents so much as tweaking and testing his own style to see what would work and what wouldn’t.

When he is at his most effective is from the outside. Jabbing one or two at a time, baiting his opponent by not throwing the left, feinting, and then flashing that powerful left while getting out of the way of return fire. I saw him do this move over and over but each time, it was a little different. He’d move left first, or right, come back to center ring and leap forward with the left or right. He’s feint both punches then slip the incoming while diagonal stepping past an opponent and turn just in time to get off a beautiful counter. This is the guy you don’t want to see in a phone booth.


“Every day in the gym, I am coming up with different ways to improve my style,” said Rigondeaux afterward. “Nothing in particular, defensive skills. Just stuff that has worked for me for a long time. I plan to do some things different, but not much. My style has worked for me up to this point. I don’t see a need to change much up in it. I know I can change up my style when I want. I can fight on the inside or the outside. I just prefer to fight on the outside because that has been effective for me. So I don’t plan on changing much on it.”


Rigondeaux does not watch tape of his opponents, instead leaving that to Roach. He prefers instead to gather Intel from his trainer and then get in the ring. His opponent will tell him the rest.


“Most of my thing is to get the other guy into my rhythm, my type of style, and that is boxing. That is what I plan to do,” explained Rigondeaux. “I just need to find my rhythm. Find the other guy’s rhythm and have that work for me. After that, I can figure out what will work for me and what won’t.”


Three years, six fights and a world title later, Guillermo Rigondeaux, the 5’4” ½ fighter who left a wife and child not to mention the only home he’s ever known, Cuba, for a chance to become the best in the world got his shot to do just that.


For the 2012 Fighter of the Year Nonito Donaire, April 13, 2013 was supposed to be the gateway to a possible showdown with rival Abner Mares at 126 pounds. Donaire is a media darling and rightly so. He’s charming, fun and has a wife who is as quick with a smile as he is. Donaire is one of boxing’s good guys. His stance as a clean fighter, as evidenced by his volunteering for a year round testing program through the Voluntary Anti-Doping Association, is a testament to his character. Donaire had been “365/24/7” since last August following his win over Joseph Mathebula. Donaire’s next two opponents, Jorge Arce and Toshiaki Nishioka balked at doing VADA testing and so he mandated that Rigondeaux and all future opponents submit to testing through training camp. Rigondeaux after some fuss over paperwork that prompted Donaire to take to social media which put pressure on everyone involved to make the testing happen.


After the fight, Rigondeaux adviser Alex Bornote would tweet in rather interesting fashion to former adviser/sponsor to Nonito Donaire Victor Conte:


“great job for insisting that this fight is clean. You will be remembered for cleaning sports. This fight’s the starting point” followed by

“I do thank you for the efforts made to clean the sport. We made this whole tension for the media thing great. Vada did the job.”


The fight was a lot tougher than getting that paperwork filled out.


More often than not, the difference between winning and losing is who sacrifices more. Which man focuses in his life to simply being about the other man. You wake up, he is there, looming. Is he doing road work? Is he working on his core? How will he change his game? Can I hurt him? Can he hurt me? The focused fighter is thinking situational at all times. If he does this I do that.


For this camp, it appeared as if Donaire was all over the place. His wife, Rachel , is due in July and Donaire being the loving husband he is, would fly from his training facilities in San Carlos, CA’s Undisputed Boxing Gym to Las Vegas where he and his wife live most weekends. Travel such as that can alter hydration, weight, all manner of things. It’s certainly not Spartan living for a man facing a singular artist in Rigondeaux. But I spent two sessions talking to Donaire and his team and it never seemed as if Rigo was going to be a problem for them. The confidence was not so much high as matter of fact.


Rigondeaux, a Cuban national who does not appear to speak any English, with a prospect’s record and a prodigy’s talent that at age 31 is waning; we will never see his prime. But as we saw Saturday night at the Radio City Music Hall in New York City, New York, we can at least enjoy the long swan song. At 31 years of age, even with a 12-0 (8) record, Rigo can’t last forever. He only gets to be Miles Davis in his prime for a few more years.  Donaire is creeping up on 31 himself and for little men, this is a big deal.


From the opening bell, the electricity was crackling between the two men. They could not be more different in style. Donaire fancies himself more of a fluid Bruce Lee “like water”-type of fighter who gauges the speed and power of his opponent early on and adjusts from there. Rigondeaux is the technical master who has long ago forgot about forgetting everything once you master it. He is boxing incarnate. “Hit and don’t get hit” as a special guest as avatar. Jet Li realizing he is meeting Bruce Lee.  


The two men came at each other at the 30 second mark. Donaire got in a left hook and thought he’d hit pay dirt. But Rigondeaux flashed the beginnings of a pattern that would emerge throughout the fight and cracked Donaire hard with a left as the Filipino Flash took one flush and buckled backward to the ropes. Rigo ripped another left and suddenly Donaire wasn’t a guy likely much heavier and certainly much taller. Suddenly Donaire was a fighter with not only a defensive puzzle in front of him but one that could crack back. The fight and mood changed.


Coming in, Donaire felt two things: Rigo’s chin was not going to be able to handle his lightning left hook that had decimated Fernando Montiel, Vic Darchinyan and Jorge Arce to name a few and 2) that Donaire’s big fight experience was going to be the difference, particularly late. But you don’t get to nearly 400 wins and a ton of medals being not very good at hitting and moving and then protecting a lead. Rigo did all that.


After that first exchange, the two men exchanged some body shots in singles and stared each other down like gunfighters. They pirouetted perfectly in unison as if attached on a music box, Rigo rocking forward and stepping sideways then leaping in as he had back at the Wild Card that day. His face was just as calm, his demeanor just as steady. Just another day at the office being arguably the best that ever did it.


That’s a bold claim but consider the accolades, the adversity overcome, the prime lost and then consider in his twelfth fight, even though he was facing arguably the worst Donaire we’d seen physically in some time, Rigondeaux was a dominant puzzle. Not only did he belong in the ring with Donaire, it was hard to imagine anyone quite belonging in the ring with him just yet. Perhaps the sharp shooter Mikey Garcia could exact revenge for trainer Robert Garcia, who gave sound advice all night to no avail.


Round after round, Donaire chased, stalked ineffectively while Rigondeaux danced along the edges of the ring, circling, sidestepping, pausing mid move and then zipping back the other way but not without first stuffing Donaire with a left hand lead or a right hook. The work was simple, easy to see and varied. Donaire followed and Rigo led or countered, danced and dodged and stayed in control throughout.


Then a window of opportunity opened as Donaire, urged on by Garcia, knew he had to make a move. As he had in the second and the fifth on my card, Donaire came out and let his hands go in the tenth. All night he had lacked a certain zip. Perhaps it was the lack of sprint training with Remi Korchemny, part of the Conte team lost when he abruptly left Donaire’s camp three weeks before the fight. There was a lack of explosion or snap on Donaire’s punches. One reason might be the shoulder injury he spoke of after the fight. Donaire never seemed to fully let the right hand go except in certain positions in close. When Donaire was certain it would land he’d let it go but those moments were few and far between.


That is until the tenth when Donaire came out pressing and moved Rigo to the ropes with an unexpected right hand that back the Cuban up. Rigo pawed a lazy jab out and the two men entangled. Donaire, using a move he practiced in that final sparring session I witnessed with Erick De Leon, used his forearm to position Rigo and switched stances, unloading his left hand from the rear and dropping Rigo hard to the canvas. Hope had arrived.


The Jackal rose at 2, his legs likely wobblier than he’d hoped for and he partially ate another bit of violence from Donaire. Uh oh. He backpedaled and began to dance and Donaire advanced. The drama had seemingly not finished. Donaire once again gave chase but there were moments of pure defense from Rigo, unfiltered ring generalship, that saved him from any further harm. As the HBO crew noted, the great ones don’t get hit twice very often. It was hard to find a time when that happened Saturday night.


Once he had regained his senses, which didn’t take long, Rigondeaux regained control once again. Amid the catcalls and boos, Rigondeaux coldly and precisely came out for the twelfth and busted Donaire hard with a long left that damaged his eye. Donaire backpedaled, his glove glued high on his right side. El Chacal calmly stalked him, throwing the left with a slight arc and catching Donaire between shots and around his guard. Donaire backed up and stood tall. The clock ticked as Donaire’s eye blurred and Rigondeaux sought to put the final touches on what may not have been a summer action flick but was certainly a shoe in for some kind of award.


Judge Julie Lederman scored 116-111, Judge Tom Schreck scored it 115-112 and Judge John Stewart saw it very close at 114-113 all for Rigondeaux. My final scorecard was 116-111 for Rigondeaux. The fight was not close. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. While Rigondeaux might not have engaged the way most fans, including this writer, might have liked, there is no question that controlled the action. Donaire had few if answers for Rigondeaux. He did not treat this fight the way Rigondeaux did and it cost him. Injuries or lack of focus, loss of a sponsor or a sprint coach, these things are likely symptoms of something else.


While Donaire and his promoter Bob Arum may contend Donaire is the draw despite the loss, what Rigondeaux showed Donaire is a lesson that should be learned. There is a focus missing. The fighter that destroyed Volodymyr Sydorenko      the December after Rigondeaux knocked Adolfo Landeros out in one round was a monster. One fight later, Donaire absolutely wrecked Fernando Montiel in one round. He seemed liquid in there yet ready to strike at any moment. That Donaire was not evident on this night and it’s not any one thing that is missing. Call it a bad camp or a bad night at the office, only Donaire can know. Regardless, what he has accomplished, not losing for 12 years, Fighter of the Year, setting a standard for boxing with his VADA 365/24/7 program stands. Donaire will return.


As for Rigondeaux, he gets to say “I told you so.” He is that good. He is “pound of pound” or elite. Bob Arum would say Rigondeaux better learn to say all that in English if he wants to be promoted. Can anyone push the fight out of him to Rios-Alvarado 2 proportions, who can say? For now, just the briefest of nows, Rigondeaux can simply bask in the glow of the lights; a master of its glow, the shadows and everything else between the ropes.

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