by Cliff Rold
From the perspective of a professional boxing fan, it has to be considered among the great tragedies of fistiana. Kid Chocolate, Kid Gavilan, Jose Napoles, Luis Rodriguez; Cuba had given the sport some of its finest.
After the rise of Castro, Cuba continued to do just that.
They just kept them almost entirely contained to the amateur ranks.
For hardcore fight followers, it can be a nice parlor game to play ‘what if’ with some of the great Cubans of the last fifty-plus years who couldn’t turn professional. Heavyweights Teofilo Stevenson and Felix Savon, Middleweight Ariel Hernandez, Lightweight Mario Kindelan…what’s if’s all around.
There have been just enough defections over the years to make cases, positive and negative, for what might have been. Joel Casamayor had a borderline Hall of Fame career, winning titles at 130 and 135 lbs. Odlanier Solis ate himself out of the running early in his Heavyweight tenure.
Right now, Jr. Featherweight Guillermo Rigondeuax, Jr. Lightweight Yuriorkis Gamboa, and Jr. Middleweight Erislandy Lara are all trying to get to the top of their divisions. All look capable of doing it.
This weekend, it’s all about Rigondeuax (11-0, 8 KO) and he’ll have the biggest opportunity any of the three have had to date. He’ll face lineal and WBO 122 lb. king Nonito Donaire (31-1, 20 KO) in the biggest fight in the division since the rubber match between Israel Vazquez and Rafael Marquez in 2008.
It is a fitting fate. The numbers say Rigondeuax was the best of the three in the unpaid ranks. There are some who would argue the two-time Olympic Gold Medalist and two-time amateur World Champion was the finest Cuban amateur of the Communist era.
From the beginning of his pro career, Rigondeuax has had a solid cult following. The respect he’s been given by fans, pundits, announcers, trainers, and many other fighters lent itself to a simple impression: this is someone special.
When he walked through Rico Ramos for the WBA 122 lb. title in January of last year, a hardcore cult following evolved into an outright “Cult of Rigo.” Rigondeuax was calling for a showdown with Nonito Donaire. Donaire didn’t seem interested in the fight yet, perhaps not all that excited as yet about facing a guy with only 9 wins at that point.
Given that boxing brings out the most rational sides in its fans at all times (wink), this equated to some as a clear sign that Donaire was scared.
He was ducking Rigondeaux.
Donaire would never fight the Cuban.
The notion took on, in select corners of social media and on message boards, a sort of religious fervor.
Donaire opted for the two most established veterans in the class (Jeffrey Mathebula and Toshiaki Nishioka) and the big money walkover (Jorge Arce). In the meantime, Rigondeuax picked up two more sharp-looking wins and interest in a showdown increased as much as it could.
Given the inability of Top Rank and Golden Boy Promotions to work together, the likely richest fight in the division wasn’t available. Donaire and Abner Mares probably won’t be sharing a ring anytime soon. Mares has, in fact, left 122 altogether and ventured one division north. Only one showdown was left in a truncated, but interesting, run for Jr. Featherweight.
Donaire didn’t turn out to be scared after all, a development that was not the least bit shocking. And, even with only 11 pro fights, Rigondeaux is only a slight underdog this weekend. That is no shock either.
He’s all the way live here and the Cult of Rigo is poised to gain a whole lot of converts. The pedigree is clear. He hasn’t shown, yet, the sort of style that would endear him to the widest masses. Jr. Featherweights can be a hard sell beyond a certain ceiling as it is. But being a draw isn’t always an expression of talent.
If Rigondeaux can defeat a man most see as one of the elite talents in the game in any weight class, the expression of his talent will be inarguable.
It’s not going to be easy. Casamayor, for as great a career as he had, faltered when he reached his first unification clash. An iffy knockdown call and point deduction cost Casamayor at least a draw against Acelino Freitas in a 2002 clash of 130 lb. unbeatens.
One could point out Casamayor wasn’t as highly regarded in the amateurs as Rigondeuax, even having won his own Olympic Gold. Then again, Freitas surely wasn’t the caliber of Donaire.
This is as fascinating a fight as boxing has on the schedule right now. It isn’t expected to be an action classic, but the questions it raises make for must-see theatre. If Donaire were facing any other fighter making his 12th start, the notion of a pick ‘em fight would laughable.
Rigondeaux just isn’t any other fighter. It may be that he’s biting off more than he can chew, but he’s worth a roll of the dice to find out.
He can validate his skipping straight to the head of line and further the ‘what if’ game springing from his national home. Rigondeaux has a chance this weekend to win not just for him but also for fifty years of fighters who didn’t get the chance. Cuba’s dominance of the amateur game and absence from the professional ranks leaves an obvious hole in history.
No, not all of Cuba's finest would have made great pros.
But the chance that there was a genuine all-time great in the bunch somewhere, a gem that never got to be fully polished, is an overwhelming probability. If the man who arguably stands as the best amateur Cuba ever produced can rise up to knock off an established three-division champion in the flush of his prime, what would that add to the legacy of the island?
Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene, a founding member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, and a member the Yahoo Pound for Pound voting panel, and the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at [email protected]