NEW YORK – Guillermo Rigondeaux made the only decision possible if he wanted to attain his dreams of boxing professionally: He took a leap of faith on a speedboat.
It wasn’t the first time the Cuban amateur legend tried to escape his communist homeland. His maiden voyage was in 2007, but his attempt at freedom was squashed when he was detained by Brazilian police and returned to Cuba. Upon his return to the island, Cuban leader Fidel Castro promptly exiled him from the Olympic team, robbing Rigondeaux of his one true passion.
But this time was different.
After Rigondeaux negotiated with human smugglers in Mexico and said his final goodbyes to his wife and two children, he once again sought salvation via speedboat in 2009. He encountered a massive storm during the journey, but was able to successfully navigate the Florida Straits, a body of water that is estimated to take the lives of one-in-three Cubans who attempt to defect, and made it in one piece to Cancun.
“He described it to me as by far the most traumatic event of his life,” said Brin-Jonathan Butler, who spent 11 years in Cuba training under two-time Olympic Gold Medalist Hector Vinent and has an upcoming film and biography on Rigondeaux of the same name, “Split Decision.”
“He was very resistant to actually discuss it because of how traumatic it was. The main reason he didn’t subject his wife and two kids to join him is because he wanted to risk his own life to have an opportunity in the U.S., but he didn’t want to risk them.”
Considered perhaps the greatest amateur boxer of all-time, Rigondeaux (11-0, 8 knockouts) is a two-time Olympic gold medalist and reportedly won close to 400 fights in the unpaid ranks against just 12 losses. After settling in Miami, Fla., Rigondeaux turned pro and began to fulfill his vast promise. He earned his first world title in just his ninth pro fight, a knockout of Rico Ramos in Jan. 2012.
But tonight, at the historic Radio City Music Hall in New York, Rigondeaux will have a chance to finally realize the lofty dreams he had when he set sail on that speedboat, when he makes his HBO World Championship Boxing debut against RING junior featherweight champion Nonito Donaire, the BWAA’s 2012 Fighter of the Year.
“Let (Donaire) underestimate me and he’ll find out on April 13 how it is,” said Rigondeaux. “I take every fight of mine, as if it was the biggest fight of my career. I’m one of the first to become a world champion with as many fights as I’ve had and they don’t mention it enough. They don’t give me the accolades. Once I win on Saturday everybody’s going to realize how good I am.”
Rigondeaux, 32, remains a bit of an enigma to American fans. He rarely displays any emotion, even after his victories. Butler attributes the fighter’s stoic nature to being “very bitter about what it took for him to have the same opportunities over (in America) that people take for granted.”
But what the public does know about Rigondeaux are his immense talents inside the squared-circle: The excellent hand speed, the footwork, the combination punching, the defense. Hall of Fame trainer Freddie Roach, who was in Rigondeaux’s corner for just one fight, a first round KO of Adolfo Landeros in 2010, hails him as “probably the greatest talent (he’s) ever seen.”
The southpaw is already on his fifth trainer going into just his 12th pro fight, usually a recipe for disaster. Ahead of his bout with Donaire, he reunited with his Cuban amateur coach Pedro Diaz, best known for his work with Miguel Cotto and Jean Pascal.
“He’s a quality fighter. I would like to compare Rigondeaux in the future with Floyd Mayweather; he will be the pound-for-pound king of boxing, we’re going there,” said Diaz. “He’s a boxer that compiles all the tactical aspects – conditioning and form – so he’s a special boxer.”
Growing up in the Cuban amateur system, Rigondeaux was placed in a boxing school as a child, where he was cultivated into the fighting machine he is today. His days consisted of five hours of training in the humid climate of the island and developed the work ethic he possesses today. But living in a communist state, he didn’t own many of the responsibilities that Americans accustomed to.
“The irony with all Cuban boxers is that they’re some of the most capable people ever at defending themselves inside a ring; outside of the ring, they’re some of the most vulnerable,” said Butler. “He’s never had a bank account in his life, he’s never had to make any financial decisions, he’s never had a mortgage on a house. He’s never had to pay a phone bill. These are dilemmas where he’s in a constant state of not knowing whom to trust over here. He is aware that everyone around him has a financial incentive.
“Cubans amount to essentially the most expensive human cargo on Earth. Once they get (to America), you’re making millions of dollars off them. There’s been ransom rather than offered fees once they arrive in Mexico. These guys are endlessly aware that they’re an un-cashed lottery ticket, but they come here and all they talk about is Cuba.”
Rigondeaux carries a heavy burden into the ring with him. He knows there’s a great chance he may never see his family again, his former home under 24-hour surveillance in Cuba. When he communicates with his wife and two children, he uses secret correspondence and realizes there’s a chance his messages are intercepted. But when he’s boxing, he’s at peace; nothing inside the ring could possibly compare to the plight he faced when he chose to leave his family in Cuba.
“I believe that after April 13, they’ll be talking about this fight for a while,” said Rigondeaux. “I’m in fight mode; I’m ready to fight. I’m ready to battle.”
Rigondeaux has already earned his freedom. With a win on Saturday, he’ll realize all the hopes and aspirations he had when he set out on a speedboat that fateful night more than four years ago.
Photos /Kevork Djansezia-Getty Images, Joe Klamar-AFP
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