by Cliff Rold, photo by Chris Farina/Top Rank
Break out the chants.
Don the robes.
Saturday night, on the HBO-televised undercard of the lineal World Jr. Featherweight title bout between champion Nonito Donaire and challenger Jorge Arce, one of boxing’s more excited cult fan bases has something to light some incense for.
While Donaire has faced two high quality men in a row at 122 lbs. in titlist Jeffrey Mathebula and former titlist Toshiaki Nishioka, there is one name that dogs him in the eyes of hardcore fans.
It’s not Abner Mares, the WBC titlist in the division who many feel would make the biggest money fight with Donaire. That fight is beyond just the hardcore. That fight is already into the realm of discussion as big business, or what can be big business in today’s Jr. Featherweight class.
No, the name that dogs him among the hardest core of the boxing faithful is that of a Cuban émigré who might have been the best amateur fighter of his generation, a man who yearned from freedom so much he risked defection twice.
On the undercard of Donaire-Arce, 32-year old WBA titlist Guillermo Rigondeaux (11-0, 8 KO) is on display.
Rigondeaux has been calling for Donaire. So has his ardent fan base. The cries of “duck” have been lobbed at Donaire with palpable intensity. The Cult of Rigo has been on message boards, Twitter, Facebook, and drum circles aplenty.
They may not be all wrong.
Donaire has said, in ways direct and indirect, that he doesn’t think Rigondeaux has done enough to merit a fight with him. Typically, that’s a clue as to how good a fighter might be. Boxing economics is a game of risk and reward. A low reward fighter sometimes has an easier path to opportunity if they are also seen as lower risk.
For instance, the camp of Middleweight champion Sergio Martinez once cited the way they were shorn of the WBO belt as a reason not to face Dmitry Pirog while doggedly chasing the WBC belt they were at least partly politicked out of worn by Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. It smacked of hypocrisy but the reward/risk equation was evident.
It didn’t mean they didn’t think they could beat Pirog, but risking what turned out to be a big payday, and platform, against Chavez wasn’t in the cards.
For Donaire, there isn’t a platform like Chavez out there. That doesn’t mean risking Rigondeaux before the pay is the best possible is going to happen. When a fighter is in the driver’s seat for a big fight, picking the spot is a time honored tradition in boxing.
“Duck” isn’t always the right word. There’s no reason to think Donaire actually fears Rigondeaux. But, this weekend, he’s taking on a prohibitive underdog in Arce who also happens to be one of the best paydays in the lower weight classes. He’s taking the reward while the man who might turn out to be his biggest threat seeks to be seen as than just a risk.
Rigondeaux is clearly a talent. What he hasn’t been yet is consistently entertaining. He’s had some solid wins to date. Ricardo Cordoba was aesthetically ugly but commendable for a fighter in only his seventh pro fight. Rico Ramos, for a title, had spots of fireworks. So did solid his previous scrap against solid young challenger Roberto Marroquin. They were just spots though.
Rigondeaux is so precise, so exact, that his fights often resolve to displays of tough defense and sporadic offense. It’s effective, but it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. What the Cuban needs is the sort of fighter who provides both resume bona fides and the sort of style that forces Rigondeuax to open eyes and create demand outside his cult following.
Enter 32-year old former WBA 122 lb. titlist Poonsawat Kratingdaenggym (48-2, 33 KO).
The Thai battler is unfamiliar to most of the U.S. audience but, like Rigondeaux, has had his moments of strong underground fever. It’s never reached the same pitch, but hardcore fans at least recognize the name. Thrilling wins against Somsak Sithchatchawal, Bernard Dunne, Satashi Hosono, and Shoji Kimura made him a YouTube favorite.
His career has been in a bit of a holding pattern since a narrow road title loss in 2010 to Ryol Li Lee but he’s kept winning. His only other loss came in Germany to Wladimir Sidorenko years ago. He’s got chops.
He’s also got the right style, if not a ton of speed. He comes forward. He digs to the body. He can take a shot. He’s just the sort of fighter who can either burst a bubble or make it bigger. Kratingdaenggym is the sort of fighter who can make Rigondeaux look like a star.
Adding drama to the equation, Kratingdaenggym is at an age where he needs this win as bad as Rigondeaux. He’s been very good. Now, more of the world can know it.
Rigondeaux is a talent in need of a test. Kratingdaenggym is a test in need of a platform. This could be a real show stealer this weekend and might even carry hints of Kostya Tszyu-Vince Phillips.
Rewind to 1997 and Tszyu was the former amateur monster with limited professional experience and a groundswell already naming him the man Oscar De La Hoya was avoiding. Phillips was a good fighter with a few losses, vastly more professional experience, and one big chance to change his life.
Phillips made good in a splendid fight, stopping the future Hall of Famer for the IBF 140 lb. title. The chance to see De La Hoya-Tszyu was gone before the Cult of Tszyu could get settled in for the debate. Could the same thing happen this weekend? It seems unlikely but the fight could provide similar high quality action.
Tszyu-Phillips came on its own Boxing After Dark card. Rigondeaux has better real estate for the fight that can be his case maker for Donaire. He shares the bill with the man he wants more than any other. The opportunity is there to both outshine Donaire within a span of hours and leave everyone watching, cultists and the uninitiated alike, asking when Donaire will fight Rigondeaux as the credits roll.
The chance to see real demand explode for a Donaire-Rigondeaux fight will never get any better than it will this Saturday night.
The Cult of Rigo might be ready to spread to the masses.
Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene and a member of the Transnational Boxing Ratings Board, the Yahoo Pound for Pound voting panel, and the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at [email protected]