Last week in Osaka, a championship belt draped over each shoulder and a glove raised in victory, Cuban boxer Guillermo Rigondeaux wore the countenance of a condemned man. His opponent, Japanese junior featherweight Hisashi Amagasa, remained seated in his corner. The swelling around Amagasa's eye and jaw gave his face the appearance of a knobby root vegetable. He had not risen from his stool to enter the twelfth frame. The eleven rounds preceding had been exciting. Both fighters had been on the canvas. Though Rigondeaux had been mostly dominant, his opponent remained intent up until the final round.
Although Rigondeaux is widely regarded to be among the sport's elite, the fight transpired on its margins- in Japan, on a Wednesday night, New Year's Eve, against a little known opponent, and without American television coverage.
These circumstances- the modest bill, Rigondeaux's victory and his solemnity- have come to be situation normal for the Cuban fighter. Writing of Rigondeaux in July, ESPN's Brian Campbell called him, "painfully reserved...[a fighter] whose in-ring brilliance has often been overshadowed by his inability to entertain."
For those of us who have had our eye on Rigondeaux, the gulf between his skill and the opportunities he receives feels like an injustice. One must also acknowledge the challenge he poses to his promotors. A fighter's marketability derives from a combination of fight style and personality. Rigondeaux's surgical ring manner doesn't lend itself to the fancies of action bonanza-seekers, and his sphinx-like demeanor barely personifies him, much less builds him as a rooting interest for the average fan.
Hard as it may be to believe, there was a time when Rigondeaux stood at the center of a national dialogue, albeit one conducted in hushed tones. And it would be his luck that the turn of events that cast him as prime exemplar of a Cuban dilemma also affected his virtual erasure from that same society, as if to enshrine him as a chalk outline. Perhaps it was during this time that he assumed his forlorn expression. In A Cuban Boxer's Journey: Guillermo Rigondeaux, From Castro's Traitor to American Champion, Brin-Jonathan Butler described meeting the boxer in Cuba during 2007: "As I approached him in the shade under the bleachers of the entrance to [famed boxing gym] Rafael Trejo, my first impression was that his was the saddest face I had ever seen on the island. One of the few things not in short supply in Havana is sadness. Rigondeaux's sadness distinguished him from his countrymen nearly as much as his boxing pedigree."
To understand Rigondeaux's sadness, the sadness he seems to carry with him even in those moments of elemental triumph within the ring, we ought to cast our eyes back along the path he traveled. "The past is never dead," William Faulkner wrote. "It is not even past."
Under the rule of Fulgencio Batista's military junta, much of Cuba's economy was controlled by American interests. Batista's Havana was a wild nightlife destination for tourists with enough wine, women, song, and mob presence to rival Las Vegas in its highest gear. Meanwhile, much the nation's native population lived in abject poverty, short of work and water. In 1959, Fidel Castro's revolutionary army ousted Batista from power, declaring Cuba a Socialist state. Two years later, Castro banned professional sports from the island. "Professionalism is a conspiracy against sports," Castro declared in 1966. "Professional athletes are the antithesis of sport, a cultural instrument to ruin sports, and only our revolutionary concept of sport will be an instrument to educate our culture."
Thereafter, the course of talented athletes was to play out their careers at the amateur level, competing on national teams at international competitions like the Olympics. The athletes received 15% of any prize money earned; the rest went to the government. They received small salaries paid by the state, and were occasionally given gifts such as houses, cars, and computers as rewards for their achievements. (In 2014, Cuba changed its policy to allow athletes to keep the entirety of winnings from overseas tournaments.)
Cuba makes good athletes. This is attributable in no small part to the government's strong sports and fitness programs, particularly the Escuela de Iniciación Deportiva Escolar (Sports Initiation School). The EIDE identifies gifted athletes at a young age and places them in specialized sports-oriented secondary schools. The island is famed particularly for its baseball players and its boxers. Cuba's strong boxing tradition dates back to the pre-Revolution days, producing fighters like Kid Chocolate, Kid Gavilán, José Nápoles, and Luis Rodriguez, continuing through Castro's reign. Only three boxers in history have claimed three olympic gold medals. Two of them-Teófilo Stevenson and Félix Savón - were Cuban. Both turned down exorbitant offers to defect and fight in the United States. Former boxer Howard Davis Jr., who spent a month in Havana during the 1974 Olympic Games, suggested that the scarcity of amenities in Castro's Cuba played a part in the success of its pugilists: "They were using very antiquated equipment. They don't have very much. So what that does to the psyche of a fighter, especially if he's hungry, will bring out something special."
Guillermo Rigondeaux was picked out of La Prueba, a coffee growing community in the island's east, by the EIBE program. He would come to be known as the best boxer in Cuba, an object of national pride. As a bantamweight, he accumulated an amateur record of 374-12, won seven Cuban national competitions, two amateur world competitions, and took the Olympic gold medal in 2000 and 2004. For the latter medal, he was gifted a yellow and black Mitsubishi Lancer by the government. Otherwise, his life remained modest. He lived with his wife and two children in a government house in the Boyeros section of Havana. Rigondeaux told Butler that he had melted a medal to gold-cap his teeth. (The creative usage of Olympic medals seems to be a tradition for Cuban fighters. Fellow boxer Yuriorkis Gamboa hawked his own gold medal to a tourist to fund a birthday party for his daughter.)
In the July of 2007, Rigondeaux and teammate Erislandy Lara attempted to defect during the Pan American Games in Rio de Janeiro. They initially claimed to have been drugged and abducted from the Pan American Village, though the Turkish-German ex-brothel bouncer/former professional middleweight Ahmet Oner later confirmed that both fighters had signed contracts with his company Arena Box Promotions.
The issue of fleeing athletes was not a new one, but this instance really struck a nerve with the government. Earlier that year, three other Olympic boxers- Gamboa, Odlanier Solis, and Yan Barthelemy- had defected in Venezuela, hopping a bus into Columbia where they were scooped up by Arena Box. The Rigondeaux-Lara incident drew the ire of Castro himself, who addressed the issue in a column for the official newspaper Granma, calling Rigondeaux a Judas and compared him to "a soldier who abandons his fellow troops in the middle of combat." Rigondeaux was banned from boxing, including participation in the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, where he would have been favored to win a third gold medal. His athlete's salary was halted, his car was reclaimed, his residence was placed under surveillance, and his friends and colleagues were forbidden from associating with him. Those who spoke to him risked trouble with government.
The period following his return to Cuba seems to have been a quiet hell for Rigondeaux. Describing his family's new existence to journalist Ray Sanchez, the boxer said, "We get by like most Cubans. We struggle, we improvise. We do what we can." He spent much of his time staring out from his balcony, chain-smoking and draining bottle after bottle of Bucanero. He was still training on his own, lest he ever be allowed to fight again. His father had disowned him following the incident in Brazil.
Some of the Rigondeaux family's income during this time came illicitly from the Irish promotor/manager Gary Hyde. Hyde had been encouraged to seek potential stars in poor nations by Michael Flatley, the step-dancer known for his Riverdance and Lord of the Dance productions. Yep. Hyde looked to Cuba. Traveling to the island under the auspices of writing a book about Cuban boxers, Hyde courted the best fighters he could find (Rigondeaux included) and discussed going professional outside of Cuba. He eventually identified a system for getting fighters to Cancun via speedboats operated by Mexican drug traffickers.
In February 2009, Rigondeaux successfully escaped from Cuba, using Hyde's route but funded by other interests. (It is unclear who exactly paid for the boxer's passage.) Rigondeaux went from Mexico City to Miami, and his professional career began. After some legal tussles, Hyde became his manager, eventually signing him to promotor Top Rank.
In 2010, Rigondeaux defeated Ricardo Cordoba in Dallas to win the WBA super bantamweight title on the undercard of the Manny Pacquiao-Antonio Margarito fight. It was Rigondeaux's seventh professional match. By the second round, the crowd had started to boo. The reception evidenced one of the key difficulties of the amateur-to-professional transition. Amateur boxing matches last three rounds and are based on a scoring system that awards points for blows landed clean. Such bouts tend not to wander into the operatic carnage held at the apex of professional prizefighting. Rigondeaux's tack- one common to veterans of the Cuban amateurs- takes the principle of hit-and-don't-get-hit to its extreme, avoiding inefficiencies, mitigating risk, frequently to the effect of little leather swapped. "He is going to have to be more entertaining to succeed as an American professional," HBO commentator Jim Lampley remarked. Top Rank CEO Bob Arum, who once said that "Cuban olympic fighters can't sell out the front row of a dance hall in Miami," told Hyde that Rigondeaux would never fight in the United States again.
Back in Havana, Rigondeaux's family remained under constant surveillance. The boxer sent money. He had been unable to return to the island for his mother's funeral, unable to be with his son during a bout of serious illness. By all accounts, the separation weighed on him heavily. Nonetheless, he was insistent that his family remain in Cuba, having turned down a plan offered by Hyde to spirit him, his wife, and one of their children off the island. "I left behind all of my family," he told Butler. "Here you have to stay on top of things or you will get eaten by the lion. The United States is the best country in the world without a doubt, but the real best country in the world is Cuba. You know why? Because you don't have to pay rent, or pay for water, electricity, or for education. You don't have to pay for hospitals. Here you can buy a house, but if you don't have the money to keep paying, you get kicked out." "He was more afraid to subject his family to the risks of America's system," Butler wrote, "than to allow his family to live the rest of their lives without him, suffering the cost of his choice in Cuba." Later in his account, Butler visits Rigondeaux in Miami with the hope of showing him footage of his family and is turned away, finding the boxer in the company of a woman he calls his fiancee.
In April 2013, Rigondeaux fought Nonito Donaire at the Radio City Music Hall in New York City. At that time, Donaire was a four division champion riding a twelve year winning streak. The Cuban fighter routed his opponent to the familiar chorus of audience displeasure, and the congratulations were rather chilly. In an article titled "Rigondeaux Bores, but Bests Donaire," Dan Rafael of ESPN called the bout "a tight but often boring unanimous decision." By my reckoning, Rigondeaux had committed a sin against his promotor, who also represented Donaire. He had toppled a talented, personable, money-making fighter without displaying the star power to act as a replacement. Arum was less than enthusiastic about Rigondeaux's prospects for continuing on HBO. "Every time I mention him, they throw up." The Cuban's style of winning had posed difficulties securing him a big stage. Now, having arrived at his biggest yet, his victory sent him into active exile.
(Donaire has struggled subsequent to the Rigondeaux loss. I have a pet theory that to be code-broken as thoroughly as Rigondeaux code-broke Donaire, is as traumatic to a fighter as a knockout. The case of Kelly Pavlik after his defeat by Bernard Hopkins comes to mind readily.)
Rigondeaux now held the WBA, WBO, and The Ring Super Bantamweight titles. Fights against other belt holders did not materialize. He fought once more on HBO against Ghanaian Joseph Agbeko, ranked 32nd at super bantamweight. It was another slow fight easily won by the Cuban, and it drew more apathy from audiences and disgust from his promotors. Rigondeaux's next fight pitted him against Thailand's Sod Kokietgym in Macau, China. The referee called a timeout in the first round following an accidental headbutt, and at the resumption of action, immediately after touching gloves Rigondeaux bit the visibly woozy Kokietgym with a knockout one-two that drew comparisons to Floyd Mayweather Jr.'s eyebrow-raising K.O. of Victor Ortiz.
What then brought on this aggressive match in Osaka? Some of this may be credited to the audacity of the Japanese fighter. Rigondeaux prefers to counterpunch, and does it so proficiently that his opponents tend to grow gun-shy as the fight progresses. Amagasa was not so quick to be dissuaded, and he employed some tactics that future Rigondeaux opponents would do well to note. A southpaw, Rigondeaux uses his lead hand like a mesmerist's pendulum, to distract, to bait, to establish rhythms. Many of his opponents have not been able to get past this gatekeeper. In the first half of the fight, Amagasa kept this lead hand engaged, touching, pawing, fencing with his own. He could not quite cut off the ring on the Cuban, but he stayed within punching range for most of the fight, using his superior height to step inside Rigondeaux's lead foot and punch down at him. I'm hesitant to give Amagasa too much credit for the straight right hand that delivered Rigondeaux to the canvas in the seventh round. Rigondeaux had slipped to his opponent's outside, revolving around him in a tight circle. Amagasa loosed the blow while turning almost 180 degrees to follow him. The punch was disguised by his body, thrown half-blind. I do not believe much in lucky shots, but I don't know what this exchange could yield to future opponents studying Rigondeaux tapes for weaknesses.
But Amagasa's determination was not the only new component in the mix. Rigondeaux too seemed to possess a previously unseen will to hurt his opponent, and once hurting him, to continue doing so. In previous outings, his tendency has been to disengage after landing a good shot, thereby minimizing the chance of catching return fire. This time, when his opponent was wobbled (as Amagasa was in the fourth and tenth rounds) Rigondeaux moved in for the kill.
Following the Kokietgym fight, Hyde pointed to a new "venom in [Rigondeaux's] workmanship," crediting this to a mounting bitterness toward the networks, promotors, and fans. "[He] was making a statement like, ‘All you animals- you want me to fight? You want me to box? What do you want me to do?'"
Numerous fighters have built careers with a high adrenaline style. Consider Mayweather or Pernell Whitaker, whose defense-first approach impeded neither fortune nor popularity. Wladmir Klitschko too has retained a fan base despite weathering criticism for boring fights. The critical difference between these cases and Rigondeaux's is that the aforementioned boxers cultivated a loyal audience over long careers, and, moreover, were granted quality opposition and the attendant exposure.
Having lost a homeland and left a family in his journey to the professional ranks, Rigondeaux presently threads the narrow apertures of age and margin of error. He is already 34 years old; a loss could irreparably derail his career. Now he appears to be turning up the temperature. He has gained a reputation as a risk-averse fighter, but I don't see how the stakes could be any higher.
Note: In researching this column, I relied particularly on Ray Sanchez's work for The South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Bobby Cassidy Jr.'s documentary A Fighting Chance, and most of all on Brin-Jonathan Butler's A Cuban Boxer's Journey: Guillermo Rigondeaux, From Castro's Traitor to American Champion. The latter was released as an e-book and is available from Amazon for less than a matinee ticket. It's a great read and well worth your time.