BH: So, back to Rigondeaux … what happened the first time he tried to defect?
BJB: From what I learned, he was being approached very early by people trying to lure him out. In the summer of 2007 when Rigondeaux was at the Pan-Am games in Brazil he went AWOL from the Cuban camp and was discovered in a resort with hookers, where he was arrested. He came up with a story to say he couldn’t make weight with his teammate, Erislandy Lara, but immediately rumors circulated that he had a passport waiting for him at a consulate that would allow him to fight for [Turkish promoter and manager] Ahmet Oener in Europe. After he was arrested, Castro spoke out in the Cuban state newspaper to declare that Rigondeaux and Lara were traitors and Judases to the Cuban people, and that they were the equivalent of a soldier who had dropped his arms in battle and joined the enemy. So, from then on, Rigondeaux became a complete social pariah whose every achievement in Cuba up to that point was wiped from the record. In a sense, Castro did everything possible to make him cease to exist. [Note: Lara was also arrested but successfully defected in 2008.]
BH: It seems like it’s a particularly Cuban form of punishment, I guess to show that even your fame is owned by the state. Also with the recent example of Pedro Roque Otano, the famous Cuban coach who was reduced to a street cleaner because of some perception that he was encouraging people to defect. And now he works for Team USA and calls himself an American.
BJB: Yeah, I mean it was interesting because I think Fidel handled [Rigondeaux] very shrewdly. … I mean, he assumed that he would lose his house. He did lose his car … but he expected to be out on the street. That didn’t happen, and then Fidel went a little further by inviting the international media to come see [Rigondeaux]. You know … ‘All I’ve said is that he can’t box anyore. He’s still getting some subsidies to his house, he’s still getting some food to his kids every month. He’s still getting a meager wage just like everyone else.’ Whereas a lot of the media, especially in Florida, thought he’d be put in prison for life, or he’ll be executed for trying to defect. Well, none of that happended, and so it put even more pressure on Rigondeaux because he couldn’t become the martyr I think he was positioning himself to be after the failure in Brazil.
BH: In the book you describe the first time you met Rigondeaux, and how you mistook him for a child who was hanging around Vinent’s gym, sort of lingering in the shadows, and that people were afraid to even speak to him.
BJB: Yeah … Rigondeaux was completely set adrift in Cuban society, where all his teammates and anybody associated with the sports ministry were forbidden to talk with him, or even be seen with him. He described to me many instances of passing these people on the street near his home and they would completely ignore him for fear that if anyone saw them interacting or saw some sympathy for him, these people would lose their jobs. And so one of the things he seemed to do was wander around the communities that he knew, which were boxing gyms. He’s such a small guy and I’d never seen him without his headgear on, so there he was in a fake designer t-shirt and a cap, 5-foot-5, 122 pounds, and I did mistake him for a kid. A street kid. And I was the only person would didn’t know who he was. As the whole gym froze I kind of assumed that Fidel was stopping by, there was just such fear in the looks of people.
BH: And it seems from you wrote like his condition was slipping – he was smoking a lot, not really interested in much.
BJB: I think he was at the lowest point of his life. I just think an athlete like that, calibrated for excellence as much as anyone like a Michael Jordan, a supremely gifted technician, to be suddenly told they can no longer do the only thing they can do … and he was in his absolute prime, just 26 years old. And the alternative was to risk his life on a smuggler’s boat and never see his family again – and this is someone who was a very proud father and incredibly close to his mother, who, very soon after he did leave, died. In the book I mention that sadness is one thing in Cuba that is not in short supply, and certainly his face was the saddest I’d ever seen before I knew anything about who he was.
BH: So he did eventually attempt to defect again, and succeeded. Describe the circumstances of his second attempt.
BJB: The second defection came in 2009 in February. He would’ve entered a smuggler’s boat with usually it’s about 30 people per trip and they’re transported to Mexico. There are 10,000 Cubans a year who are smuggled off of Cuba, and they usually go to Cancun or the little island of Isla Mujeres, which is a very short ferry ride off Cancun’s coast. The average cost is $10,000 per head, so with 10,000 people it’s a $100 million industry. He described that incident as the most traumatic event of his life. Those boats can capsize, the person steering the boat has a shotgun, and once they arrive all the people – especially the athletes like Rigondeaux – are held hostage until somebody pays a fee. So he was held hostage from the moment he stepped into that boat until somebody paid the fee to get him out and prepare him for the process of getting him to the United States.
BH: Jumping forward a bit, Rigondeaux leaves this horrible situation in Cuba, he arrives in the United States and has great success, but there’s a backlash that starts to emerge toward his style, which is seen as boring. How do you think he viewed his circumstances, caught between those two situations? And how do you think he sees it now?
BJB: I think he felt enormous contempt and bitterness for having to make the choice he did – there was no middle ground. And I think the great irony of how he has been criticized since he arrived in the United States and fought successfully is that the main complaint is that he doesn’t take chances, that he’s afraid to risk anything. And given that the guy had to step on a smuggler’s boat to pursue his version of the American dream, that’s quite remarkable. … As far as anyone was concerned the Cuban style is a cowardly style, in contrast to maybe the most marketable fighter, Mike Tyson, who’s just a destroyer. We’re a long way away from someone like Willie Pep winning a round without throwing a punch. It’s a scary thing that somebody like Rigo seems so capable of defending himself inside a ring, and yet outside the ring seems – I don’t want to say clueless – but so vulnerable. … I view him in boxing terms as this sort of Mozart. I think he’s extraordinary, and yet outside the the ring he’s not really exceptional at any other part of life. He’s just this extreme prodigy who developed into this supreme talent, but outside that he’s just a normal guy.
BH: How did your own story become intertwined with his?
BJB: I didn’t know in 2007 that he would succeed in defecting, because he was so politically radioactive that his house was under 24-hour surveillance by two state security cameras. It was harder for him to even attempt to defect than just about anyone else on the island because of course he had the greatest incentive to do it. But even though Fidel had branded him so harshly as a traitor and a Judas, the vast majority of Cubans I spoke to were incredibly sympathetic to his reason for leaving. So that seemed like such a massive turning point, not just in Cuban sport where Savon and Stevenson were saying no to the money, but in Cuban society. Rigondeaux’s defection became a kind of referendum on the reasons why all Cubans wish to have more economic opportunities, more freedom, less restrictions on travel … looking for change. And I wanted to explore that story … the question of why people stay and why people leave, and what are the pros and cons of either decision. So originally I wanted to do it as a book but I didn’t have the money to do that, so just by necessity I thought having a film about it might bring some proceeds to be able to chase after that story. And the first person I approached to produce the film insisted that I be the one to work as director, which I had no background doing. So at that point I had no choice but to enter the story as a participant.
BH: Can you tell the story of what happened to you in Ireland?
BJB: Sure, after the Cordoba fight at [Cowboys] Stadium on the [Manny] Pacquiao undercard (Pacquiao won a unanimous decision over Antonio Margarito on Nov. 13, 2010), Rigondeaux had really turned off a lot of fans (he won by split decision) and alienated his promoter, Bob Arum. So the exile was exiled again, over to Europe, because Arum said he didn’t want to put him on any more cards in the U.S. or any cable shows. So off he went to Dublin to fight an obscure, undefeated fighter [named Willie Casey]. I followed him over there and filmed his entire training camp. It turned out his opponent was associated with the criminal underworld in Ireland, and one of the things they were keen to do was disrupt Rigondeaux’s camp by robbing him of his championship belt. And so in the morning, I think a couple of days before the fight, we were loading up when a pickup truck with a couple kids on the back yanked out whatever they could from the back of the team van and then off they went. It turned out that it was all the footage and camera equipment that was mine, that my camera guy had loaded up. I was left with no footage for the entire trip and all the expenses I’d put forth to be there and to replace the camera. I was down to $1,000, which was nowhere near enough to keep going, and right then I spotted a betting shop. I’m not a gambler – I despise everything about gambling. I looked into what the odds were for Rigondeaux winning in the first round because I kind of assumed you might get a good rate. So the odds were 20-1. I asked anybody else in the camp whether they felt confident that he could do it, and everybody said ‘Don’t go near anything so stupid.’ And when I got to Rigondeaux’s door, without blinking he said, “Bet your life savings on it.” So that’s exactly what I did … and being someone who had never gambled I can kind of see the enticement of it, because I’d never been so invested in a fight in my life. (laughs) I’ve got a three-minute window for my defensively oriented, favored fighter to win. And for whatever reason he just fought like a bull for the entire fight. He came forward the entire time and the first knockdown happened after a minute, and I was sure after that happened that he would just coast and stay away from danger, but he did the exact opposite. He just pounced, and the second knockdown came around I think the two-minute mark, and I just thought, “There’s no time for him to finish the show,” which he did with about 10 seconds left. And he celebrated in the most hostile environment I’ve ever witnessed in any fight I’ve covered. All of Ireland seemed to be opposed to him – his opponent had I think 27 brothers and sisters who were all in the front row giving Rigondeaux the finger from the moment that their names were announced. So I waited on the apron for him to do his sort of lap around the ring, and when he spotted me he just held out his glove and said, “Where’s my cut?” And it was the most surreal and wonderful moment … if it hadn’t worked out I don’t know where any of this would’ve gone.