By Nat Gottlieb
When Guillermo Rigondeaux faces unbeaten Moises Flores, there’ll be more at stake for the Cuban than just maintaining his own unblemished record. He’ll be fighting for relevancy.
At age 36, having fought just twice in 2014 and once in each of the following two years, Rigondeaux (17-0, 11 KOs) has become something of an enigma in the conversation about the best boxers in the world. This will be his first bout since July of last year, and some boxing observers are wondering just how much he has left.
The ultra-talented, super bantamweight champion better hope to have quite a bit left in his tank because Flores (25-0, 17 KOs), an aggressive, in-your-face Mexican, is going to test him. This battle of unbeaten boxers is the co-feature for the Andre Ward vs. Sergey Kovalev main event on Saturday at the Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, airing live on HBO Pay-Per-View at 9 p.m. ET/6 p.m. PT.
Rigondeaux blames his lack of ring appearances on fighters being afraid to face him.
“I have been constantly avoided by all the fighters in my division,” the Cuban says. “I am the best in the world at 122 pounds and one of the top pound-for-pound fighters. I can’t wait to show the world that I am still the best.”
The two-time Olympic gold medalist is right about fighters not wanting to step in the ring with him, but it’s not necessarily because they’re afraid. It’s Rigondeaux’s style of boxing that tends to keep top fighters away.
One of the sport’s greatest technicians, Rigondeaux fights the Cuban way, meaning hit and don’t get hit. It’s clear to anyone who’s seen him fight that he’s one of the best practitioners of that boxing philosophy.
By using his other-worldly foot and hand speed, and a rare gift for defensive body movement, Rigondeaux can be extremely difficult to hit. While his style is pleasing to boxing purists, it’s not as appealing for fans looking to see a lot of action in the ring. Rigondeaux sort of acknowledges this, but again blames other fighters and vows that this time he’s going to put on an action show.
“Some say I’m not exciting,” the Cuban says. “But it’s not my fault that once my opponents feel my power, they start running and stop throwing punches. Regardless of that, I’m going to give [fans] what they want. I will be standing in the middle of the ring toe-to-toe and putting on a show for the fans.”
If Rigondeaux keeps his promise there could be fireworks, as Flores throws a high volume of punches, almost all of them power shots, and loves to fight up close and personal.
Kathy Duva, Kovalev’s promoter, who helped put together the undercard, believes if the Cuban engages with Flores, anything can happen.
“Either Rigondeaux will choose to push the fight, or he’ll move a lot,” Duva says. “If he pushes the fight, that will leave him more vulnerable. We’re hoping Flores pressures him into fighting.”
When Rigondeaux has been vulnerable in the past, he’s shown he can be knocked down. Four times in his pro career the Cuban has tasted canvas, including twice in one round to undistinguished Japanese boxer Hisashi Amagasa. That being said, in each instance Rigondeaux popped right back up and didn’t appear to be hurt. But that was then, and this is now. A combination of Rigondeaux’s advancing age and ring rust makes this a fight ripe for a possible Flores upset.
Bivol vs. Agnew
Also on the undercard is unbeaten power-puncher Dmitry Bivol (10-0, 8 KOs), another in a line of Eastern European sluggers looking to join the loaded light heavyweight division. His opponent, Cedric Agnew (29-2, 15 KOs), has title fight experience, having lasted into the seventh round with Kovalev in 2014 before being knocked out.
“Agnew never has gotten his due,” Duva says. “I think it’s because early in his career he was put in with Kovalev, who was on a tear. You have to wonder if the trajectory of his career would have been different had he not have had to fight Kovalev at that stage. But he’s the type of fighter who can learn from that kind of loss and come back stronger.”
Bivol has knockout power in both fists and the hand speed of a boxer more typically found in the lower weight divisions. “He seems like the total package,” Duva says of Bivol. “Unlike the champions and top contenders, most of whom are in their 30s, he’s just 26 and is already ready to step up to a major fight. But Bivol doesn’t just need to win this fight, he needs to make a statement and make some noise.”
Where Bivol is powerful, methodical and fights flat-footed, Agnew is all about speed and elusiveness.
"We're aware that Bivol is considered the next big thing," said Lou DiBella, Agnew's promoter. "Cedric Agnew is a true professional and a quality boxer. He was not an easy out for Kovalev. I don't expect that he will be an easy out for Bivol. Agnew will show up to win."
Arias vs. Magomedov
In a matchup of promising middleweights, unbeaten Luis Arias (17-0, 8 KOs) from Milwaukee takes on Arif Magomedov (18-1, 11 KOs), a heavy-handed Russian who fights out of California. Arias has not faced anyone of distinction, but then neither has Magomedov. Although Arias doesn’t have one-punch knockout power like Magomedov, he loves to dig at the body. He will try to break down the Russian.
“Arias has the same trainer as Kovalev,” Duva says, “so that tells you something there. Whoever wins this fight, it’s going to put them in the middle of the hottest division. A win here is like getting a golden ticket to a fight that’ll earn them a lot of money.”
Magomedov, whom Duva promotes, has one blemish on his record, a stunning unanimous decision loss last year to a journeyman, Andrew Hernandez. Duva says that fight was not indicative of what her boxer can do.
“It was obvious to every one of us there that he had left his fight in the gym,” Duva says. “He’s a powerful, powerful puncher, but he had no zip to his punches. He was hitting Hernandez with shots that normally would do damage.”
The reason for that, Duva says, was that Magomedov’s camp decided to prepare for the fight at the famous Kronk Gym in Detroit, founded by the late Hall of Fame trainer and HBO analyst, Emanuel Steward. “The Kronk is notorious for its gym wars,” Duva says. “He admitted to us after the fight he had been sparring way too much. Here’s this kid, a foreigner and he comes into the Kronk and is the odd-man out. He just got beat up. He was trying to prove something.”
Ward vs. Kovalev 2 happens Saturday, June 17 live on pay-per-view beginning at 9 p.m. ET/6 p.m. PT. Order the fight here.