To properly tell the story of Guillermo Rigondeaux’s circuitous path into Saturday’s junior lightweight title bout against Vasyl Lomachenko at New York’s Madison Square Garden Theater (ESPN, 9 p.m. ET), one must go back to the biggest night of his career in April 2013.
In just his 12th pro bout, Rigondeaux disarmed and dazzled reigning fighter of the year and No. 2 pound-for-pound Nonito Donaire over 12 rounds in their junior featherweight unification bout at Radio City Music Hall.
The enigmatic Rigondeaux (17-0, 11 KOs) was at his defiant best, forcing Donaire to fight at a distance and pace he was uncomfortable with as the Cuban defensive wizard painted his career masterpiece. But while the fight was a portrait of technical brilliance, it was far from entertaining.
Bob Arum, who promoted both fighters at the time, let him hear about it plenty. In fact, the legendary Top Rank chairman, while standing next to Rigondeaux at ringside, spent the majority of the makeshift news conference complaining about how difficult it is to promote a fighter so boring instead of bloviating upon his virtuoso skills.
If there are two sides to every story, what happened next has been interpreted different ways. Some believe Arum, bitter over Donaire’s defeat and annoyed by Rigondeaux’s in-ring malaise, looked to cut ties promotionally as quickly as he could. Others contend it was Rigondeaux who was simply his own worst enemy at cultivating his marketability.
Either way, Arum was famously quoted in the coming months that “HBO executives threw up” at the mere mention of Rigondeaux’s name. Then, after a boring decision win eight months later against Joseph Agbeko on HBO, Rigondeaux completed his Top Rank deal in a virtual boxing Siberia in July 2014, on an undercard in Macau that was wasn’t televised in the United States.
“I remember in Atlantic City, he was fighting [Agbeko] in the main event and we had a terrific undercard on HBO,” Arum. “The first three rounds he destroyed his opponent and then he just coasted to victory. By the end of that fight, I kid you not, there was nobody left in the place. They all had come for the preliminary and co-main event, and everybody had left before the fight was over.”
Arum’s memory of Atlantic City was completely true, as fans filed out of Phillips Ballroom at Boardwalk Hall before the fight was halfway over. But one could also question whether Rigondeaux, who isn’t equipped to sell a fight by himself as a headliner, was set up to fail on that night considering Showtime was airing a sexier card in Brooklyn, New York, on the same night.
Overall, if the fall from grace commercially was steep for Rigondeaux, the years that followed were even worse as “The Jackal” quickly became the exiled black sheep of the sport.
Unable to secure a deal with a major promoter, Rigondeaux largely sat idle and only returned to face little known fighters in locales around the globe. Even when he found a big opportunity, like securing a co-main event slot on the Canelo Alvarez-Miguel Cotto pay-per-view after signing with Roc Nation Sports in late 2015, Rigondeaux failed to help himself by doing the minimum in another defensive snooze.
“You have to understand, let’s be technical about it. Rigo is the Cuban style of boxing, which is with your sheer ability to pile up points, and then once you have enough, you coast and don’t fight anymore and you win a decision,” Arum said. “That’s how the Cuban fighters were trained to fight and that’s why they won so many medals and so forth. Get an insurmountable lead, don’t do anything risky and win your fight.”
Long avoided by big-name opponents due to his high risk/low reward proposition from a business standpoint, one could make the argument that the biggest rival of Rigondeaux’s pro career has been Arum himself. Which brings us to a bit of strange irony ahead of their reunion.
Overshadowed by the historic nature of the combined four Olympic gold medals and the P4P pedigree of each fighter, Rigondeaux enters Saturday with a chance to spoil Arum’s best-laid plans for the second time.
When Rigondeaux defeated Donaire and one week later began a promotional move to China with his first card in Macau, the Filipino was looked at as a key part of making in-roads in Asia. Four years later, Rigondeaux returns, in a broadcast which immediately follows the Heisman Trophy ceremony, against a fighter in Lomachenko (9-1, 7 KOs) who is arguably the face of Arum’s power move from HBO to ESPN.
The often emotionless Rigondeaux, 37, has largely played it cool during press events in the buildup, saying the opportunity to defeat a Top Rank fighter years after being let go by Arum doesn’t give him any extra motivation.
“Even if it is the Son of God, I don’t care,” Rigondeaux said. “I fight whoever I need to fight.”
Rigondeaux’s voice on social media, however, has expressed something different. Provided it’s actually him approving the tweets, Rigondeaux was surprised he was able to secure the fight, even though he was forced to move up two weight divisions and, in his words, take less money to do so. He has also been more willing to call out Arum directly.
From Arum’s standpoint, he has no regrets about how his run as Rigondeaux’s promoter played out.
“I tried, I really tried,” Arum said. “I sat down and talked to him and talked to his trainers. I talked with his management and they all agreed with me but he was so taken with the Cuban style that he couldn’t readjust, he couldn’t change.
“It was tough to get through to him that you are not only in the sports business, the boxing business, you are in the entertainment business and I couldn’t get through his head.”
Arum is confident that Lomachenko, 29, a native of Ukraine, will be able to secure the most important, critical victory of his career on Saturday and do it in a manner we have rarely seen, by making a Rigondeaux fight an exciting one.
“The Eastern Europeans, particularly Urkanians, have a different philosophy,” Arum said. “They go in and get points but always look for openings to destroy your opponents. Lomachenko is technically a great fighter, he finds the openings, he wins points but that doesn’t satisfy him. The only thing that satisfies him is the knockout or to get his opponent to quit. It’s a different philosophy.
“This fight is going to be a great fight because Lomachenko is not going to allow Rigondeaux to pile up the lead on points. So Rigondeaux is going to have to be in there as long as the fight lasts trying to win because he’s not going to have a lead on points. So I look at this as a very exciting fight and I think Rigondeaux is going to do a great, great job but at the end of the day, I look at my guy Lomachenko to stop him in the late rounds.”