Once ranked among the world's best, Cuba's Guillermo Rigondeaux reflects on the highs and lows of his career, and why he believes he will be world champion once again.
That night during the Spring of 2013, on the stage of Radio City Music Hall, when he dissected the reigning “Fighter of the Year” with the precision of a robotic surgeon, should have been a night of celebration for Guillermo Rigondeaux.
It was supposed to be the moment that justified his decision to leave his homeland in a danger-filled trip that, had it appeared in the pages of a John le Carré novel, would have been deemed too unbelievable.
Rigondeaux doesn’t talk of that journey, one that allegedly included a clandestine boat ride through international waters and hushed drives on unlit Mexican backroads. He faced the unknown dangers of that journey in order to become champion and to leave behind a government he felt was oppressive. Instead, what followed his biggest win was a career stymied by the politics of the boxing game.
The masterful performance was met with criticisms and condemnation from both his promoter and the press. Some in the media even thought it appropriate to engage Rigondeaux in a social media war of words despite the champ being unable to either read or write in English. His style was boring, they whined about a fighter who trainer Freddie Roach said was possibly the most talented fighter he had ever seen.
Those days are in the past now for Rigondeaux. His attention is on tomorrow. Unlike the characters from those novels penned by the former British intelligence officer, Rigondeaux is the one who gets to write his final chapter.
“My legacy starts now,” Rigondeaux (18-1, 12 KOs) said.
The past few years have been, at best frustrating, at worse, demoralizing. Staying motivated was difficult for the champ as he sat through months of inactivity. His promoters - one of them a Hall of Famer – couldn’t or wouldn’t get him fights. With American television executives allegedly “vomiting” at the mention of his name, Rigondeaux packed his bags and found himself dodging punches in Chinese and Japanese rings. With no other avenues to turn to, he accepted a fight two weight classes above his own against a fighter many called the best in the business.
By the time he entered the ring to fight Vasiliy Lomachenko, Rigondeaux had been in a years-long funk that had him going through the motions with all the passion of a man stuffing envelopes for a living. He threw in the proverbial towel that night against Lomachenko. One ESPN commentator said he was “disgusted” by Rigondeaux’s actions. More rational minds, like boxing insider Teddy Atlas, were more forgiving. Atlas called it a “bad matchup.” Boxing champion Andre Ward said Rigondeaux was, at that age and weight, ripe for a loss. But the uncalloused knuckles of the boxing media shamed him in print for quitting.
Quitting is accepted in MMA. They call it “tapping out.” The U.S. Department of Labor, when addressing public school teachers quitting at a record rate, said they did so for the same reasons most people walk off their jobs - disillusionment and lack of satisfaction over pay and working conditions.
Rigondeaux took the fight against the bigger and younger champion because in his mind he was a fighter. But in his heart, he was a man stuffing envelopes. He quit that night, as Teddy Atlas and Andre Ward explained, because the working conditions were wrong for him. And because, at that stage of his career, boxing was just a job to him.
“ My legacy starts now. ” Former Unified World Super Bantamweight Champion- Guillermo Rigondeaux
Not anymore. His current manager, Alex Bornote, reiterates, “This is the start. The legacy starts now.”
Reunited with trainer Ronnie Shields and now boxing under the PBC umbrella, Rigondeaux has reached the turning point.
“I always was ready to fight four, six, even 10 times per year,” Rigondeaux said.
He wants to stay active. Shields considers him one of the top talents he’s ever seen and says Rigondeaux hasn’t lost a step since he last trained him nearly seven years ago. Tentatively set to return to the ring on June 23rd, Rigondeaux is on a mission to regain the junior featherweight belts he never lost in the ring. While the sanctioning bodies stripped him of his titles, he is still regarded the real champion of the division by the Transnational Boxing Ranking Board – an independent panel that serves as a sort of spell-check for the unedited world of boxing rankings.
But Rigondeaux is fighting for much more than championships.
On the waistband of his trunks, you’ll no longer see the words, “El Chacal.” That nickname, taken from a character of a Spanish language film who was part canine and part something-out-of-this-world, is a part of his past. He now sports the words “Autism Fighter.” His youngest of two sons was recently diagnosed with autism. Taking him to therapy has become a part of Rigondeaux’s daily routine.
“He’s going to be alright,” Rigondeaux stated confidently. “We’re gonna beat it.”
Rigondeaux knows this may be his last run.
“We’re with the people we always wanted to be with,” says Bornote of PBC.
Like a tourist who gets off at the wrong subway stop and catches a glimpse of the “real” New York, a place where most pizzerias use fake cheese and the highlight of the day for many locals is finding a good parking space, Rigondeaux no longer clutters his mind with false expectations. This fighter who has lived the life of a Bobby Bland song, perhaps the most ostracized boxer since the days when Panama Al Brown was sent packing to Europe, lives an uncomplicated life now.
In the mornings, while the check-to-check crowd gets ready for their morning commutes, Rigondeaux runs past the severed chicken feet and sliced cow tongues that litter the track of Miami’s Tropical Park. His afternoons are spent in therapy sessions with his youngest son and watching movies. He then heads to the gym in the evenings.
There’s an extra bounce to his steps now when he does his morning runs. He doesn’t pay any mind to his critics or to the animal parts that litter the track. They are offerings for Shango, or Yemaya, or any of the other Orishas of Santeria. Those who follow Santeria – a combination of Yoruba and Catholic practices - say the sliced cow tongues, sometimes found nailed to a tree, are meant to shut up the critics and gossipers of those who made the offers.
When Rigondeaux runs and trains, his focus is on his future. For the first time in a long while, he feels he has one. He has been rejuvenated by the chance at redemption that he has been given. The turning point has arrived and this time, his heart is into it.
For a closer look at Guillermo Rigondeaux, check out his fighter page.
- Guillermo Rigondeaux