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Kings of Combat: Guillermo Rigondeaux, the Unheralded Master

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Guillermo Rigondeaux is the man to beat at 122 pounds, but you wouldn't know by that looking at his opponents lately. While contenders scramble for excuses to avoid him, BE's technique analyst Connor Ruebusch breaks down the Cuban kingpin's skills.

Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

--Alfred, Lord Tennyson

With 17 weight classes, one would expect that boxing would have a great number of clear divisional number ones. Unfortunately, we are not so lucky.

This is the age of the unproven champion, and the protected contender. Old-timers are often heard to yearn for the days when Roberto Duran beat Ray Leonard, who beat Tommy Hearns, who beat Duran, who lost to Leonard, who beat Hagler, who beat Hearns. Boxing, a sport built on the crafting of great legacies, has lost it's way in a wilderness of paychecks and meaningless belts.

One hundred and eleven. That's how many "world champions" there are today, giving each weight division an average of 6.5 belts. Super champions, Silver champions, international champions--alphabet champions all, at least for the most part.

But we're not talking about these so-called champs today. Today we celebrate the true kings of boxing--the kings of combat. These men won their titles in the old way: taking them by force from the former champions, or winning a contest between the two best-ranked men in the division. There are no shortcuts to the title in this system, nor any charity belts. Whatever criticisms can be leveled against the practice of crowning lineal champs (and there are a few), one thing can be said for sure: lineal champions earn their belts.

Here they are, the nine lineal champions as ranked by the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board. These, ladies and gentlemen, are the Kings of Combat.

DIVISION NAME SUCCESSION
Heavyweight Wladimir Klitschko W12 Alexander Povetkin,
5 November, 2013
Light Heavyweight Adonis Stevenson TKO1 Chad Dawson,
8 June, 2013
Super Middleweight Andre Ward W12 Carl Froch,
11 December, 2011
Middleweight Miguel Cotto TKO10 Sergio Martinez,
7 June, 2014
Junior Middleweight Floyd Mayweather Jr. W12 Saul Alvarez,
14 September, 2013
Junior Welterweight Danny Garcia W12 Lucas Matthysse,
14 September, 2013
Lightweight Terence Crawford W12 Raymundo Beltran,
29 November, 2014
Junior Featherweight Guillermo Rigondeaux W12 Nonito Donaire,
13 April, 2013
Flyweight Roman Gonzalez TKO9 Akira Yaegashi,
5 September, 2014

This Wednesday, December 31st, 122-pound terror Guillermo Rigondeaux defends his title for the third time. Unfortunately, this defense comes against Hisashi Amagasa, a skilled and proven fighter who is nonetheless decidedly not part of the division's top ten, nor much of a stylistic threat to Rigondeaux's throne. However, unlike last installment's King of Combat, Adonis Stevenson, who can be said to have avoided the best fighters in his division to some extent, Rigondeaux is not to blame for his dearth of worthy challengers. Since beating Nonito Donaire in April of 2013, the Cuban kingpin has established himself as a very dangerous, and yet very unpopular fighter, and has consequently struggled to find top opponents willing to risk both legacy and pay rate to face him.

At the very least, this Wednesday's title defense should be looked on as an opportunity to watch one the finest--if not the finest technician in the sport perform. And we can keep on hoping to see Rigondeaux's very real championship claim challenged more seriously in the near future.

The Champion

Guillermo Rigondeaux
Record: 14-0 (9 KO)
Stance: Southpaw
Trainer: Jorge Rubio
Country: Cuba

Guillermo Rigondeaux is, technically speaking, the best counter puncher in the world right now. There is simply no one on earth who can match him technique-for-technique. It is resume alone that keeps Rigondeaux below the likes of Manny Pacquiao, Floyd Mayweather, and Roman Gonzalez in pound-for-pound rankings, and that's really out of Rigondeaux's exceptionally dangerous hands.

You see, the proliferation of title belts and the swelling of purses has made it more and more tempting for fighters to avoid the dangerous elite and instead fight whoever offers the greatest reward for the lowest risk. Since Rigondeaux claimed the lineal belt by handily beating Nonito Donaire, the cream of the crop at 122 pounds have done all in their power to avoid fighting him. Recently, number two ranked Leo Santa Cruz recently called a potential fight with Rigondeaux "uninteresting." Number one contender Carl Frampton is fighting number five Chris Avalos in February of 2015, while Rigondeaux is stuck fighting unproven, unranked regional talent in Japan--any bets on who Frampton won't be fighting if he beats Avalos?

In addition to highlighting everything that's wrong with the modern boxing landscape, this is all incredibly unfortunate for Guillermo Rigondeaux who, I must repeat, is a boxing mastermind of the highest order. Read on to see why.

Throwing (Away) Punches

Like this series' last feature, Adonis Stevenson, Rigondeaux lives behind a pawing jab, a punch which serves to draw the eye and set up his devastating left hand.

Like Stevenson, Rigondeaux rarely attempts to actually land his jab. Instead, he prefers to let his glove hang momentarily in the opponent's face, testing their defensive reactions and feeling out the range. Then, when he feels ready to launch his money punch, Rigondeaux will extend the jab once more and, while it hovers between the opponent's gloves, lunge in with his straight left or uppercut. Above, Robert Marroquin falls victim to the former. RIgondeaux is boxing's greatest perfectionist, constantly throwing away punches until he finds the perfect one.

Rigondeaux also uses the pawing jab as bait. Many boxers know, on a fundamental level, that bringing a jab back low is supposed to be bad. For most boxers--those less inclined to masterful displays of counter punching prowess--this is true, but only because a low lead lacks the inherent threat of a raised one. For Rigondeaux, the lack of visible threat is what he banks on, and when opponents try to follow his retracting jab with punches of their own, they face the consequences.

Above, Marroquin responds to Rigondeaux's prods by stepping forward, slapping the Cuban's glove down, and jabbing over the top. The first of these counter jabs actually finds the mark, if only just. Regardless, Rigondeaux slides deftly back from each advance, moving slightly to the left as he does, to take away the threat of Marroquin's jab and line up his left. When Marroquin stands a little too close to Rigondeaux a little too long, Guillermo cracks him mid-step with a clean, straight left hand.

The jab isn't the only punch that Rigondeaux throws without attempting to land. In fact, throwaway punches are one of the most peculiar pieces of the champion's toolkit. He can often be seen throwing punches at half speed--"rehearsing" as Jim Lampley aptly describes it--before unloading with lightning fast punches that do hit the mark, and hard.

The reason's for this odd-looking practice are twofold. First, Rigondeaux uses the slow punches to establish a rhythm. By throwing at half speed, he can lull his opponent to sleep, subconsciously selling the notion that he actually does move this slowly. This makes it tremendously hard to time him when he does slip immediately, and without warning, back into his usual, lightning speed. The second reason is that, when Rigondeaux's opponents stand in front of him and watch him throw punches, they start to forget how threatening those movements really can be. Essentially it ends up being a case of "the Boxer Who Cried Wolf"--if Rigondeaux throws his left hand softly and slowly enough times, an opponent can fall into the habit of expecting all of the Cuban master's left hands to look and feel that way. Again, this makes his change of speed all the more shocking, and painful.

Above, Riogondeaux paws once with the jab and twice with the left hand before actually firing a cross into the pit of Robert Marroquin's stomach. And then, stalking forward, he keeps things interesting by throwing a lead left to the exact same spot. In all things Rigo is nothing if not unpredictable.

Movement Within the Stance

Rigondeaux is often credited for his footwork and, like all Cuban standouts, it is exceptional. But some of the champion's most eye-pleasing defensive movements are less the result of foot movement and more that of hip movement. In the corner, trainer Jorge Rubio can often be heard ordering Rigondeaux to "move his center." What Rubio, himself a master of the Cuban system, wants is what you see below, executed much to the befuddlement of poor Teon Kennedy.

Rigondeaux's hip movement is beautiful in both technique and application. What we Americans usually term "head movement" is actually a product of strong, flexible hips. Without bending his neck or back, Rigondeaux folds his body in two at its center--at the hip. Pulling back from Kennedy's jab, he spies the incoming right hand and slips under it. Kennedy adjusts his punch and throws down at Rigondeaux's head, but the Cuban is too technically sound, and he only needs to slip farther to avoid the punch completely. Looking very much like a deep squat, this slip comes entirely from Rigondeaux's hips and legs, a testament to the genius of the Cuban boxing system.

And, when Kennedy proves insistent, Rigondeaux decides to move his feet. He is able to do so with time to spare, dodging Kennedy's punch deftly because, even while slipping and rolling his upper body away from punches, his weight is constantly balanced between his feet. Because he moves at the hip, and only just enough to make his opponents miss, Rigondeaux is almost always in perfect position to make his next move.

This ability to move within the stance lends Rigondeaux offensive as well as defensive potency. Watch him play with distance below.

As Marroquin stalks forward, Rigondeaux pulls his weight back, folding his left hip and placing his head over his left leg. This creates a vast distance between his head and Marroquin's fists, despite the fact that his lead foot is actually beside that of his opponent the entire time. When Marroquin fails to reach in with a punch, Rigondeaux decides to lead. You can see clearly just how much distance he is able to cover without ever having to move his feet, all thanks to the mobility of his hips. Rigo closes with a stationary left hand a distance for which most fighters would need at least two steps.

Another example of Rigondeaux's distance manipulation below--this one highlighting the more "playful" aspects of the champion's style.

Rigondeaux is an unnerving fighter to face because he will often execute the same movement four, five, or even six times in a row. While most boxers are cautious of making the same movement twice, lest their opponents catch on to some pattern, Rigondeaux outright invites his adversaries to time him. He does so with such naked confidence that very often tough, capable fighters chicken out and simply wait for him to make the next move.

Above, Rigondeaux moves within his stance, rocking his weight forward and backward over and over again. Five times he does this the exact same way, and then slides back as Marroquin looks just about ready to capitalize on the pattern. And when the young challenger falters, Rigondeaux steps back into range--and does it again. This time, however, he uses the movement to his advantage, loading his right leg for a leaping right uppercut that Marroquin, now all but numb to the set-up, doesn't see coming.

When Rigondeaux's opponents do actually commit to attacking him, often expecting him to leap back and out of range, he will use these hip movements to land devastating combinations.

Above, Rigondeaux slips just inside a lunging jab from Marroquin, causing the young boxer from Texas to fall almost on top of the champion. Still balanced and in position to punch or move, Rigondeaux chooses the former and batters Marroquin's ribcage with four uppercuts in quick succession. Marroquin, standing tall and not equipped to use his hips as Rigondeaux does, has no choice but to back out of range, eating body punches as he goes.

With this ability to capitalize on even the slightest of mistakes built into his style, it's no wonder that Rigondeaux, when faced with an opponent actually willing to move toward him, is capable of spectacular feats like this:

Final Thoughts

Will Guillermo Rigondeaux ever face another worthy contender? It seems worryingly unlikely at this time. At 34 years old, Rigondeaux is unlikely to have much more in the tank--it's a testament to his incredible defensive skills that he's fighting at this level at such an age in the first place. Young challengers seem keen to fight one another for alphabet soup belts until the old master is forced to abdicate his crown for good. Meanwhile, Rigondeaux is forced to take stay-busy fights against fighters with little name value and even less ability to give him a good fight.

A champion should not have to beg for fights. A lineal champion should have battle-tested warriors knocking at his door day and night, and yet here we are. Guillermo Rigondeaux is fighting Hisashi Amagasa in Japan, and not even on the most notable card of the night. Let this article serve as a reminder, and a call to all of the junior featherweights out there: this--what you see here--is what you aspire to. Guillermo Rigondeaux has mounted the heights that all boxers should crave, and he stands ready to face all comers. A loss against him might send you tumbling down the side of the mountain, but better to fall from a great height than to live forever among the foothills.