If you asked him, he'd probably tell you the truth: Bob Arum would have definitely preferred that Nonito Donaire had come out the winner tonight at Radio City in New York.
A marketable, charismatic star with a big fan base in the Philippines and United States, Donaire isn't hard to sell. But his conqueror this evening, Guillermo Rigondeaux, is, and Arum knows it. Rigondeaux, a 32-year-old Cuban with a style that doesn't please fans -- be they rube fools or even the so-called "purists," who apparently are a tiny portion of the audience that don't pay for tickets or anything -- has the 81-year-old promoter a little unsure going forward.
"I'm 81 years old and I'm probably going to have to do the best promoting job I've ever done," he said, laughing. ... "It was the exact opposite of the last two HBO fights we had. It was not a very engaging fight. ... When Rigondeaux stands and fights, the [expletive] has a lot of power and a lot of skill, but running the way he does really makes it not a watchable fight. I had Donaire up by one point heading into the 11th, but clearly, Rigondeaux won the last two rounds. Clearly."
Though the judges and some ringside media had it close the way Arum and two of the three official judges did, the world is in agreement that Rigondeaux won the fight, and many felt he deserved wider scores than he got, with Julie Lederman's 116-111 closer to the what most saw on TV, and closer to her father, HBO's Harold Lederman, who gave only the 10th round to Donaire, in which Nonito scored a knockdown.
There is good news. Rigondeaux (12-0, 8 KO) is without question highly-respected in the boxing world now. While many will debate the merits of his performances from an entertainment standpoint, I don't think anyone with a brain is questioning his skill level anymore. He was remarkably good against an elite-level fighter tonight, and at times toyed with Donaire, making him look slow and totally predictable.
Also, HBO Sports has been "into" Rigondeaux for a long time, pretty much since he turned pro. Sure, they criticized his fight with Ricardo Cordoba on the Pacquiao-Margarito undercard, but that was an eternity ago in the boxing world. Max Kellerman and Jim Lampley, the two most notable voices for HBO boxing today, are both obvious big fans of Rigondeaux's talent, style, and performances.
Those things alone won't make Rigondeaux worth consistent $750,000 paydays if he can't start selling a few tickets -- and there are painfully few opponents at 122 pounds who are (1) available, and (2) able to move tickets. But it does likely mean that HBO will be willing to back his play, whatever the money numbers may be.
Rigondeaux has, at times, been tough to deal with for promoters and managers. He's had so many deals floating around for years now, but it seems as though Top Rank and Caribe Promotions have a good thing going together at this point, and manager Gary Hyde looks firmly set, too.
The fighter has attained about the maximum success one could reasonably have hoped for when he defected from Cuba, and he's done it in just 12 pro fights. Still, he is not a star, and it is highly unlikely that he is going to become a star.
Some call it running. Others call it footwork. Whatever you want to call it, though, it's not exciting to watch, particularly for the casual fans, who, unlike those "purists," apparently buy things like tickets and such.
Arum is right: Guillermo Rigondeaux is going to be a tough sell. Reality is probably that Rigondeaux will never be successfully "sold" to the public, and won't break out at any time as a legitimate star. Boxing has seen some unlikely superstars take off, but Rigondeaux doesn't have Floyd Mayweather's brash persona (or his skills, with all due respect to Rigondeaux), and he's not the dynamo action fighter that Manny Pacquiao was (or is). He doesn't have the instant fan base the way that Mexican stars like Juan Manuel Marquez, Canelo Alvarez, and Julio Cesar Chavez Jr have in their corner.
Guillermo Rigondeaux, though, can box. And he can fight. Many before him have made lucrative boxing careers out of being a stylistic nightmare for opponents, and against Donaire, Rigondeaux reached that level on Saturday night. He's here to stay, whether he's booed or not.