The Square Jungle: Lomachenko-Rigondeaux, Saunders-Lemieux, Roman-Salido, Spence returns
In some ways, it was an unusual ending for Guillermo Rigondeaux, when he squared off against WBO junior lightweight titleholder Vasyl Lomachenko, last Saturday night, in a Pound-for-Pound Fantasy Special in New York City. Losing – the first “L” of his career – was certainly a novel event. But in another way, it was business as usual: The capacity crowd shoehorned into The Theater at Madison Square Garden booed him unmercifully and nearly drowned out his post-fight interview, after his latest fiasco. Rigondeaux, the surly, sour, southpaw savant, surrendered on his stool, claiming a broken hand, after being stymied for a mere six rounds. When Dino Duva, vice president of RocNation Sports, later announced that Rigondeaux had only suffered a “severe contusion,” whatever sympathy the unremittingly dour Rigondeaux managed to elicit vanished quicker than a Snapchat post. His non-performance against Lomachenko was just the latest in a series of unsatisfactory results Rigondeaux has produced in a strange career that has seen him all but banished from the American scene. In his previous start, Rigondeaux earned a no-contest when he poleaxed Moises Fuentes, after the bell ending the opening round. Before that, Rigondeaux stunk out the joint against Drian Francisco, an overmatched Filipino journeyman. (Perversely, Rigondeaux chose one of the biggest stages of 2016 – the Saul Alvarez-Miguel Cotto pay-per-view – to practice his unique form of sabotage.) Bowing out against Lomachenko, despite taking little physical abuse, ignominiously capped off his slump.
While too many spectators confuse boxing with CGI or PlayStation exploits or literalize the (metaphorical) gladiator subtext of a blood sport, the fact remains that Rigondeaux yielded under relatively mild circumstances even preliminary fighters would have ignored. In a sporting nod to existentialism (“If man as the existentialist sees him is not definable, it is because, to begin with, he is nothing. He will not be anything until later, and then he will be what he makes of himself.”), a fighter defines himself in the ring moment by moment and what Rigondeaux, even through his perpetual arrogance, revealed of himself was nothing less than bad faith. For elite professionals, egotism is as much a part of their success as speed, balance or power. But egotism minus, for lack of a better term, machismo is nearly worthless in boxing. That combination produces frontrunners – which is exactly what Guillermo Rigondeaux proved himself to be. Certainly, he does not resemble the fighters Jimmy Cannon spoke to in his many years covering boxing: “They have told me they are entitled to lose with grace and are committed to the traditions of their savage calling to go as far as they are able.”
The question of whether or not Rigondeaux actually deserved his exile is a valid one. After all, a seemingly endless parade of junk artists has gotten virtual carte blanche at Showtime and HBO in the years “The Jackal” roamed the world looking for a payday. HBO underwrote Andre Ward-Alexander Brand (a grotesque mismatch made exponentially worse by virtue of its soul-crushing monotony) and went on to produce two Ward pay-per-views against Sergey Kovalev that drew fewer than 300,000 buys combined. The ludicrous affinity Showtime had for certain spoilers, a couple of years ago, was more or less a byproduct of the fact that Showtime was not an exhibitor of events but a collective sidekick of Al Haymon. Somehow, while other fighters reveled in tedium, Rigondeaux remained in purgatory. Part of this had to do with his performances; part of it had to do with his nincompoop brain trust and part of it had to do with his open contempt of an audience that was never enamored with him in the first place (an estimated 385 fans attended his title fight against Rico Ramos in 2012). Remember: This is a man who heckled the crowd between rounds of his dull but deft performance against Nonito Donaire. Now, after one of the meekest efforts seen in a headline fight in years, Rigondeaux will find it even harder to get opportunities. And with his cut-rate co-promoter Caribe Promotions insanely suing his other co-promoter RocNation, Rigondeaux may have even fewer options than even he may deserve.
As for Lomachenko, who barely got hit, despite sharing the ring with purportedly one of the greatest fighters in the world, his future looks humdrum. There are few quality foes dotting the barren junior lightweight landscape and even fewer with any sort of profile. Orlando Salido, who outpointed Lomachenko in 2014, was pulverized by Miguel “Mickey” Roman on Saturday night, in Las Vegas, and is no longer viewed as a credible threat, much less a storyline. Only WBC beltholder Miguel Berchelt, with two breakout wins on HBO in 2017, and WBA titlist Alberto Machado, who stopped Jezreel Corrales (also on HBO), in October, fit the bill. Unfortunately neither Berchelt nor Machado would provide much competition for the nimble and numbing Lomachenko, who will have to look elsewhere for a challenge.
Talented IBF titleholder Errol “The Truth” Spence Jr. finally returns to the ring when he faces veteran Lamont Peterson on January 20 at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York. After scoring a marquee win against Kell Brook last May, Spence found himself quarantined by Premier Boxing Champions. With only one fight in 2017, Spence has been unable to lasso the elusive prizefighting concept known as momentum and his layoff has everything to do with the struggles of the PBC. Dropped by NBC, SPIKE, ESPN and NBC Sports Network, Premier Boxing Champions has failed in its original plan to rule boxing with an iron grip. Indeed, its iron grip has slipped into something decidedly limp (even if sad podcasters, regal bloggers and formerly paid flacks, whom should undergo deprogramming, like Moonies or Raëlians, are unwilling to drop their pom-poms for the PBC). No doubt Haymon, the Sir Francis Walsingham of Boxing, has many clandestine moves planned before his FOX contract lapses and they might – or might not – include Dana White, the splenetic UFC autocrat, whose nascent Zuffa Boxing enterprise is going to need a talent infusion soon.
If Spence is set to cash a check the boxing scuttlebutt claims is $3.5 million, then he can certainly forgive Haymon for putting him on the blocks recently. And he can thank Stephen Espinoza, malleable Showtime executive, as well, perhaps personally, with some Edible Arrangements, maybe, or some Ugly Christmas Sweaters. (HBO may have had a mediocre year, crowned by Top Rank defecting for ESPN, but it is still a network that makes its own decisions. They may, at times, be strange decisions but they are not made by Al Haymon.) In the future, admittedly a foggy notion in boxing, eyes will pop out of the backs of select heads when negotiations for a possible fight between Spence and Keith Thurman occur.
Peterson is a competent professional, with signature wins over Amir Khan and Kendall Holt, but he has gloved up only twice since losing a hairpin decision to Danny Garcia in April 2015. That sort of inactivity, while a PBC trademark, makes the odds against a longshot even longer than a gap in talent and upside would generally dictate. Like Austin Trout, who was inactive for a year-and-a-half before being sacrificed to Jarrett Hurd in October, Peterson is more (or is that less?) than just a B-side: He is a B-side with extras. Those extras (read: disadvantages) make one wonder if Peterson is the victim of managerial malpractice. Then again, because his management team is the same management team that handles Spence – another PBC specialty – perhaps the point is meaningless.
Only Timothy Bradley and Lucas Matthysse have had an easy time of it against Peterson (Matthysse butchered Peterson in three rounds). To justify the overkill hype on his behalf, Spence, already part of the absurd P4P rainbow party, will have to be the third man on that short list.
Undefeated Billy Joe Saunders, whose peculiar behavior has so far overshadowed his accomplishments, gets a stiff test tonight when he defends his WITW (What in the World?!) middleweight title against gung-ho David Lemieux at the Place Bell in Laval, Montreal, Quebec, Canada.
Saunders is a spoiler nonpareil and an eccentric whose idiosyncrasies flummox the public en masse. He solidified his reputation in America for goofiness when his attempt to gatecrash a press conference announcing the Gennady Golovkin-Saul Alvarez fight, last summer, fizzled. An amused Golovkin comically dismissed Saunders (who gained some notoriety a couple of years ago by confessing, unbidden, that he was hesitant to face “GGG”) and Alvarez did not even know who he was. For Saunders, adding himself to the middleweight mix, and perhaps getting Canelo to acknowledge his existence, makes facing Lemieux a risk worth taking.
Lemieux may be flatfooted and slightly mechanical but he is more than capable of leaving a man horizontal on the mat and ready for the spatula. And the fact that Saunders has not looked good in years makes this a difficult bout to handicap. In fact, against his toughest opposition – Andy Lee and Chris Eubank Jr. – Saunders has been hard-pressed to win decisively. Saunders has blamed poor training habits, among other things, for some of his equally poor performances.
But another key factor in his recent run may be opponent selection: Saunders has faced four southpaws in succession, the equivalent of facing a knuckleball pitcher in every at-bat, during a playoff series. As strange as it sounds, Saunders might be happy to see the orthodox, albeit destructive, Lemieux across the ring on Saturday night. An attack as predictable as the one in which Lemieux specializes could be exactly what Saunders has been looking for recently. But does Saunders, who labors sporadically between the ropes, have the work rate to impress the judges in Montreal? The answer to that question will likely determine not only the outcome of this fight but a possible future opponent for Gennady Golovkin, Saul Alvarez or Danny Jacobs.
It was a mistake for Orlando Salido to turn down $750,000 to face Vasyl Lomachenko – 37-year-old junior lightweights with 13 losses never see that kind of jackpot. It was a mistake for Salido to enter the ring against Mickey Roman, whose awful hunger for distinction manifested itself in a primitive free-for-all that capsized civilized notions of athletic competition and replaced them with something far darker. Finally, it will be a mistake for Salido, who announced a fleeting retirement immediately after being micronized into the canvas by Roman, to fight again. With every start, Salido has become more brittle, splintery and now his ramshackle body has been whittled down to the bone by more than 20 years of abuse. Nothing remains except for fighting spirit. And Roman? Roman will likely lose against either Miguel Berchelt or Alberto Mercado but try keeping him from dreaming otherwise.
Carlos Acevedo is the editor of The Cruelest Sport and a full member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. His work has appeared in Boxing News magazine, Remezcla, Boxing Digest magazine, Maxboxing, Boxing World magazine, and Esquina Boxeo. He is also a contributor to HBO Boxing and a member of the International Boxing Research Organization. His stories “A Darkness Made to Order” and “A Ghost Orbiting Forever” both won first place awards from the BWAA.