10: Greatest Cuban pro boxers of all time - Where will Guillermo Rigondeaux rate?

Al Bello

Guillermo Rigondeaux, 12-0 (8 KOs), is a 32 year old, unified super bantamweight world champion coming off the biggest win of his career after trouncing Nonito Donaire. It's one of the greatest wins a Cuban has had in the professional ranks in a very long time and puts Rigondeaux in the mix of the greatest Cuban pros of all time. But who's his competition?

Guillermo Rigondeaux, coming off the greatest professional win any Cuban fighter has had in a long time (arguably since Luis Rodriguez beat Emile Griffith), was already considered one of if not the greatest amateur of all time before hand. In the conversation of greatest amateurs are fellow Cubans Mario Kindelan, Ariel Hernandez, Angel Herrera Vera, Felix Savon, and Teofilo Stevenson. Like Rigondeaux, Kindelan, Hernandez, Vera, Savon, and Stevenson were all at least 2 time Olympic Gold Medalists. Unlike Rigondeaux, none of them turned professional.

In the early 1960s Fidel Castro banned professional sports from Cuba in the name of Communism (not to be confused with wonderful economic system known as Socialism). The ideology is that there's nothing patriotic about competing for money, a self-serving enterprise not for the greater good of the country. Since then only 1 fighter has defected from Cuba, turned pro, and produced a great career. His name is Joel Casamayor (more on him later). Although several talented Cuban fighters have emerged since Casamayor, none have done anything great with their pro careers until Rigondeaux took Nonito Donaire to school.

Donaire, a 4 division world champion previously often ranked among the 5 or 10 best fighters in the world, arguably only deserved to win 1 round when he met Rigondeaux on April 13. And he wouldn't have won that round without the knockdown.

But hey, that's just an opinion. One judge, several members of the press, and Bob Arum among others only thought Rigondeaux won the fight by 1 point. Donaire himself actually thinks he won the fight. Maybe you think Donaire won too. If that's the case then I apologize for what I'm about to tell you: you can't score. But fear not, HBO put out a concise video adequately explaining how scoring works a long time ago. You're welcome.

Getting back on subject, who are the 10 greatest Cuban pro boxers of all time and where might Rigondeaux fit in one day? You can find my thoughts below, although I don't put a lot of stock into my order after the top 4. I tried to keep it brief, and sometimes I did, but usually I failed. Unfortunately for me I lost an entire day on this. Fortunately for you, you might actually learn something.

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10. Florentino Fernandez: "The Ox", recently departed (2013-01-28), is known as the greatest Cuban puncher of all time. He amassed a record of 50-16-1, with 43 of his victories coming by way of knockout (16 of which came in succession). Fernandez never won a world title nor has he been inducted into an "international boxing hall of fame", but some of his victims were fortunate enough to garner such honors.

Gaspar Ortega, who dropped back to back decisions to Fernandez, was inducted into the World Boxing Hall of Fame in 1995. Ralph Dupas, who lost his only meeting with Fernandez by majority decision, would go on to become the unified WBC/WBA light middleweight champion of the world (back before the IBF or WBO existed). I would have preferred to have just written undisputed light middleweight champion, but Emile Griffith held claim to a world title of his own. It was a new division and the WBA and WBC were just getting started...things were complicated.

But I digress. Following the Dupas win Fernandez hit hard times against the likes of Emile Griffith, Gene Fullmer (where Fernandez rallied late to narrowly come up short of winning the National Boxing Association [NBA] World middleweight title), Dick Tiger, Joey Giambra, and Rubin Carter (where he was annihilated in 1 round). Then an up and coming, undefeated Olympic Silver Medalist named Jose Torres tried his luck against the seemingly faded veteran and got stopped in 5 rounds for his troubles. Torres would later become the undisputed light heavyweight champion and get inducted into both the IBHOF and the WBHOF. Fernandez would go on to have another 27 fights after that but never won near the Torres level again. He got his record to 36-6 before his career really started falling apart.

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9. Benny Kid Paret: Paret, who debuted in 1954 at the age of 17, became a 2 time world welterweight champion by dethroning Don Jordan and Emile Griffith. Along the way to winning his first world title Paret dropped 2 decisions to Luis Manuel Rodriguez (more on him later), lost a controversial split decision to Gaspar Ortega, drew with a 13-0 Jose Torres at middleweight, twice beat Philadelphia's Charley Scott, and drew with Argentina's welterweight champion Luis Federico Thompson (121-9-9 at the time with a prior knockout of reigning world champion Don Jordan).

After Paret defeated Jordan it was only fair that he made his first defense against Thompson. The rematch went in Benny's favor but he lost the title in his next defense to Griffith. Griffith knocked Paret out with a pair of left hooks in the 13th round. Surprisingly Paret was back in the ring with Griffith less than 6 months later and managed to eke out a 15 round split decision. Paret would then go on to lose the trilogy in a tragic fight, brilliantly documented in "Ring of Fire".

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8. Kid Tunero: Evelio Celestino Mustelier (birth name) retired just 6 shy of 100 wins but never eclipsed a national championship. He lost to a lot of guys no one ever heard of, too. But many of the people he beat were nothing to sneeze at. In fact, some of them were among the greatest fighters of all time.

He bested all-time great middleweight Marcel Thil in their first meeting. He beat future NBA World middleweight champion Anton Christoforidis twice. He defeated future New York State Athletic Commission (NYSAC) World middleweight champion and WBHOFer Ken Overlin. He derailed previously unbeaten Jose Basura (no paper accomplishments worth mentioning but you should look his fabulous career up if you're unfamiliar). He even upset greats Ezzard Charles and Holman Williams.

You should already know that Charles is widely regarded as 1 of the 20 greatest fighters of all time. But in case you're unfamiliar with Williams, let's just say that Roy Jones Jr might not be the greatest fighter from Pensacola, Florida.

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7. Jose Legra: "Pocket Cassius Clay" won 54 straight bouts between a 1965 close loss to future world champion Howard Winstone and a 1969 close loss to Johnny Famechon, who took Legra's WBC featherweight title with him. Three fights before losing his championship he won it from none other than Winstone. Years later Legra would become WBC champion again by stopping Clemente Sanchez in the 10th round, but unfortunately ran into the great Eder Jofre in his first defense. Yet again Legra fell victim to a close defeat.

Anyways, in addition to becoming a 2 time world champion, Legra also became a 2 time EBU featherweight champion. He never lost the EBU title in the ring. Nonetheless, Legra retired after being stopped in 1 round by the great Alexis Arguello. His final record stands at an amazing 133-11-4.

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6. Sugar Ramos: Ramos, aka the 4th greatest Sugar of all time (behind Ray Robinson, Ray Leonard, and Shane Mosley), became the undisputed featherweight champion of the world when he effectively killed WBHOFer Davey Moore. Despite the tragedy, Ramos went on to successfully defend his crown 3 times before being stopped by the great Vicente Saldivar. When Ramos moved up to lightweight and challenged for division supremacy again he was perhaps even more unlucky to run into the great Carlos Ortiz, who stopped him twice in less combined rounds than it took Saldivar the 1 time.

Following the Ortiz defeats Ramos retired but returned 2 years later for a final run at glory. Ramos beat some mid-level players (former world champion Raul Rojas and future world champion Chango Carmona) but went 1-3-1 in his final 5 fights. His last win came against virtual unknown Lyle Randolph, less impressive than his split decision loss to recent lightweight kingpin Mando Ramos (Sugar's first loss since coming out of retirement).

Nonetheless, Ramos still managed to retire with an impressive 55 wins, 7 losses and 4 draws. He was 45-1-3 before losing to Saldivar (and the 1 loss was by disqualification to a man he rematched and knocked out). He's the only Cuban on the list thus far that's already in the IBHOF.

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5. Joel Casamayor: Admittedly, based on his official resume I clearly have "El Cepillo" rated too high here. But I live in a world where Casamayor defeated Acelino Freitas, Jose Luis Castillo, and Almazbek Raiymkulov (not that a Kid Diamond win really matters). However, I will concede that Casamayor should have lost to Jose Armando Santa Cruz. But hey, @#$% happens. He was starting to get old by then anyways. Subsequently all of his official losses after that really don't count. All of those guys are considered top 10 pound for pound today (Juan Manuel Marquez, Robert Guerrero, and Tim Bradley)!

So basically as far as I'm concerned Casamayor's notable winning resume reads Jong-Kwon Baek (undefeated), "Popo" Freitas (undefeated), Diego Corrales (future hall of famer), Daniel Seda (undefeated), Jose Luis Castillo (future hall of famer), Kid Diamond (undefeated), and Michael Katsidis (undefeated). So clearly he's a future hall of famer in my book too. And that's all I have to say about that...

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4. Luis Manuel Rodriguez: Inducted into the IBHOF back in 1997, "El Feo" (literal translation "The Ugly") is one of the greatest welterweights of all time and not a bad middleweight either. He was the itch Emile Griffith could never scratch (dropping 3 controversial split decisions to Griffith and besting him once). He was the obstacle former and future World welterweight champions Virgil Akins and Benny Kid Paret could never get around (went 2-0 against both). His resume is so deep I'm not even going to try to name all the rated fighters he defeated.

The first time Rodriguez met Griffith he was 35-0. Neither was champion back then so they just had a standard 10 rounder (which Griffith won). Griffith would go on to win the World welterweight championship twice before he met Rodriguez again, who improved his record to 50-2 (amazing considering who he was beating to do it).

Anyways, the 2nd time turned out to be the charm for Rodriguez as he became the first man to win the WBA/WBC welterweight titles (Griffith was awarded the titles by default since he was recognized as champion by both the NBA and the NYSAC). Unfortunately for Rodriguez Griffith took an immediate rematch and won perhaps his most dubious decision to date. Much like the rivalry between Manny Pacquiao and Juan Manuel Marquez, a trilogy would not suffice. So Griffith returned the favor and gave Rodriguez another rematch, leading to yet another questionable decision but at least one most observers were split on.

As it turned out the 4th Griffith fight was Rodriguez's last shot at the welterweight crown, so he started to more regularly take fights at middleweight. Rodriguez went 2-0 against Rubin Carter (who KOed Griffith in 1 round), 1-0 against George Benton (the first fighter to make popular Floyd Mayweather's style of fighting), and 2-0 against Bennie Briscoe (not even Carlos Monzon could pull this off) all before he lost to his first middleweight (Vicente Rondon, whom he beat 1 month later). Rodriguez's record going into the first Rondon battle was an impeccable 87-6, with half of the losses coming to Griffith. One of the other losses was a split decision to Percy Manning (whom he rematched and stopped in 1 round). The other 2 losses came to Curtis Cokes, the only series of losses that actually hurts his all-time welterweight standing. If not for Cokes, Rodriguez is a top 5-10 welterweight along with Griffith.

Nonetheless, Rodriguez still rates somewhere between the 10 and 20 best welterweights depending on how many times you think he actually beat Griffith.

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3. Jose Napoles: Like the welterweights listed earlier, "Mantequilla" shares the common trait of having a victory over Emile Griffith. Unlike those welterweights, Napoles shares no losses with Griffith. That said, for as great as Emile was, he could not defy father time and Napoles caught him at the right time. So that's hardly even part of the reason that Napoles rates 3 on my list. It comes down to his title defenses with help from a pre-championship victory over Eddie Perkins (recent undisputed light welterweight champion). Napoles had slowly moved up the scales from lightweight, learning his craft against low to mediocre opposition along the way.

As a matter of fact Napoles amassed a record of 59-4 before he ever challenged for a world title, beating 3 of the 4 men who defeated him along the way (the lone exception coming in Napoles' 8th fight against no one of consequence). Fight #64 saw Napoles dethrone Curtis Cokes, who had become undisputed welterweight champion shortly after stopping Luis Rodriguez in 1966. Napoles would catch Cokes in 1969, stopping him twice in 13 and 10 rounds respectively. Cokes' career fell apart after that, but he'd already done enough to earn a place in multiple boxing halls of fame. After Cokes came Griffith, who moved right back to middleweight after draining himself for a chance a welterweight immortality. And after Griffith came Ernie Lopez, who earned his title shot by beating Hedgemon Lewis (future newly and briefly re-instated NYSAC World Welterweight Champion).

But then there was a bump in the road, a bump named Billy Backus. Backus rocked and cut Napoles in round 3 of their 1970 meeting and his corner was unable to control the bleeding between rounds. The blood obstructed Mantequilla's vision and he kept getting caught with heavy shots over and over again. There was no quit in Napoles but the referee simply took pity on him early in round 4 and waved it off. Napoles took a tune up fight before the rematch, but when it happened he returned the favor and stopped Backus on cuts.

Mantequilla's second reign as champion lasted quite a bit longer, including 2 defenses against Hedgemon Lewis, another defense against Ernie Lopez, and 2 defenses against WBHOFer Armando Muniz, among others. All in all Napoles was able to rack up 10 straight title defenses before he was dethroned for the final time by John H. Stracey, retiring with a record of 81-7. One of those losses came at the hands of Carlos Monzon at middleweight, but no need to discuss that size mismatch...

However, the deciding factor for why I rate Napoles as high as 3 is my appreciation for his craft. I always preferred what I saw in the ring to his actual paper accomplishments. He didn't just dominate guys, he looked good doing it. Punches flowed seemingly effortlessly. He really was as smooth as butter.

A friend of mine made a tribute video for him a few years back, enjoy:

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2. Kid Chocolate: Eligio Sardinias Montalvo, also known as the Cuban Bon Bon, was the first Cuban to win a world title (back in 1931). At the time Chocolate's record was 61-3-1, which actually made him seem inexperienced next to the 105-15-3 ledger of NBA world super featherweight champion and IBHOFer Benny Bass. Chocolate got all the way to 55-0-1 before his first loss to fellow hall of famer Jack 'Kid' Berg, and he probably should have won that fight too. Or at least, I probably would have scored it for him based on landing the cleaner, more effective punches (just the things boxing is actually supposed to be scored on).

In any event Berg gave Chocolate his 1st loss. But hey, if your first loss is to a hall of famer, who cares? Better yet, why not lose to nothing but hall of famers? And that's exactly what Chocolate did through his first 100 bouts. The man actually managed to amass a record of 93-6-1 without losing to anyone but IBHOFers (Berg twice, Fidel LaBarba once, Battling Battalino once, and Tony Canzoneri twice). If he had better luck he could have walked away with victories over all of them, but had to make due with 2 over LaBarba. His first fight with Canzoneri, the World Lightweight Champion, was one of the greatest battles I've ever seen.

But I'll get back to that. Right now I want to acknowledge all the world champions Chocolate actually did beat. Besides Bass and LaBarba there was Bushy Graham (bantamweight) and Al Singer (lightweight). Just as impressively Chocolate also went 4-0 against Lew Feldman, a man that defeated 8 of the 12 world champions / claimants he faced. Feldman was rated among his division's 10 best fighters at featherweight, junior lightweight, and lightweight.

When the NBA discontinued their super featherweight title Chocolate picked up the vacant NYSAC World featherweight title by defeating Feldman for the 3rd time. Meanwhile Chocolate still held claim to the "World junior lightweight title" until Frankie Klick dethroned him in 1933 via 7th round TKO. This followed a 2nd round KO by Tony Canzoneri 2 fights before. These stoppage defeats were the only ones of Chocolate's career but signaled a steady decline in his ring abilities. Chocolate was stripped of his NYSAC featherweight title and aside from having a 4th fight with Feldman, never fought another highly regarded opponent yet lost 3 more times regardless. He retired with a final record of 135 wins, 10 losses, and 6 draws (with at least 1 newspaper decision).

And as I mentioned earlier, Tony Canzoneri vs Kid Chocolate I was one of the greatest fights I've ever seen. It was intense, skillful, and fought at a pace typical of wild brawls. If you've never seen it, take a look:

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1. Kid Gavilan: The Cuban Hawk, a human highlight reel that fought the best of the best from welterweight to middleweight, stuck around the sport years after his expiration date and kept fighting murderer's row yet never got stopped and kept pulling out meaningful victories in between the losing streaks. He retired with a final record of 108-30-5 but went 10-17-1 in his last 28 fights.

While all the other Cuban welterweights on this list built their names off fighting Emile Griffith, Gavilan was retiring as Griffith was making his pro debut. But while Griffith was the second fighter to become a 6 time world champion, back when this feat was extremely difficult no matter how good the fighter, Gavilan got to fight the original. His name was none other than Sugar Ray Robinson.

Gavilan never actually beat Robinson, but no welterweight did. Robinson was the greatest welterweight of all time. What Gavilan did do is perform the best out of all of Robinson's welterweight foes, along with Fritzie Zivic and Marty Servo. Zivic made it close by utilizing his massive experience (most notably of the illegal arts) while Gavilan just had to rely on ability. Gavilan first met Robinson in a 10 round non-title bout that sent his fans in an uproar when he was announced the loser. Seven return wins (2 of which came against Ike Williams) and a year later, Gavilan got a second chance against Robinson. This time it was a 15 rounder for the welterweight crown. Gavilan lost again, this time decisively, but made Robinson fearful of taking chances. In the end Gavilan went 25 rounds with a prime Sugar Ray Robinson at his best weight and never went down or took a beating. Who else can say that?

Quickly, here's a rundown of all the HOFers Gavilan beat: Ike Williams, Beau Jack, Billy Graham, Chuck Davey (WBHOF), Carmen Basilio, and Gaspar Ortega (WBHOF). Just about any historian considers Ike Williams and Carmen Basiio bonafide all-time greats. And at the very least Beau Jack and Billy Graham aren't people anyone regrets voting into the IBHOF. Other notable Gavilan wins include Tommy Bell, Rocky Castellani, Laurent Dauthuille, Tony Janiro, Joe Miceli, Gene Hairston, Johnny Bratton (reigning NBA World welterweight champion), Gil Turner (undefeated), Don Williams, Bobby Dykes, Ralph Zannelli, Ralph Tiger Jones (4th man to beat Ray Robinson), Ramon Fuentes, Eduardo Lausse, Chico Vejar, Jimmy Beecham, and Ernie Durando among others.

In the February 2008 issue of The Ring, Gavilan was named the 3rd greatest welterweight of all-time. I'd rate him no lower than #4 (behind Ray Robinson, Henry Armstrong, and possibly Ray Leonard). While Gavilan didn't invent the "Bolo punch", he did make it famous. There's no sense in describing it; it's just one of those things that you have to see:

Gavilan wasn't pretty in his execution like a Jose Napoles or a Kid Chocolate, but his toughness was on another level. And no matter how skilled you are sometimes, if you fight enough times, you're eventually going to run into someone that won't fold. Sugar Ray Robinson said he landed the best right hand he ever threw on Gavilan and thought he killed him, only to witness Gavilan immediately fire back. And that, combined with his resume, is the deciding factor that tells me Gavilan is the greatest Cuban pro fighter of all time. He simply had intangibles the others did not.

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Honorable Mention (alphabetical order): Black Bill, Nino Valdes

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So where does Guillermo Rigondeaux fit into all of this? That's hard to say. If he retired today I still couldn't rate him in the top 10 but there's time for advancement. Is there enough time to advance into the top 4? That's improbable. But he could certainly produce a career as good as Sugar Ramos or Joel Casamayor. But I must say that I have my doubts. It's truly remarkable what Rigondeaux has accomplished inside 12 fights but you have to remember those fights span a 4 year career. His ring activity isn't likely to speed up and any fighter of his size would be hard pressed to last more than another 4 years (at which point he'll be 36).

But for the hell of it let's say that Rigondeaux lasts all the way to 40. In his later 30s his activity is obviously going to slow down even more so we're really only looking at another 6 or so fights in those last 4 years. Also, he's obviously not going to have a Nonito Donaire caliber opponent in there every time he fights (and he may never fight an opponent that good again).

Logically, considering the available talent pool, the cold war between Golden Boy and Top Rank, and the limited amount of fights Rigondeaux has left, there's not a whole lot more he's likely to accomplish. And suppose he actually loses a few of these fights? So if I had to guess, I'll probably rate him over Florentino Fernandez one day and perhaps Benny Kid Paret. But hey, this is all just speculation and you shouldn't really care about my ratings in the first place. Just learn about the fighters I named is all I can ask. If you do, at the very least you'll agree with me that Rigondeaux has his work cut out for him.

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Ryan Bivins is a staff writer for BadLeftHook. You can contact him on twitter (@sweetboxing) or through email (rgbivins@gmail.com).

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