While the drums have started to beat for a Super-Bantamweight showdown between Guillermo Rigondeaux and Nonito Donaire, many fans enthusiasm is tempered with scepticism. Already disheartened by the never-ending Mayweather-Pacquiao saga, some are pessimistic that this seemingly obvious match-up will ever take place.
Despite promotional issues and a lack of in-ring activity plaguing his career, Nonito Donaire, 27(18)-1, has reached Pound-for-Pound status over the past two years. If a highlight-reel knockout of Vic Darchinyan showed his amazing potential, crushing victories over Volodymyr Sydorenko and, in particular, Fernando Montiel, proved The Filipino Flash belonged amongst boxing’s elite. The spectacular second-round ko of Montiel, via the same left-hook that flattened Darchinyan, served notice that Donaire might be the pre-eminent little man in the sport.
Then, in October of last year, Donaire defended his WBC and WBO straps against the unbeaten Argentine, Omar Narvaez. Usually, pitching a shut-out on all three judges’ cards against such an opponent would be cause for celebration. Not this time though. Not only did Narvaez’ defensively-minded performance mean the fight was something of a damp squib; it seems to have sown the seeds of discontent which may prevent a potential Rigondeaux showdown.
Donaire seems to have been upset with criticism levelled at the fight, which has prompted him to say he only wants to face opponents who are more aggressive and likely to provided fan-friendly fights. While his determination to provide entertainment is admirable, fans are always hungry to see the best fighters face each other – even if it means a potentially awkward styles-clash with a slick, defensively adept challenger. Which brings us to Rigondeaux.
In despatching Rico Ramos, the Cuban joined a select list of fighter’s who’ve won a world title prior to their 10th fight. Despite his obvious inexperience in the paid ranks, “The Jackal” is arguably the greatest amateur of all time. With two Olympic Gold Medals, two World Amateur Championships, Gold Medals at the Pan-American Games and the World Cup, as well as seven national titles to his name, Rigo was already a polished fighter when he made his professional debut.
Despite having a few promotional issues of his own, Rigondeaux’ progress has been fairly smooth. His class was evident from day one and it has led to him being rapidly moved up the ladder. In only his seventh professional outing, he was matched against the 37-2-2 Ricardo Cordoba on the Pacquiao-Margarito undercard in Cowboy’s Stadium. Despite earning a split-decision, this victory – probably his most impressive on paper – seems to be the main obstacle in getting a shot at Donaire.
As anyone who seen the fight will attest, Rigondeaux-Cordoba was a stinker.
With the Cuban boxing largely off the back foot and Cordoba unable to tempt him into exchanges or force any sustained pressure, most viewers were left uninspired. Rigo was labelled a “runner” and, outside of the most hardcore boxing fans, few were clamouring to see him in a high-profile match-up.
Since then, he has turned in two flawless performances – travelling to Ireland to destroy the unbeaten, though overmatched, Willie Casey in one round and dominating the aforementioned Ramos in six. Both fights showed off Rigo’s offense as much as his defence. Fast hands, superior counter-punching skills and a vicious body-attack were all on show as he proved he can be compelling viewing and not just a safety-first technician. Indeed, with all respect to Lucian Bute, Rigondeaux might be the most damaging body-puncher in the sport today.
In spite of this, the reputation he earned in the Cordoba fight still seems to define him – and not only with the fans. Speaking to BoxingScene, Donaire seemingly dismissed the idea of facing the Cuban.
“Is it good for the fans? Is it good for boxing? Or, if I hurt him, is he going to do a Narvaez and just run around like he did two fights ago on a fight ago when he fought on HBO?”
The comments angered Rigondeaux, who issued a scathing statement in response.
“If he doesn’t want a Narvaez fight, I will agree to a 15-foot ring. This guy is not a real man; he’s a traitor to Top Rank. Stop hiding behind your manager and your wife, I’m ready to fight in the summer. If Top Rank allows me to get a fight with this traitor, I will put him to sleep. After I get done with this traitor, he’ll be shooting pictures permanently.”
Although it’s perhaps surprising to see the Cuban engage in this kind of trash-
talk, it’s perhaps understandable. Should one “boring” performance preclude him from ever getting a big fight? Should boxers even use such a criteria when choosing opponents, or leave such things in the hands of the promoters?
As Top Rank promote both fighters, this fight should – in theory – be easy to make, especially considering Arum’s predilection towards keeping fights in-house. Unfortunately, when faced with very similar circumstances in the recent past, Arum refused to acquiesce to the fans wishes.
A Cuban star, with huge talent in one corner and a world-class fighter with a much larger fan-base (and more to lose) in the other. Fans who were desperate to see Yuriorkis Gamboa and JuanMa Lopez in the ring together are familiar with the scenario.
We were desperate to see these two Featherweights face each other. They were both undefeated, hard-hitting, in their prime, with styles that seemed to guarantee fireworks. Bob Arum disagreed though – the timing was never quite right. We would see it, he just had to “bake the cake” and make us wait a little longer. When challenged by the media, who quite accurately told him the fans wanted to see it now, Arum’s response was succinct. “Fuck the fans”.
With JuanMa suffering a shock defeat to Salido and Gamboa moving up in weight, it looks like we’ll never see the fight that was near the top of most fans wish-lists just one year ago.
It seemed like Arum was unwilling to put his up-and-coming star in a risky fight with an opponent who was never going to be the same kind of PPV attraction.
Does any of this sound familiar?
With a burgeoning fan-base and elite skills, Nonito Donaire could be on the verge of superstardom. Whilst he’ll never equal the popularity of his countryman Manny Pacquiao, he could certainly become a legitimate attraction in his own right. The only fighter below Featherweight who seems capable of derailing his march to the top may be Rigondeaux. It’s an interesting fight between two of the sports premier little men with no clear favourite but it seems that Top rank, and Donaire himself, have reservations.
As good as Rigo is, the chances are he’ll never be a star. Top Rank has had difficulty marketing Cuban fighters in the past, including the explosive Gamboa who, despite being a darling of the hard-core fans, doesn’t draw huge numbers. Foregoing the obvious route of having them fight in Miami, Arum doesn’t seem able to help either fighter reach a level of popularity commensurate with their talent. This seems to be two strikes against Rigondeaux – not exciting enough and not popular enough.
Will “The Jackal” overcome these obstacles and land the biggest fight of his career? I hope so. Fans shouldn’t be underestimated; as much as we all love watching two aggressive, face-first brawlers go to war, we can also appreciate two supremely skilled boxers pit their wits against each other.
Sometimes we don’t need a HBO 24/7 series, two years worth of hype or even two superstars. Sometimes two great fighters is more than enough.