Guillermo Rigondeaux is one of the best boxers in the world today. An exceptionally accomplished amateur from the Cuban program, his defection from his home country and long journey into the pro ranks was one of the bigger stories of the last decade. It figured that Rigondeaux, like already-pro countryman Yuriorkis Gamboa, would become an electric addition to the lower weight classes.
It hasn't quite turned out that way, but that's not because Rigondeaux (12-0, 8 KO) hasn't lived up to his promise in the ring. Though he hasn't been an exciting fighter to watch much of the time, the 32-year-old Rigondeaux has been successful, winning two world titles and in April, clearly defeating pound-for-pound ranked star Nonito Donaire.
It was a fight that HBO pushed for -- they wanted Donaire to face Rigondeaux. But when it was revealed last week that HBO wasn't interested in Rigondeaux's future fights, it started to look more like what they wanted, and all they wanted, was for Donaire to beat Rigondeaux.
A win over Rigondeaux would have, I suppose, killed two birds with one stone: Donaire would have cleaned out the hot 122-pound division (not counting Golden Boy fighters, because that's a whole other issue), and Rigondeaux would be essentially cast aside.
There is some belief that HBO had been high on Rigondeaux, but that's hard to prove, and going just beneath the surface suggests that the network was never excited about featuring him. Jim Lampley and Max Kellerman giving occasional rave reviews during his PPV undercard fights doesn't mean that HBO was ever truly excited about the fighter. Rigondeaux had never fought on HBO before beating Donaire, instead popping up on pay-per-view undercards against the likes of Ricardo Cordoba, Teon Kennedy, and Robert Marroquin. He did headline one Showtime bout in January 2012, a world title win over Rico Ramos, that drew miserable numbers at the gate in Las Vegas.
It is very easy to say that Rigondeaux had this coming. Donaire, who avoided the fight with a changing story for about a year, has offered a popular theory in a recent interview with Mark Ortega: "Rigondeaux has to understand, this sport is about entertainment as much as anything," the Filipino said.
Bob Arum says that HBO executives "throw up" when he mentions Rigondeaux to them, though he also states -- perhaps politically more than anything -- that he feels it's unfair of HBO to abandon ship on the Cuban.
While it's hard to say that HBO ever had serious interest in Rigondeaux, since they didn't feature him on TV (pay-per-view undercards are generally up to the promoter more than the network, who are really only buying the main event), it does seem abnormally cruel to push for a fight and then punish the victor because he didn't fight in a way that would please, in theory, the "casual" fan.
I say in theory, because none of this is proven. It's not as if Rios-Alvarado II, a rematch of a great action fight from last year that guaranteed and ultimately delivered more fireworks, did some big HBO number. It is said all the time that guys like Rios, Alvarado, and other action fighters are What Fans Want to See. But can it actually be proven? Ruslan Provodnikov is a great action fighter, but when he was signed up to face Timothy Bradley, the fight was met with a lot of fan and some media backlash for being a mismatch. It turned out not to be one, and is arguably the 2013 Fight of the Year to this point, but the TV number (driven by Bradley, the known fighter) was just about average. So was Rios-Alvarado. So are Andre Ward's numbers.
Maybe the truth is that there isn't really a such thing as a "casual fan," at least not for most fights. Floyd Mayweather brings in people who really don't watch boxing otherwise. Manny Pacquiao has done the same in recent years. But guys like Bradley, Alvarado, Provodnikov, Rios, Rigondeaux, Donaire -- you know, basically everyone else -- don't move the needle much. There is a pretty standard number for fights depending on the network, and we don't see a ton of deviation from that. We see basically no deviation in terms of surprisingly good numbers. The only time we see anything below the "normal" mark is when something badly underperforms, like last year's Gennady Golovkin HBO debut. (Golovkin, now established, was up to par for his fight with Matthew Macklin.)
Maybe the vast majority of boxing viewers are regular viewers -- not necessarily "hardcore fans" who watch HBO, Showtime, ESPN, NBC Sports, and not the truly obsessed who also tune in to UniMas, Telemundo, and seek out streams of fights that aren't televised in the United States. But regular viewers, who usually watch a fight on HBO, or usually watch a fight on Showtime, and know a little even if they don't follow the sport online every single day.
Do those people see Rigondeaux as so boring that HBO executives should vomit on themselves when Bob Arum brings him up in conversation?
Some would like to think so. I find it hard to believe. Much of what we're told People want is a smokescreen for some ulterior motive, political or otherwise, shady or not. This is because there's no proof that People want any particular style of boxing. We're told all the time that Andre Ward is boring and can't draw, but his TV numbers are fine (and TV numbers are far and away the biggest factor in today's game), and in Oakland, he draws better crowds than most fight cards in the States bring in.
Rigondeaux, for whatever reason, is being sacrificed at the altar -- I'm not sure whether it's the HBO altar, the Top Rank altar, or the Assumed Tastes of the Fans altar. There are plenty of boxing fans out there who actually do like watching Guillermo Rigondeaux. No, they don't buy tickets to shows, but not many guys move a lot of tickets anymore, and one would figure that if Rigondeaux was ever going to become a more attractive live ticket, it would be now, after he outclassed a fan favorite who had been hyped as one of the best fighters in the sport, and whether right or wrong, an exciting fighter.
So let's talk excitement. Rigondeaux is not exciting, not in the very black and white definition, anyway. There is no getting around that. He's not a brawler, he doesn't make for bloody, back-and-forth fights, and when some would like to see him recklessly engage -- or engage at all, really -- he will find his distance and wait to strike again. Like many from the Cuban program, his first thought is to win, not to please the audience. This, in turn, makes Rigondeaux more a pro athlete who is in a sport than an entertainer in show business. Whenever someone is too something -- too dangerous, too "boring," both, or whatever -- we're told by boxing people that this is entertainment, see, and you have to make the People want to see you.
Again, I think this is nothing more than a line. Because again (again), there is no real substantial proof that there is an audience out there that totally rejects Guillermo Rigondeaux. More than anything, I don't think many out there really knew much about him before April. After all, it's not like he'd been featured on HBO.
Andre Ward is a cornerstone at HBO. He's a "boring fighter." Nonito Donaire is called an action fighter, but he's not -- if you want to blame opposition, that's OK, but I find it hard to swallow that pill. Donaire has been exciting against guys who openly let him do what he wanted in Fernando Montiel, Vic Darchinyan, Jorge Arce, and Wladimir Sidorenko. But when opponents don't just open themselves up to his counter shots and give him those big, gaping holes to land that sweet left hook, he's an extremely passive fighter who doesn't lead the action. Donaire needs a dance partner.
He knew, we knew, and everyone knew that Rigondeaux was not going to be the guy to make him look good. Even if Donaire had won, Rigondeaux wouldn't have allowed Donaire to shine. But it's not just Rigondeaux. Toshiaki Nishioka, Omar Narvaez, Wilfredo Vazquez Jr, and Jeffrey Mathebula all made Donaire turn in entertainment-specific performances that ranged from mediocre to awful.
Terence Crawford, a rising young fighter who looks to have the goods in the skills department but lacks charisma or the fan friendly style, is currently one of HBO's hardest-pushed prospects. Yuriorkis Gamboa, who is Cuban and doesn't speak English just like Rigondeaux, has largely stalled out over his pro career, and like Donaire, has been pushed as exciting when he's hardly reliable to turn in an exciting fight. He has no great fights to his credit, and in terms of achievements, Rigondeaux's win over Donaire far surpasses anything that Gamboa has done.
Donaire and Gamboa are specific cases -- they seem like they should be exciting, so it's accepted that they are. They're not unusually fun to watch, really; they have the tools to be a lot of fun, and Gamboa's vulnerability does give him a leg up on Donaire in that sense, too, but rarely are they in the sort of fights that people are talking about by the time next Wednesday rolls around.
So if the answer to "Why has HBO decided to abandon Rigondeaux?" is supposed to be, "He's not exciting," I'm just not buying that this is the only reason. There are a lot of "boring" and "unmarketable" fighters who make it to HBO, and have for years.
Is Rigondeaux so boring that he's the man who has been made an example of by the big network? That's debatable, but what is that based on? Personal taste? That's eye of the beholder stuff. Some people actually enjoy Rigondeaux's fights. I don't, because I'm not insane or trying to prove how pure my boxing fan mind is or whatever, but they do exist. I get tweets from them and everything.
I've said often that boxing isn't really a sport in the sense that other sports are sports. Results don't matter as much in boxing. It's all about connections, the fleeting tastes of the people who make the fights happen on TV, and whether or not you can bring in the numbers. There's minor evidence at best that Rigondeaux can't become a fighter who brings in numbers at least as good as Gamboa or Chad Dawson, to name a couple of HBO regulars. And it appears he won't get the chance to prove anyone wrong any time soon.
The "it's about entertainment!" tagline doesn't really stand up to even a light investigation of what routinely makes it onto the airwaves. Nor does "you have to be able to sell tickets!" because so few guys sell tickets at this point. Boxing is not a popular or mainstream sport in the United States.
There is one question that may reveal the answer here, however: Is Rigondeaux the perfect storm of unmarketable?
He's Cuban, doesn't speak English, alternates between neanderthal standards boring and "I quit watching boxing because I had to watch him fight," doesn't sell tickets, and nobody has ever pushed him as someone you want to see. His own promoter said immediately after Rigondeaux beat Donaire that he didn't know how to market the fighter. If nothing else, that plants the seed in the minds of everyone that this guy can't be sold and isn't worth paying or tuning in to see. What kind of promotion is that? And is it honesty, or is it a purposely counterproductive statement? Donaire's fights can be boring, but we've been told so many times that he's exciting and a must-see fighter that he can easily bounce back from underwhelming performances.
Perhaps this is boxing finally becoming a meritocracy, at least in the entertainment aspect, where excitement and buzz and all that actually matter. But it might just be Guillermo Rigondeaux getting the shaft, while other fighters with the same issues continue on as featured players under the bright lights.