Guillermo Rigondeaux may be the most misunderstood & avoided fighter in boxing. The story of how he got here is extraordinary.
Imagine for a moment you are meeting a man, someone you have never met and do not know if you can trust and you pay that man in cash the sum required to smuggle you out of the country of your birth and on to a rickety boat to travel 90 miles over open ocean to a foreign country to begin a new life.
You know no one.
You do not speak the language.
You leave your family behind and you may never see them again.
This is the gamble of a lifetime, truly life and death.
Your name is Guillermo Rigondeaux and this is your story.
Life in Castro’s Cuba
The United States has maintained a tense relationship with the small Caribbean island nation for more than 60 years since the violent overthrow of U.S. backed dictator Fulgencio Batista by the forces of the '26 July Movement' led by the late Fidel Castro his brother Raul Castro, now in power and Ernesto 'Che' Guevara on January 1st 1959. The interim government established by 26 July was later reformed and declared itself officially communist in 1965 aligning itself with Soviet Russia.
Over the ensuing decades, Cuba was used as a pawn, as were many countries by the Soviet Union and the U.S. in the 'Cold War' between the two world powers. Full scale Nuclear War nearly broke out between the U.S.S.R and the U.S. in October 1962. The Soviets had parked a cache of ballistic missiles in Cuba in response to U.S. ballistic missile deployment in Greece and Turkey. The tense 13-day standoff ultimately ended peacefully though Cuba has always been viewed with a mixture of suspicion and disdain since. As such, a crushing embargo was placed on Cuba in 1962 by the Kennedy administration and remains in effect to this day, though the outgoing Obama administration did relax some of the restrictions prohibiting travel to the island and some diplomatic relation have been restored.
Tensions rose in this 'Cold War' again in the late 1970s and 80s as the proxies of the 'Super Powers' in Central America were the homes of increased political violence. Cuba was caught betwixt and between to some extent and it was in this tumultuous period that on September 30th 1980 Guillermo Rigondeaux was born in Cuba's second largest city Santiago de Cuba. However, it would be in the Cuban amateur boxing system that Guillermo was raised.
Boxing in Cuba
The sport of boxing was extremely popular as a tourist attraction and spectator sport in Cuba going back to the late 19th century. It was banned for a brief period from around 1912 to 1921 due in large part to increased street violence between blacks and whites. This forced boxing behind closed doors.
Boxing got a second chance in December 1921 with the establishment of the National Commission on Boxing and Wrestling. With the ban lifted tourist dollars flowed back in. Boxer's like Benny Paret, "Kid Gavilan" and best known of all "Kid Chocolate" Eligio Sardiñas Montalvo were popular attractions.
By 1961 with Castro's communist system fully ensconced in Cuban life the island country chose to adopt Eastern Bloc training methodology in sports as well. The western influence on boxing was removed, professional boxing was outlawed by Castro's government and energy and resources were instead diverted to a Soviet style system that created a factory of amateur champions. Success in the Olympics for example was used by Castro and other Communist leaders as a propaganda tool ostensibly to prove the superiority of their 'socialist ideals.' Notably, Soviet coach Andrei Chervenko was brought in and worked with Cuban boxer Teófilo Stevenson Lawrence, one of only three boxers to win three gold medals in the Olympics, the other is another fellow Cuban Felix Savon.
The cornerstone of the Cuban boxing system is a comprehensive approach that begins in childhood and identifies children with promise at the grammar school level. The most talented youths are then funneled into specialized schools around age 12 where they can receive even more intensive training. Through the ultra-competitive youth program the field is further whittled down and the cream that rises is then sent to the top school in Wajay in Havana, Cuba for advanced drilling and training.
Since 1968-2000 Cuba has won twenty-seven gold medals, thirteen silver medals, and seven bronze medals, 47 in all. A number still unmatched in the Olympics by any country in boxing.
With this in mind, the rigor of the Cuban system it is astonishing to then examine Guillermo Rigondeaux's amateur accomplishments: a record of 463-12 on the world stage. Cuban national Bantamweight champion from 2000-06. Gold medal Olympian in Sydney, Australia in 2000 and repeated in Athens, Greece in 2004. World Amateur Champion in 2001 and 2005, World Cup Champion in 2002 and again in 2005. This, and a host of other amateur accolades and titles in the Central American games.
World champions are prized in Cuba and many doors were likely held open for "Rigo." However, decades of sanctions due to the U.S. embargo made trade difficult and some of the most basic goods that we in the west take for granted would be unobtainable. The Olympic committee does award a cash prize for the medal winners however it's unlikely Rigo could have kept any of it due to the illegality of profiting off sport in the country, the sports men and women were viewed more as soldiers then as athletes. Perhaps that’s when the seed was planted for Rigo to make a 'revolutionary change' of his own.
Becoming the Jackal
During the Pan-American games in Brazil on July 22nd 2007 Rigo and teammate Erislandy Lara no showed their scheduled bouts. With the aid of German promoter Ahmet Oener they were attempting to defect to The West like countryman and fellow Olympian Yuriorkis Gamboa had earlier in 2007. They failed and were detained by Brazilian officials for overstaying their visas before being shipped back to Cuba. Castro was livid, stating; "the Cuban athlete who deserts his delegation is like a soldier who deserts his unit in the midst of combat." Rigo and Lara are lucky they did not pay with their lives.
Undaunted, Rigo tried again and in February 2009, he climbed into that smuggler's vessel with little more than the clothes on his back and landed in Miami, FL to join Erislandy Lara who had succeeded the previous June in escaping to the U.S.
Guillermo "El Chacal" (The Jackal) Rigondeaux made a splash in the professional ranks immediately. He KO'd Juan Noriega in 3 rounds just three months after arriving on U.S. soil May 22, 2009. Rigo smashed through his next five opponents staying busy, until he faced his stiffest challenge November 13th 2010 when he took on Ricardo Cordoba, a veteran of over 40 fights as a professional at that point. Rigo sent Cordoba down with a body shot in the 4th round and was himself planted briefly by Cordoba in the 6th round. Nevertheless, Rigo won a split decision. The fight took place on the undercard of the Pacquiao-Margarito main event and a fighter with Rigo's pedigree seemingly struggled against Cordoba though only his 7th pro fight, it marked Rigo as a fighter who may be too much hype and Rigo struggles to this day with that label.
Rigo did win his first title however in beating Cordoba, becoming the interim WBA World Super Bantamweight champion. Rigo's first defense was on the road in Limerick, Ireland. Rigo needed less than a round to dispatch with Wille 'Big Bang' Casey. Rigo became the full-fledged WBA champion with a murderous left hook to the body that sent Rico Ramos down in agony in the 6th round on January 20 2012.
One Shot, One Kill.
Rigo has developed and cultivated a fearsome reputation for injuring his opponents with his precise counter punching style breaking the jaws and faces of no less than four of his opponents.
The streak began with the one-sided battery of Jose Angel Bernaza in August 2010. The veteran of nearly 60 pro fights was made to look amateur lunging in at the spectral figure of Rigo countering effortlessly with upper cuts to the body and jaw and the straight left – his best weapon.
Similar fates awaited Hisashi Amagasa in Japan on New Year's Eve 2014 before the hushed Japanese crowd. Amagasa, a featherweight a full six-and –a-half inches taller than the diminutive Cuban was sent down twice in the 7th round and was forced to retire before the 11th. His Face a grotesque mask of swelling as Rigo had fractured his jaw and orbital bone with the straight left hand counter. James Dicken's was forced to retire in just the second round in Cardiff, Wales last July.
Cut as it were from obsidian, Rigo stalks his opponent with his trademark statuesque wide stance.
Often taking small half steps to left or right. He will at times pantomime throwing the soft right jab and the left behind before suddenly firing his assassin's bullet splitting his opponents jab or slipping the "2" of his opponent to land his counter with the ruthless precision of a surgeon's scalpel.
All his opponent can do his stare up at the ref in bewilderment or look over to his corner with glassy eyes wondering how in the world did he end up on his ass.
Victim of Success.
Rigo is not without his detractors.
His punch volume has more in common with heavyweights than any boxer under the 122-pound limit. However, I would counter that when you can break your opponent's face with one punch who needs to throw with volume. Action fighters like Manny Pacquiao, Tim Bradley, Marquez, and others have created a palette for the viewing public that values action and ring wars.
The extremely elusive, technical and defensive Cuban has failed to connect deeply with audiences and as a PPV draw for big fights. Rigo is the ultimate 'high risk, low reward fight.'
In the last 1-2 years Rigo has been briefly linked to fights with more popular boxers like Carl Frampton and Vasyl 'Hi-Tech' Lomachenko, many believe that those fighters are ducking Rigo, they are both warriors and so this is doubtful. Rigo and management have taken to social media to air his grievances in rather petty disputes with these challengers in a way that does not befit his class in the ring.
More recently Rigo was set to take on Moises Flores for a unification of the WBA Super Bantamweight title later this month as the undercard feature of the Cotto – Kirkland bout in Houston, Texas. Kirkland was forced to pull out with a broken nose sustained in camp two weeks ago, scrubbing the whole event. The Flores – Rigondeaux bout went to purse bid for the sum of roughly $150,000 with Rigo being the "A" side meaning a likely 75-25 split in favor of Rigo. After paying trainers, taxes and other fees it's difficult to imagine Rigo can truly afford to lose out on the money he would have made in this fight. As of this writing the talk from both camps is to reschedule the bout to next month or possibly April. Guillermo Rigondeaux will be 37 this September so time is not on his side.
Great heavyweight George Foreman once said "Boxing is like jazz. The better it is, the less people appreciate it." The sun is setting on Rigo's window of opportunity to make a real mark in the sport he seemed born to conquer, he risked absolutely everything to come to America for that opportunity and his reception has been ambivalent. El Chacal, one of the best talents we have seen in the sport since Floyd abdicated the throne may pass into extinction with barely a notice.