by Cliff Rold
Boxing is entertainment.
Boxing is also a sport.
Not all sporting events wind up delivering entertainment to the masses and not all boxers are born entertainers. Cuba’s Guillermo Rigondeaux can be a masterful craftsman when it comes to the sport of boxing. His entertainment value is variable.
That has meant an unfair imbalance of opportunity on the sport versus entertainment scale in the four years since his dissection of Nonito Donaire. Rigondeuax proved that night in 2013 that he was the best Jr. featherweight in the world.
Management issues may have played a part but ultimately no one of note wanted to disprove that notion enough to demand him since.
It was a rational act for potential opponents like Carl Frampton, Scott Quigg, and Leo Santa Cruz to opt away from him on economic risk/reward terms. In a sporting sense, it stunk. A modern era with belts plenty makes it too easy to get paid playing for second place.
Now, in what it surely the twilight of his career, Rigondeaux gets a chance to overwhelm all the lost years with one audacious move. He moves up two of boxing’s modern seventeen weight classes, still the lineal king at 122 lbs., to face the consensus leader of the 130 lb. division.
It comes with some nice bells and whistles. Rigondeuax and Vasyl Lomachenko is the first professional meeting of two-time Olympic Gold Medalists. They both also won a pair of World Amateur titles as well.
Lomachenko has been audacious as a professional as well. His fast track arriving at Rigondeaux in eleven fights is rare stuff outside the ranks of Japanese flyweights. The pattern of boxing in most parts of the globe is to rack up wins while building a following, taking the big fights when the money matches the moments.
Lomachenko chose another path, already having faced a handful of titlists and former titlists. A win over Rigondeaux, even as the favored and naturally larger man, would round out a dramatic initial run in the sport. It’s not the stiffest initial eleven-fight run ever; that will probably always belong to Fidel LaBarba. The great American flyweight faced a young Jimmy McLarnin three times, Newsboy Brown, and Frankie Genaro in less than a year, going 7-2-2.
Given the landscape of modern boxing, this might be as close as stateside fans get to seeing a similar run. There are those who think Lomachenko may already be the best fighter in the world. Others insist Rigondeaux has been the sports finest fighter through years deferred.
A loss for Rigondeaux makes it even easier to again cast him aside. A loss for Lomachenko derails a lot of big dreams and plans.
It may or may not be entertaining.
It’s damn sure fine sport.
Let’s go the report card.
Title: WBO super featherweight (2016-Present, 3 Defenses)
Previous Titles: WBO featherweight (2014-16, 3 Defenses)
Weight: 129 lbs.
Hails from: Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi, Ukraine
Record: 9-1, 7 KO (15-1, 7 KO including World Series of Boxing Contests)?
Record in Major Title Fights: 8-1, 6 KO
Rankings: #1 (BoxingScene, TBRB, ESPN, Ring, BoxRec, Boxing Monthly)
Current/Former World Champions/Titlists Faced: Orlando Salido L12; Gary Russell Jr. MD12; Roman Martinez KO5; Nicholas Walters RTD7; Jason Sosa RTD9 (secondary WBA titlist)
Title: Lineal/TBRB Jr. featherweight (2013-Present, 6 Defenses); WBA “Super” super bantamweight (2016-17, 2 defenses)
Previous Titles: WBA super bantamweight (2010-15, 8 defenses); WBO Jr. featherweight (2013-15, 3 Defenses)
Weight: 128 ¼ lbs.
Hails from: Miami, Florida (Born in Cuba)
Record: 17-0, 11 KO
Record in Major Title Fights: 11-0, 6 KO, 1 NC including lineal and interim title fights; 6-0, 3 KO, 1 NC (lineal only); 8-0, 5 KO, 1 NC (full sanctioning body only)
Current/Former World Champions/Titlists Faced: Rico Ramos KO6; Nonito Donaire UD12; Joseph Agbeko UD12
Pre-Fight: Speed – Lomachenko A; Rigondeaux A
Pre-Fight: Power –Lomachenko B+; Rigondeaux A-
Pre-Fight: Defense – Lomachenko A; Rigondeaux A
Pre-Fight: Intangibles – Lomachenko A; Rigondeaux A-
How big is the size difference in this fight?
Not as big as some make it out to be. Rigondeaux and Lomachenko aren’t guys who turned pro young. They were fully grown men in the amateurs and amateur limits tell us a little about their real size. Rigondeaux was an amateur bantamweight, which is a limit a hair above professional Jr. featherweight. Lomachenko won Gold at featherweight and lightweight, the upper division resting between the professional Jr. lightweight and lightweight limits.
If this were the time of the so-called “original eight” weight divisions, we’d be seeing a fight between a small featherweight and a small lightweight. Rigondeaux is certainly risking a jump in weight but it’s not historically unprecedented or remarkable. Lomachenko is taller; Rigondeaux has the longer reach.
Age and activity could be more significant factors here. Rigondeaux is old for a man his size and has fought 13 rounds since 2014. This is the first time he’s fought twice in a calendar year since 2014 as well and he only got through one round this year. It’s fair to say Rigondeaux is past his physical prime. Lomachenko is fully in his and is making his third start of the year.
For Rigondeaux to win, he will have to be economical, smart, and hurtful. If there is any rust, any struggle to time his man, Lomachenko will be piling up points. The younger man has a smart, energetic style and knows how to play to the crowd. There is a bit of showman to him. It could get the crowd on his side early and they’ll likely start there anyways.
Rigondeaux, for a single shot, is probably the better puncher but his fighting mentality doesn’t always result in knockouts. Of course, that single shot has come lower on the scale. Will his power carry up?
Even if it does, will he hurt Lomachenko? To date, Lomachenko has shown a superior chin to Rigondeaux. The Cuban has been down four times, twice against journeyman Hisashi Amagassa. Lomachenko has so far handled whatever he had to take. We know Lomachenko can hurt Rigondeaux because lesser fighters, and punchers, have. Will Lomachenko land the big shots?
Their chins are the gaps in terms of intangibles.
Both men are excellent defensive fighters. Rigondeaux is the more relaxed of the two and when he wants to can slip punches almost casually. If Rigondeaux’s output isn’t high enough, it may make it simpler for Lomachenko to avoid the left hand his challenger needs to win. If Lomachenko gets reckless, or starts to think Rigondeaux can’t hurt him, the counter puncher will find holes to exploit.
Against Donaire, Rigondeaux landed some heavy stuff early and left Donaire unsure what to do to get near him without getting knocked out. Rigondeaux controlled the space of the fight. If he can rock Lomachenko early, make him think or feel uncertain, he might slow the fight down to the speed best suited to allow him to win.
This fight may play out like a more precise version of the 2008 clash between Joe Calzaghe and Bernard Hopkins. In that fight, Calzaghe won a decision with an abundance of activity and a second half surge while Hopkins had his backers at the end based on his ability to land less but often visibly cleaner shots. Saturday presents the sort of style match that could produce a similar debate at the end.
Rigondeuax can’t, and likely won’t allow himself to be, drawn into a firefight. Even if Lomachenko can’t stop him, he has the pop to put him down. Rigondeaux is going to make Lomachenko miss more than any opponent to date and will have chances to land big left hands in spots. He’ll need some bombs because it’s going to be hard to win a decision. Without a knockout, Lomachenko’s pace and activity is going to make it easier for judges to give the Ukrainian rounds if and when they are close.
That doesn’t mean we’re walking into a robbery though it wouldn’t surprise. Rigondeaux reasonably have won eleven rounds on the cards against Donaire. The final scores were far closer than reality. Lomachenko isn’t Donaire though. He’s got better feet, creativity, and even more youth to his advantage.
In other words, it’s not like Lomachenko isn’t going to land plenty even if he struggles to find the Cuban as much as he’d prefer. The older man, listed at 37 but suspected of more years in the books, will be hard pressed to keep pace if he can’t deter Lomachenko from throwing. It’s enough to say that a close, hotly debated scoring affair probably favors the man positioned as the star of the show and the future star in waiting.
Rigondeaux is coming to win and he’ll be there at the final bell. An upset here, considering the rise in weight and age of the fighters, would be remarkable. Rigondeaux will probably have to settle for a moral victory instead of a title in a second weight class. At the end, we will have been entertained enough with plenty to argue about in a close decision that goes to Lomachenko.
Report Card Picks 2017: 43-18
Cliff Rold is a member of the Ring Magazine Ratings Advisory Panel, the Yahoo Pound for Pound voting panel, and the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at [email protected]