Sunday, June 04, 2023  |



Prospects like Rigondeaux don’t come along often

Fighters Network

There are prospects. And then there is Guillermo Rigondeaux.

The Cuban defector, who makes his pro debut against Juan Noriega on ESPN2’s “Friday Night Fights” this Friday in Miami, might be the most-respected amateur fighter of our time. He reportedly finished his amateur career at 243-4 and is a two-time Olympic bantamweight gold medalist, two-time world champion and seven-time Cuban champion.

Luis DeCubas, his advisor, called him “Pernell Whitaker with a punch.”

There is a small catch: Rigondeaux hasn’t fought for almost two years, a long enough layoff to raise questions about his ability to recapture his amateur form. He’s also 28, no youngster in this toughest of games.

Still, few pro debuts are more fascinating than this one.

“It will be intriguing to see if he can pick up where he left off,” said ESPN2 analyst Teddy Atlas, who saw Rigondeaux fight in both the 2000 and 2004 Games as a commentator. “It definitely makes for an excellent story line.”

Rigondeaux made a big splash at 20 in the 2000 Sydney Games, displaying polish and poise well beyond his years. He had unusual natural gifts, including remarkable foot and hand speed, and he knew how to use them to win fights.

He cruised to a gold medal 2000. Then he did it again four years later in Athens.

“I saw a tremendous young prospect,” said Atlas, referring to the 2000 Games. “He not only stood out, he stood out on the best team in amateur boxing at the time. It would’ve been one thing if he stood on the American team or the English team. He stood out on a team that dominated Olympic boxing.

“And I’m including (heavyweight) Felix Savon, who was going for a third gold medal. He had so much promise.”

Rigondeaux also would’ve been favored to win a third gold medal in 2008 but things changed dramatically.

In July 2007, after taking part in the first round of the boxing competition in the Pan American Games in Brazil, Rigondeaux and teammate Erislandy Lara failed to show up for scheduled bouts and intended to defect. However, they were apprehended by Brazilian authorities and willingly returned to Cuba.

Rigondeaux and Lara’s punishment: No more boxing. Lara finally escaped from the communist country through Mexico last year and Rigondeaux followed suit in February. He lives in Miami and signed with Germany-based Arena Box Promotions, for which DeCubas is a representative.

The fighter reportedly left behind a wife and a son in Cuba.

“It was a hard road, no question,” DeCubas said. “He went through a lot. And it took an emotional toll on him. I know that. He told me. He really wanted a third gold medal. He was upset about that. ÔǪ And leaving his family is a very difficult thing.

“For the family to live a better life in Cuba, though, they come here and try to make it. To me, they’re heroes to leave everything behind looking for freedom to make a living. It’s sad, but it’s true.”

Rigondeaux hasn’t fought since that first-round of the Pan American Games, meaning he will have been out of the ring for about 22 months years.

At his age, it’s not difficult to imagine him picking up where he left off. However, he was away for a long time in boxing terms, he’s living in a new, unfamiliar country and he’ll be fighting professionals. No one knows how the transition will go.

He insisted at a news conference that he’ll be ready.

“I was out of action for two years but I did my things; I kept in shape,” Rigondeaux said, according to the Miami Herald. “I am a fighter, a professional, so (the layoff) will not affect me at all.”

Noriega, a 3-2 journeyman from Danville, Ark., was selected as the sacrificial lamb for the 122-pound fight. He isn’t expected to give Rigondeaux much resistance but will help give a national television audience an idea of whether the talented Cuban is as good as he’s billed.

If all goes well, if Rigondeaux is able to recreate the domination of his amateur opponents, DeCubas believes he could follow the pattern set by another talented defector. Yuriorkis Gamboa won an interim featherweight title two years and only 15 fights into his pro career.

“He probably won’t be standing in front of Godzilla (on Friday) and maybe not even Pee Wee Herman,” Atlas said. “Still, we’ll get idea when he gets in the ring whether he has that presence, the aura these kind of guys have. You sense it. The hand speed, the placement of his punches. The way he controls distance. The ability to elude punches, if this guy can throw a punch.

“The real answer to those questions is down the road, though. Friday is just the beginning of that. It’ll be interesting.”

Michael Rosenthal’s column appears Wednesday’s. He can be reached at [email protected]