Why one of the best boxers on the planet has to do more than just win Saturday night

Kevin Iole
Combat columnist
Guillermo Rigondeaux is known to fight cautiously and pile up points. (Getty Images)

Guillermo Rigondeaux has been one of the elite fighters in the world since his pro debut in 2009, when, after winning back-to-back Olympic gold medals for Cuba, he stopped Juan Noriega in the third round in Miami.

It was as clear then, as it is now that he is 17-0 with 11 knockouts and one of the most avoided boxers in the sport, that he could do things in the ring few could do.

Despite his otherworldly talent, though, Rigondeaux hasn’t caught on with the public. The hardcore boxing fans have long revered him, and they’re a large reason why his bout on Saturday against Vasyl Lomachenko in The Theater at Madison Square Garden sold out in a matter of days.

Promoter Bob Arum, in trying to explain the difficulties in getting Rigondeaux fights, once said that when he mentioned Rigondeaux’s name to television executives, “They threw up.”

More than eight years into his career, Rigondeaux is still searching for acceptance.

The fight with Lomachenko, which will be televised live on ESPN on Saturday immediately following the Heisman Trophy ceremony, might be the fight that finally helps Rigondeaux gain the appreciation for his skills he’s long sought.

The bout is the first time in boxing history that men who have each won two Olympic gold medals will face each other as professionals. Rigondeaux is moving up two weight classes, from super bantamweight to super featherweight, to take the fight.

The size difference is a decided edge for Lomachenko, who was 396-1 as an amateur and now is widely regarded as one of the top three pound-for-pound fighters in the world.

Rigondeaux, though, is used to such disadvantages. He’s been so good for so long that he’s either had to make concessions or not fought at all. Now, he’s never fought anyone remotely close to Lomachenko’s caliber before, but he’s ready for the bout nonetheless.

Guillermo Rigondeaux (R) throws a punch against Moises Flores during a victory in June 2017. (AP)

“I went up to 130 because it was the only way I could get this fight made,” Rigondeaux said. “I would rather it have been at a lower weight, but I want to show the world that I can do it by moving up two weight classes.”

Rigondeaux has fought at super bantamweight for his entire professional career and has been so dominant, he’s rarely been hit let alone been in trouble. He is the best defensive boxer of this era, along with Floyd Mayweather, by a long shot.

There is no one even close to those two when it comes to making opponents miss.

Rigondeaux’s issue has been that he’s not often willing to open up. He’ll tend to hide behind his jab and peck away, doing enough to win rounds but not enough to keep the crowds from booing or, worse, going to the concession stands.

Mayweather was hardly an offensive dynamo in his 50-0 pro career, but he at least countered enough to keep opponents honest. Rigondeaux, though, often bypasses an opportunity to land a counter, often just dancing out of punching range.

It wins fights, frustrates opponents but doesn’t earn many fans. Lomachenko is one of the sport’s great offensive fighters, and so his presence across from Rigondeaux may force the Cuban to show aspects of his game he hasn’t shown previously.

“What you are looking at here are two different schools of boxing, the Cuban and the Eastern European,” Arum said. “The Eastern European, let me start with Vasyl Lomachenko. He is very technically proficient and very good. And when he is fighting he is very defensive-minded, looks for an opening, but always with the goal in mind not only to win a points victory but also to hurt or knock out or make his opponent quit. Watch every one of his fights, it’s always designed, very crowd-pleasing … because he is looking to destroy his opponent. That’s pretty much the Eastern European style. The Cuban style is different. They pile up points, then they stink you out till the end of the fight because all they care about is winning the fight on points.

“So in this fight, Vasyl will not allow Rigondeaux to pile up points, so Rigondeaux, to win the fight, will have to be more aggressive than he wants to be. … I think this is going to be a very, very good fight, a very interesting fight because Rigondeaux is not going to be able to gut out a big lead on points on Vasyl. Therefore he will have to fight the entire fight as long as it goes to win a victory.”

If Rigondeaux can’t pull it off and win in a somewhat pleasing manner, he’s probably going to be relegated to also-ran status. His greatness will be acknowledged, but he’s not going to make many people want to see him compete.

So the goal for Rigondeaux has to be not only to win, which is a daunting task in and of itself, but to do so in a manner that can help elevate his persona.

If he doesn’t, promoters are going to echo Arum’s words from years ago, and television executives may indeed vomit when his name is mentioned.

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