By Cliff Rold
Listen to the true believers, the real hardcore Cult of Rigo types, and Cuba’s lineal Jr. featherweight king Guillermo Rigondeaux (17-0, 11 KO) damn near walks on water. There is a cadre of writers and aficionados that see the man they think, deep down, is today’s true best fighter in the world.
Maybe for all of this generation.
In another corner there are skeptics. They hear about a defensive maestro and wonder how he’s suffered four knockdowns in eighteen pro fights, down twice alone against journeyman Hiasashi Amagassa, and also rocked badly against Roberto Marroquin.
To his idolaters, the four and a half year gap between Saturday’s challenge of WBO Jr. lightweight titlist Vasyl Lomachenko (9-1, 7 KO) and his unification win over Nonito Donaire is a fistic tragedy. They see a gifted gem denied additional name clashes that might have truly rounded out his greatness.
Cynical eyes see a fighter who, literally, has been walked out on while displaying his craft, boring too often, misunderstanding his place in the market, mismanaged away from better opportunities.
There is merit on both sides of the Rigondeaux divide but no matter where one falls, this weekend (ESPN, 9 PM EST/6 PM PST) is fascinating stuff. At 37 years old, Rigondeuax will never accumulate the sort of professional record that stands up against most of the greats near his weight. There probably won’t be enough fights, enough style clashes, to fully flesh it all out.
Short careers can still be great. Ray Leonard and Pernell Whitaker are widely regarded among the greats while hovering right around the 40-fight professional mark. Rigondeaux isn’t even halfway to that after eight years as a pro.
That’s okay. Rigondeaux can be a different kind of great with an upset, or even just a close showing this weekend.
A bit of a legend.
No, this wouldn’t be a legend like Ali or Robinson. Again, the volume of his career won’t allow for that. There is another type of athletic legend, the one with the incomplete career where one’s eyes tell them what statistics cannot.
It all starts with the Donaire win of course. In that fight, Rigondeaux took one of the highest regarded fighters in the world and dissected him. While the official cards were close, the reality in the ring was Rigondeaux in complete control outside of a late knockdown in the contest. He set the pace, controlled the geography, and after checking Donaire hard early dared him to come find him. Donaire never fully obliged.
In the years since, the likes of Carl Frampton, Leo Santa Cruz, and Scott Quigg have come through 122 lbs. and made some noise. Rigondeaux never shared a ring with any of them.
In a sporting sense, it’s a real shame. There were enough fights there to define his run at the weight, to further flesh out the professional resume that compliments Rigondeaux’s incredible amateur run.
Instead he now jumps two weight classes in the twilight of his career. It’s the best at 122 versus the best at 130, a clash of arguably the two best amateur fighters of the last thirty years. It is at least the most accomplished clash in that regard. Some of that is hyperbole. They were as accomplished as they were in the amateurs because they stayed there, in the case of Rigondeaux by force, for a long time. This would be just as interesting a fight if both had turned pro with their first Gold Medals.
If Rigondeaux can pull it off, upsetting the apple cart for former promoter Top Rank against a fighter they have clear future plans for after derailing the Donaire express years ago, it will only add to the potential for the type of legend Rigondeaux could be.
Bo Jackson comes to mind.
In his case, it wasn’t business or style or ducking opponents working against him. Jackson was a classic case of injury cutting genius short. Through his first four full seasons in baseball, Jackson had the look of a potential 500 home run hitter. In the NFL, on Jackson’s best days he looked like as good a running back as ever stepped on the field. None of those things happened and yet many who saw him or recall him from their youth still mention Jackson with a sense of awe.
In boxing, Charley Burley has emerged over time to be regarded with the greats. He never fully got the chance to show it in his day. He beat greats in Fritzie Zivic and Archie Moore but never got a title shot at welterweight or middleweight. What would have happened without a World War? Would Tony Zale have stayed away from Burley all those years? What if Henry Armstrong had given Burley a shot the class below?
Burley was great and might have been even greater. For the following that has admired him from the start, that can already be said of Guillermo Rigondeaux. If he can upset Lomachenko this weekend, even the cynics and skeptics will be forced to join the Cult of Rigo in the long game of what if’s to come, wondering what might have been missed these many lost years.
Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene, a founding member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, and a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at [email protected]