Vasyl Lomachenko vs. Guillermo Rigondeaux: Subtext of revenge?
With nearly 800 amateur wins, four Olympic gold medals, and countless accolades from the purists to share between Vasyl Lomachenko and Guillermo Rigondeaux, there has been no shortage of storylines accompanying their intriguing engagement tonight at Madison Square Garden’s Theater in New York City.
At least one of these narrative threads has to do with the theme of revenge and can be traced back to the last time Rigondeaux headlined a card of any consequence: his April 2013 demolition job against one of Top Rank’s crown jewels in Nonito Donaire, at Radio City Music Hall. At the time, Donaire entered the fight as one of the sport’s marquee attractions, with flashy knockout victories, the year before, over some of the best challengers in the super bantamweight division. In a masterclass, Rigondeaux frustrated Donaire all night long by peppering him with sharp counters until his face looked like a sheet of inkblots. Donaire was never the same again.
So does Top Rank see its December 9 show as a chance to even the odds?
“Honestly, that never enters our thinking,” said Top Rank matchmaker Bruce Trampler in an email. “Revenge is a silly notion and doesn’t apply to our business. What are we gonna do, be upset about (Rigondeaux) years ago beating a fighter who is no longer with Top Rank?”
“No, each match for each individual boxer stands on its own.”
Carl Moretti, Top Rank’s vice president of operations, stated he was unaware that such a sentiment existed. “If there has (been a sense of revenge), we haven’t seen or felt it yet. Maybe our answer will be in the ring Saturday but, at this point, we haven’t seen it or felt it in any way.”
When the same question was posed to Top Rank CEO Bob Arum, he replied, “No, there’s no revenge!”
There were whispers at the time that Top Rank had made a rare miscalculation in pairing one of its marquee names with a technical whiz like Rigondeaux.
“It’s nobody’s mistake,” Moretti said after the final press conference for Lomachenko-Rigondeaux. “We can do all these things and, when the bell rings, some fighters lose and fighters win. So does that mean that every time your guy loses, it’s a mistake?
“I wouldn’t categorize it as a mistake.”
Another rumor was that HBO had forced the Rigondeaux-Donaire match-up on Top Rank. Trampler summarily dismissed that.
“There was once a time (actually twice) where former executives at HBO did force us to do a match that we didn’t want to do. That wasn’t one of them.”
But the storyline of revenge cuts both ways. There is a certain school of thought that Arum had not done enough for the career of one of the most technically brilliant fighters on the planet. Immediately after the fight, Arum confessed to feeling a little lost as to how to move forward with Rigondeaux, telling reporters ringside that “It was not a very engaging fight…Running the way he does makes it an unwatchable fight…I don’t know (what I will do). I mean, it’s not a very pleasing style. We’ll see.”
Since then, Rigondeaux’s career has resembled that of a journeyman, flying out to the far-flung regions of Japan and Wales to collect meager wages, relying on nothing more than his superlative talents and the support of a handful of hardcore admirers. For this reason, Rigondeaux’s date tonight against Lomachenko, another one of Top Rank’s heralded fighters, seems to be rife with retribution, a storyline that has gained traction in part because of Rigondeaux’s somewhat apocryphal Twitter account. A few snippets:
Almost time. So close that I can smell the fear on my uncle bob. pic.twitter.com/W6Nzpq3hUk
— Guillermo Rigondeaux (@RigoElChacal305) December 5, 2017
— Guillermo Rigondeaux (@RigoElChacal305) October 5, 2017
And more recently Rigondeaux told a reporter, “I’m going to hit Top Rank so hard, that they will not recover. The Nonito thing will be nothing compared to this.”
“Listen, if they want to start that chatter, that’s OK,” Moretti said. “I don’t think that’s Rigondeaux, though. I think that’s the guy that’s not throwing the punches. Anyway, it all doesn’t really matter at 11 o’clock on Saturday night.”
Of course, observers forget that Rigondeaux was signed to Top Rank, which dispels the theory that Arum and Company had somehow conspired against the Cuban to run his career into the loamy sands of Havana. According to Arum, in a now familiar lament, Rigondeaux’s shut-out from relevance was a decision that came from the network executives – namely HBO – with whom he did exclusive business.
“You have to understand what happened. I promoted Rigondeaux. I realize Rigondeaux is a tremendous fighter. His style was such that he’d bottle up points and stink up the audience. So the television executives told me that they wouldn’t give him a date. Now this is before the ESPN deal. So if I can’t get the guy on HBO or one Showtime, what the hell was I supposed to do with him? So I gave him a release.”
Rigondeaux’s contract with Top Rank ended with his tussle against Hisashi Amagasa on an undistinguished card in Tokyo in 2014. Until that point, Top Rank had featured him on their cards in various ways and, each time, he seemed to stick his nose up at the very idea of servicing the patrons. Top Rank had even featured Rigondeaux as far back as 2010, on the undercard of Manny Pacquiao-Antonio Margarito. In front of 40,000 spectators at the Dallas Cowboy Stadium, in Arlington, Texas, Rigondeaux put on a soul-sucking stinker of a performance against Ricardo Cordoba. Still, Top Rank offered Rigondeaux opportunities, Donaire notwithstanding.
And, of course, there is the infamous night at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in which Rigondeaux was again the headliner against overmatched Joseph Agbeko. While Rigondeaux showed flashes of proactive violence against Donaire, he seemed largely content to win on points, according to the tenets of the hallowed Cuban amateur program. It was a night that few who work at Top Rank will forget. Brad Goodman, Top Rank’s other longtime matchmaker, described it as an ignominious evening that began brilliantly when rabid fans came to support local fighter Glen Tapia take on James Kirkland in a barnburner. By the time Rigondeaux was a few rounds in with Agbeko, the crowd petered out in droves.
“I swear there were like 30 people left in the stands,” Goodman recalled, who also couldn’t help but notice the horror-stricken faces on the television executives.
“If the television won’t pay me the money and the television doesn’t want the guy who was I gonna go and (have) fight,” Arum fumed, “what was I gonna do, punch out (HBO head) Peter Nelson? I mean what the hell did you want me to do? (Nelson) didn’t want to buy the fight. He’s the buyer; I’m the seller.
“A lot of these network executives couldn’t see the way to sell Rigondeaux was to show that he was an unbelievably technical fighter.”
In the end, boxing is a matter of business and, in Rigondeaux, Arum saw no way to salvage a preeminent talent with the connections he had. He insists there are no hard feelings.
“There was no animosity,” Arum said. “The kid was always on time. He always showed up for the fights. The kid is a terrific fighter. He may have felt chagrin but it wasn’t my fault. It was the fault of the television executives.”
When asked about Rigondeaux’s pointed statements on social media, Arum threw up his hands.
“Well, I have nothing but good and high things to say about Rigondeaux. If we feels that this is some sort of revenge, well, OK, I don’t blame him. That’s fine for me. There’s no adverse feelings at all.”
Given he is giving up more than two weight classes in going up against Lomachenko tonight, Rigondeaux may need all the bile that revenge creates to fuel him to victory on Saturday night. Just don’t expect Top Rank to feel the same.
“It’s business for us” said Moretti. “Bell rings, it’s business.”