By Eric Raskin
It was supposed to be Guillermo Rigondeaux’s crowning moment, his chance to shout “I’m going to Disney World!” as confetti fell from the ceiling and the multitudes chanted his name. But when he cupped his hand around his ear, the Cuban master craftsman didn’t hear echoes of “Rig-on-deaux! Rig-on-deaux!” He heard boos. And then it got worse. He heard his own promoter declare him virtually un-promotable.
All Rigondeaux did on the night of April 13, 2013 was decisively outpoint Nonito Donaire, who came into the fight as high as number three on some people’s pound-for-pound lists and no lower than fifth on anyone’s. Donaire is arguably the best fighter who has lost a bout in 2013 (Juan Manuel Marquez being the only possible alternative choice), making Rigondeaux the fighter who beat the best fighter anybody beat this year. On top of that, he got off the canvas to do it and dominated the final round, usually sure indicators of guts and mettle and all those intangible qualities that fans prize.
But Rigondeaux was berated more than celebrated, because he fought in a defense-first style. Bob Arum, his promoter, gave him a harder time than perhaps anyone else. “Running the way [Rigondeaux] does really makes it into not a watchable fight,” Arum told the ringside reporters immediately after the disarming of Donaire. “He’s a very good fighter, but it’s not a pleasing style. This kid is one of the best defensive fighters I’ve ever seen. Now, does it sell tickets? [To sell him] will take all the abilities of this 81-year-old promoter.”
If that was a slap in the face to Rigondeaux, a kick in the groin came a couple of months later, when Arum said he couldn’t convince HBO executives to air the Cuban’s next fight, insisting, “Every time I mention him, they throw up.”
Either that statement was a stretching of the truth or the truth has changed, because on Saturday night, junior featherweight champion Rigondeaux returns to the HBO airwaves. He’s fighting for the first time since his magnificent but maligned triumph over Donaire for the lineal title, taking on two-time former bantamweight beltholder Joseph “King Kong” Agbeko. Rarely has a boxer coming off a career-best win had so much reason to fight with a chip on his shoulder. But the chip is there. And the question is whether he will alter his slippery, counterpunching style in any way as a result of the mixed reviews he received in April.
When asked what type of fight it would be, Rigondeaux responded, “It will be full of action and brawling.” However, when asked whether he feels any pressure to fight more aggressively because of the criticism of the Donaire fight, Rigondeaux contradicted himself by stating, “I have never felt any pressure to change my style, since I know true boxing fans who appreciate the sport understand my style. Boxing is a game of hit and don’t get hit. Once I’m comfortable in the fight, it just becomes me and my opponent, where the more mistakes my opponent makes, the worse it’s going to end for him.”
Arguably the greatest amateur ever, Rigondeaux won Olympic gold medals in both 2000 (when he won the Val Barker Trophy as the best overall boxer at the Games) and 2004 and compiled a reported amateur record of 374-12. He waited until age 28 to turn pro, won a belt in just his seventh pro fight, and now, at age 33, is regarded as one of the very best in the pro ranks despite a limited record of 12-0 with 8 knockouts. He’s a lefthander who fits most of the stereotypes of slick southpaw defensive whizzes, except he’s also an elite bodypuncher.
Agbeko is generally perceived to be an older 33 than Rigondeaux. That doesn’t mean he’s a shot fighter; it might mean he’s a fighter without much of a shot. The Ghanaian’s run in the last four years includes impressive wins over Vic Darchinyan and Yohnny Perez, a defeat to Perez, and two losses to Abner Mares, one controversial and the other clear-cut. Agbeko’s record of 29-4 with 22 KOs suggests noteworthy punching power, but most of his knockouts came early in his career against suspect opposition; his last seven fights have all gone the full 12-round distance. A knockout win over a defensive artist like Rigondeaux therefore seems unlikely. But Agbeko is more than capable of letting his hands go and outworking Rigondeaux, which can accomplish one of two things: It can fool judges into giving him rounds he doesn’t necessarily deserve, or it can inspire Rigondeaux to try to match his pace, a stylistic scenario that would give King Kong his best chance at felling the 122-pound division’s Godzilla.
However, Agbeko could be slowing down following a grueling series of 12-rounders against the aforementioned string of world-class opponents from 2009-’11. On the other hand, he has fought just once in the past 24 months, which might be precisely what he needed for rejuvenation purposes. Those looking for proof of the potential good a vacation from boxing can do need look no further than Manny Pacquiao, who appeared refreshed in his recent return after 11 months out of the ring.
And then there is the matter of Rigondeaux suffering a potential letdown, having climbed to his division’s peak his last time out and having intriguing opportunities awaiting on the horizon—namely, a rematch with Donaire or a meeting with fellow greatest-amateur-ever short-lister Vasyl Lomachenko. It’s safe to say that those are matchups Arum will be able to promote and HBO will gladly televise.
But there’s no reason for the promoter, the network, or the fighter to get too wrapped up in them just yet. Rigondeaux has to first get by King Kong Agbeko. As the underdog and the B-side against Donaire, Rigondeaux’s only goal was to win. As the favorite and the A-side against Agbeko, there’s a certain degree of onus on Rigondeaux to make a show of it. The boxing purists may delight in the mere fact that a practitioner of Rigondeaux’s rare talent is back in action. Everyone else will hope that the words and the boos Rigondeaux heard on April 13 still sting—and might inspire him to sting back.
On the undercard as part of a tripleheader from Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, there’s some action insurance just in case Rigondeaux opts for more “make him miss” than “make him pay.”
Few fighters offer a more reliable guarantee of entertainment than James Kirkland. Making his ring return after a 21-month break filled with the sort of legal and managerial problems that forever plague him, Kirkland (31-1, 27 KOs) takes on local prospect “Jersey Boy” Glen Tapia (20-0, 12 KOs) in a fight certain to please the bloodthirsty viewer for as long as it lasts. Kirkland has the fight game’s top female trainer, Ann Wolfe, back in his corner, which seems a necessary ingredient if the troubled Texas junior middleweight is going to make one more charge toward a title shot with his 30th birthday looming.
In another veteran-vs.-unbeaten-prospect showdown, the broadcast opens with former middleweight title challenger Matthew Macklin (29-5, 20 KOs) squaring off against unproven Lamar Russ (14-0, 7 KOs) in a massive step-up fight for the prospect from North Carolina. You probably remember Macklin from his spirited loss to 160-pound champ Sergio Martinez in 2012 and his dispiriting bodyshot KO to Gennady Golovkin six months ago. This Saturday’s assignment seems, on paper, to be easier than those. But you never know quite you’re going to get with a fighter like Russ, who doesn’t know what defeat feels like and isn’t planning on finding out.