According to Roy Jones Junior Saturday’s Madison Square Garden congress between WBO junior lightweight champion Vasyl Lomachenko and WBA junior featherweight king Guillermo Rigondeaux is arguably the greatest in history on paper. Unprecedented, certainly, since it features two double Olympic and World Championship gold medalists in a professional bout for the first time.
“I can’t pick it,” said Jones Jnr, who in his own exquisite prime was arguably an amalgam of the two fighters converging in New York City.
“It’s history being made. We have never seen four gold medals in the ring at the same time. It don’t get better, two of the greatest technical fighters the world has seen.”
The eulogy was spontaneous. This fight does not need selling. As the plunder suggests both were off the scale as amateurs. Lomachenko won all but one of his 397 bouts, Rigondeaux all but 12 of his 475. Lomachenko, a Ukraine native domiciled in California, fought for a world title, the WBO featherweight crown, in only his second pro fight.
Though he lost on a split decision to Orlando Salido, his opponent failed to make weight and according to some suggestions might have been as much as a stone heavier on the night.
Lomachenko moved on quickly claiming the same title, declared vacant after Salido’s weight fiasco, three months later in his very next fight, inflicting on Gary Russell Jnr, now the WBC featherweight champion, his only career defeat.
ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN
That was Russell’s 25th combat mission. He had been a pro five years. Yet he wasn’t in the same class as Lomachenko. No-one is, except Rigondeaux. Though Rigondeaux made his professional boxing debut in 2009 at the age of 28, he has in essence been a pro since childhood, for that is what elite fighters are in Cuba.
The facilities are on the ramshackle side of modest, but in a country where official earnings top out at $25 a month, the privileges and prestige conferred on boxers is compensation enough for most. With professional sport banned under Fidel Castro’s communist regime Olympic competition is the only route to high status for Cuban athletes and boxing is the portal through which most athletes leap.
The likes of Teofilo Stevenson, who reportedly turned down $5m to fight Muhammad Ali in the Seventies, Felix Savon, Mario Kindelan and indeed Rigondeaux were feted by a president who understood the power and impact sport could have on the nation’s social psychology. Castro also made defection a matter of life and death.
Rather than take the risk Stevenson soaked up the adulation. The affection of millions of Cubans is more important than money was his celebrated justification for staying put. Rigondeaux thought differently. His first attempt to escape via Brazil during an international boxing contest in 2007 was bungled. His second is the subject of literature and even a film distributed in 2015 entitled 12 Mile, a reference to the distance offshore that seabound mutineers must travel to escape Cuban jurisdiction.
The celluloid story is told from the perspective of an Irish promoter called Gary Hyde, who, just to heighten the exotica levels is an associate of Michael Flatley. For non dancers out there, Flatley is the Irish American hoofer who made a bundle from the Broadway show Riverdance, a project he loved almost as much as boxing. It was Flatley who at a show in Cork persuaded Hyde to scour the poor nations of the world for a superstar that might accelerate his drive to become a player on the boxing scene.
Fired by his memory of a night in a Belfast pub shared with members of the Cuban team, including Rigondeaux, following the 2001 World Championships, Hyde set off for Havana under the guise of an author writing a book about Cuban boxing. He found Rigondeaux and signed him to a deal. Rigondeaux would eventually end up in Miami via Mexico, but it wasn’t the arms of Hyde into which he fell.
I refer you to the movie, or the book by Brin-Jonathan Butler’s “From Traitor to Champion: The Guillermo Rigondeaux Story,” for the details. Suffice is to say his defection wasn’t simple and his professional career is similarly layered with emotional complexity. He fought for the first time as a pro in 2009 and has had only 17 bouts since, contractual disputes and homesickness complicating the picture.
FREAK OF NATURE
But at last he has made it to boxing’s grandest stage, where he faces an opponent who might just be as good as any boxer the sport has seen. The testimonials are in the Muhammad Ali bracket of deification. Before claiming his second world title, the WBO junior lightweight title in only his seventh pro fight last year against Roman Martinez, Irish boxing icon Barry McGuigan wrote this about Lomachenko in his Mirror column.
“His power to weight ratio makes him a freak of nature. He can do chins one handed for three reps. Don’t try that at home. He trades on hand speed and footwork. His feet are amazing. As the saying goes he could feint you out of your jockstrap.He fools you into throwing, you miss and before you know it you have been hit three times and he is out of range. It must be the most dispiriting experience sharing a ring with him.”
Rigondeaux, in the best Cuban tradition, is every bit as elusive, but that, hitherto, has not made for drama. Though his defensive skills are in the Floyd Mayweather Jnr class they are yet to put bums on seats in the same way. At least a part of the difficulty is finding an opponent prepared to take him on. Rigondeaux makes everyone look bad. Opponents can’t find him and when he engages behind a southpaw jab, the left over the top breaks hearts.
In one sense he has been waiting for fate to bring forth Lomachenko, who has still fought only ten times as a pro. Rigondeaux has jumped two weight divisions for the privilege, from junior featherweight (super bantamweight in old money) to junior lightweight (super featherweight).
And for this engagement he promises more of the aggressive intent that poleaxed Moises Flores in June, if seconds after the bell at the end of the first round. Flores did not recover but the bout was declared a no contest denying Rigondeaux an 18th straight W on his record
Rigondeaux makes light of the discrepancy in dimension: “When you have quality you don’t need size and weight. The worst poisons comes in small containers.” And while he is grateful for Lomachenko stepping up, he warns: “Not 100 of the guys I’ve beaten is worth one of me.”
For his part Lomachenko claims he is going to “destroy him like a tank,” while pointing out “I don’t need him, he is asking for me.” It is the standard bombast that clings to boxers in fight week. It all adds to the gaiety of boxing life. But when it’s done, whoever triumphs, each will have earned the respect of the other.