Who is the best Cuban fighter?
Former Cuban amateur star Yuriorkis Gamboa exchanges punches with Darling Jimenez during their 10-round bout in 2008. Gamboa's willingness to mix it up is one of the reasons trainer Joe Goossen is high on the flamboyant featherweight. Other insiders believe Gamboa's amateur peers from Cuba, Erislandy Lara and Guillermo Rigondeaux, are better boxers. Photo / Chris Cozzone-Fightwireimages.com
Yuriorkis Gamboa is back in the spotlight.
The dynamic featherweight from Cuba takes on rugged slugger Rogers Mtagwa in the co-feature to Saturday’s Boxing After Dark doubleheader from the WaMu Theater at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
The Mtagwa fight will be Gamboa’s third appearance on HBO.
Gamboa (16-0, 14 knockouts) scored a 10-round decision over fringe contender Darling Jimenez and a second-round knockout of undefeated Marcos Ramirez in his first two appearances on the network. The explosive speed and power the 2004 Olympic gold medalist displayed against Jimenez and Ramirez illustrated why so many are excited about him, but the flashy featherweight also exhibited his flaws, poor defensive technique and a sometimes reckless attitude, when he was dropped in both bouts.
Gamboa has settled down a bit and tightened up his technique since those two HBO appearances, which took place in 2008. The 28-year-old boxer-puncher has also continued to raise his profile in the sport by winning an “interim” title belt, signing a co-promotional deal with Top Rank, and by displaying his considerable talent in bouts that were televised on ESPN2, Showtime and one of Top Rank’s small “Latin Fury” pay-per-view shows.
However, Gamboa isn’t the only Cuban amateur star who has emerged as a pro to watch. Last year two of Gamoba’s former amateur teammates, Erislandy Lara and Guillermo Rigondeaux, garnered accolades from the boxing community.
Lara (9-0, 5 KOs), a slick-boxing southpaw, fought seven times in 2009. The 26-year-old junior middleweight is so seasoned that his promoter, Golden Boy Promotions, will pit him against experienced fringe contender Grady Brewer, winner of season two of The Contender and a veteran of 37 pro bouts, on a Fox Sports Net-televised card on January 29.
At the advanced age of 28, Rigondeaux (4-0, 3 KOs), a two-time Olympic and world amateur champ, turned pro in the junior featherweight division last year to much ballyhoo and instantly began living up to his amateur hype with impressive performances. The counter-punching southpaw, now 29, is so ring savvy that his trainer, Freddie Roach, believes he can beat former 122-pound champs Israel Vazquez and Rafael Marquez right now.
Gamboa, who turned pro in 2007, has a head start on his compatriots and is already considered to be a contender by many boxing scribes and publications, including THE RING, which ranks him No. 10 among featherweights.
However, does that mean Gamboa is the best of the recent defects from Cuba? Many believe that the more defensive-minded Lara and Guillermo are better technical boxers than Gamboa and some would argue that they have more upside than their often impetuous former teammate.
RingTV.com asked three boxing insiders who they think is the best of the talented Cuban trio and why.
“Obviously, Gamboa is the most experienced in the pros but he’s flawed in some ways, technically. He’s a little undisciplined with his hand placement and his defense, but he’s got terrific talent and terrific confidence. The way Gamboa is with his talent, it’s like giving a race car to an 18-year-old kid. Sometimes they get carried away and they run red lights. That’s how Gamboa is in the ring. Sometimes he gets carried away with his ability and sometimes he gets caught because of that, but his power and his amateur experience is evident. His charisma is evident even though he doesn’t speak English. He’s very special.
“And even though he’s been caught and dropped before he’s always gotten up and behaved like a fighter. He always get up from knockdowns and takes care of business.
“Lara is a little bit better technically than Gamboa and not as reckless. He’s closer to the vest with his talent, but he’s a kid who understands his identity. He knows what he is and he stays within his ability in the ring. He’s a boxer who controls the distance. He keeps you in a place where he can use his southpaw jab and where he can do what he wants when he wants to do it. He stays on familiar, safe ground. I like his demeanor. He’s very calm, very patient. He doesn’t over do it like Gamboa.
“Lara’s talent is not as explosive as Gamboa’s, but I like him.
“I did Rigondeaux’s fights in the Olympics in 2000 and 2004. I saw him when he was 18 in Sydney and I saw something that looked very special. He had that ring presence that very few amateurs have. He had the talent, the skill set and ability we see in Gamoba now, but his approach is different than Gamboa’s. Everything he did was contained. There was a deliberateness about him.
“He might have had the Porsche but he wasn’t running red lights. I think his driving lessons were a little better than Gamboa’s. Rather than chase you to get you, he would let you chase him and take advantage of your mistakes. He’d turn your aggression into something productive for him. You don’t see that in the amateurs very often because you only have many rounds to work with but he still found a way to inject his style into that limited time frame. Most fighters feel an urgency to go out and lead more but he found a way to make (his opponents) do what he wanted them to do.
“He stayed that way in the pros. He’s a terrific counter puncher and a great body puncher. He’s got all the talent that Gamboa has but he’s more much more contained. When you see his talent, when he does strike in the ring, it’s every bit as explosive as Gamboa. He’s not as flamboyant as Gamboa but his talent is every bit as electric when he’s ready to show it.
“If I have to chose between Gamboa, Lara and Rigondeaux, I’ll have to go with Rigondeaux because he’s got the talent but also the discipline. With Gamboa, one day he’ll run a red light and there will be a truck there waiting for him. That won’t happen with Rigondeaux. He’ll never run the red light because of his temperament, his technique and his discipline.”
Atlas is a veteran trainer, who is currently working with heavyweight contender Alexander Povetkin. He’s also the broadcast analyst for ESPN2’s weekly ‘Friday Night Fights’ boxing series, where he’s called the action of Gamboa, Lara, and Rigondeaux.
“It’s hard for me to divorce who the best is from who has the most upside. If we’re talking about one of them going into the hall of fame 10 years from now I think it’s going to be Lara.
“I like his fundamentals. I like his size. I like that he’s steady. You don’t see him getting hit with crazy shots. You don’t see him miss much. You see a fighter who allows his fights to develop naturally. There’s an organic flow to his fights. He’s not trying to force anything. You can also see that he’s being moved steadily by his handlers. I like that.
“With Rigondeaux, they’ve got to move fast because of his age. With Gamboa, I think they want to move him fast while there aren’t any killers in the featherweight and junior lightweight divisions. But I think Lara’s handlers can take a little more time with him because he’s the youngest of the bunch and I think that will help him develop into a world-class junior middleweight or middleweight.
“Lara doesn’t jump off the screen at you like Gamboa or Rigondeaux. He doesn’t “wow.” He doesn’t have that “wowing” thing that you see with Gamboa and Rigondeaux, but he’s got that base.
“He reminds me of Michael Spinks and Evander Holyfield in the 1976 and 1984 Olympics. They didn’t jump off the screen the way some of their teammates did, like a Ray Leonard or a Meldrick Taylor, but eventually, in the pros, they proved they were just as great.
“Lara can move his hands more. That’s a criticism I’ve heard about him and I agree with it. People say he relies too much on his jab and his one-two, but that’s something he can work on. Other punches can be added to his arsenal because his foundation is so set. I think he’s going to be around the longest of the three and the junior middleweight and middleweight divisions are ripe for the taking. It’s very likely that he will be around for another eight or nine years.
“I like Gamboa. He’s the most eye catching of the three. In many ways, he reminds me of Meldrick Taylor. He’s dynamic but he’s a flawed fighter and I think someone is going to knock the s__t out of him. He’s been down three or four times already with mediocre fighters. It’s only a matter of time before someone keeps him down. I don’t care how talented you are, you can’t fight with your hands down around your d__k.
“Rigondeaux is the total package. If he had gotten here (turned pro) earlier he would be my pick (as the best), but he’s 29 and maybe older than that. He looks like a grown-ass man who’s had to chase kids out of his garage already. Still, he will probably win a title at 122 pounds before the year is out. He’s that advanced.”
Rold, a senor writer for Boxingscene.com, is a member of THE RING’s Ratings Advisory Panel and the Boxing Writers Association of America.
“Out of the three I’m most impressed with Gamboa. I saw him a lot early on in his career when he was going for broke and sometimes getting dropped, and it almost reminded me of a (Felix) Trinidad kind of thing. He got knocked down but he always got up and then look out! He was going to take someone’s head off.
“What I really like about Gamboa is his instincts for the game. You got a lot of guys who go by the numbers and box a textbook fight, and he has that ability because of his amateur background. He can do fundamental things that you’re supposed to do, but on top of that he’s got that superior athleticism that reminds me of (Shane) Mosley.
“Sugar Shane can box but he can also do things other fighters can’t because of his athleticism. When you saw him fight (Antonio) Margarito, you saw the proper boxing technique, like lateral movement and setting everything up with his jab, but you also saw the smart athletic stuff that allowed him to explode at unpredictable angles. Gamboa has that same ability. That’s what makes him special.
“I’ve seen Lara fight once or twice and I think he is very good. He might be too young for us to really tell how far he can go, but I like what I see from him right now. He reminds me a little of Joel Casamayor. He picks you apart and then goes for the kill, only I don’t think Lara’s killer instinct is as strong as Joel’s was.
“Lara’s a little too defensive minded for my taste, a little too cautious, but he’s definitely got a future.
“Rigondeaux, I’ve seen once or twice, and I was fairly impressed, but not overly impressed. I don’t doubt the guy’s skills but when you spend that much time in the amateurs, I don’t know, you kind of carry that mindset into the pros. He’s got good power but he uses it sparingly. He’s happy to merely outpoint his opponent and he’s a little bit too deliberate for my taste.
“I’m not saying Lara and Rigondeaux don’t have great potential. They do. Those Cuban southpaws are a real pain. They’re hard to beat. I don’t know if they convert them in the amateur system over there or if there’s just a lot of lefties on the island but I know from training Joel Casamayor that they are very cagey.
“Gamboa breaks the mold and I like that because he’s so exciting. He comes to fight. He’s got the speed, the power, the courage and the athleticism. When he lets his hands go he lets them go hard. Every punch he throws has hurt on it and he can deliver them from any angle.
“Some say that’s his weakness. He went too hard in some fights and left himself open for left hooks. So, hey, welcome to the pros and the world of fighting tough Mexicans and Dominicans. That’s how a young fighter learns. I don’t know if it was his attitude that caused the knockdowns so much as it was his hand placement, but I think he’s working on his fundamentals.
“He’s young. He’s talented. He’s improving and he’s exciting. That’s why I think I think he’s got a great future.”
Goossen has trained a dozen fighters to world titles, including former junior lightweight and lightweight champ Joel Casamyor, arguably the best Cuban fighter in recent times.