It wasn’t too long ago when renowned trainer Freddie Roach was telling anyone who would listen that Guillermo Rigondeaux was among the greatest, pure natural talents he had ever worked with. To him, this was a Cuban version of Manny Pacquiao; a young, raw, foreign talent, who he could mold into one of the best boxers in the world. Like the “Pac-Man,” who walked into the Wild Card Boxing Club almost a decade ago, Rigondeaux is a left-hander, who possessed raw power and speed, but just as importantly- it seemed- a hunger to succeed.
Just a couple of months ago, Rigondeaux was scheduled to fight in Sunrise, Florida, on the untelevised portion of the Andre Berto-Carlos Quintana undercard on April 10th. Soon after, he put his name on the dotted line of a promotional pact with Top Rank. It was supposed to be the beginning of a meteoric rise.
Instead, as we head into June, his progress has stalled; his future uncertain.
"The thing is, they sent him two weeks before the fight," said Roach, in recalling that period, where he became estranged from the fighter and his camp. "I said, ’Guillermo, you’ve been training at home.’ His people gave him two weeks to get ready for a major fight and I said, ’You’re not ready.’ I canceled the fight. I did the right thing for the kid- and I got fired."
What particularly alarmed the trainer was Rigondeaux’ inability to go three hard rounds on the mitts with him leading up to that date along with a sparring session where he was smacked around by a novice amateur.
Roach, like many others before him, is finding out that training Cubans comes with a set of issues. Namely, getting them out of South Florida, specifically Miami/“Lil Havana.”
"I would agree with that," said Joe Goossen, who perhaps had the best run of any trainer with a Cuban in this country, with Joel Casamayor. Goossen took over “El Cepillo’s” training duties in the late ‘90s after he had already turned professional. "I’ve had a few other Cuban fighters that came out here on the coattails of Casamayor, but they couldn’t hack the grind out here. And then, once [he did] come out here, Casamayor was able to make some new friends and, of course, you can always have your dalliances wherever you’re at. I don’t care if you’re on Mt. Nebo; you’re going to find something cute to do. But basically, Casamayor was dedicated when it came down to work. Once he came down to work, he was a dedicated Dan.
"A rarity, and I say that because the lifestyle in South Florida is such that, boy, I tell ya, I don’t know if I would’ve lived this long if I lived there,” continued Goossen. “It’s a great party town; it’s a lot of fun there and there’s a large Cuban community and partying is just kind of conducive to that weather and food and social outlook. But out here, Casamayor was dedicated. The other guys that followed got homesick real fast. They missed that food, the culture, their friends and especially their girlfriends. So that’s where I ran into the problems. The guys really could not leave their girlfriends for a couple of months at a time."
Under Goossen’s guidance, Casamayor captured the WBA 130-pound belt, while engaging in a host of other big fights against the likes of Diego Corrales, Jose Luis Castillo and Acelino Freitas, among others. During this stretch, Casamayor would stay in Van Nuys, California near Goossen’s gym. Like many other of his compatriots, Casamayor, who won the gold medal in the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games, had a huge amateur pedigree. But, unlike most of his Cuban colleagues, Casamayor was able to translate that into professional success. Two sports that are supposed to be so similar, amateur and pro boxing, in many ways, couldn’t contrast more. While it’s thought that Cubans are almost programmed to box like computers and are very difficult to convert into a more pro-friendly style, Goossen believes that’s the least of your worries in working with them.
"The point that they’re professional amateurs over there, for the most part, it’s hard to get [that mindset] out of Cubans. That really isn’t the bothersome point because we all know how talented they are," he says. "Well, they’re talented guys, so what else could it be? It’s the activities outside the gym. You gotta remember; when you live in a communist country like Cuba, you’re deprived. You’re deprived of everything. You come out here, now, stores actually have food; there’s no communist guard on the corner looking to see if you have too many people in your house having a conversation. You want to have a barbeque, you gotta have a government permit. All these things. So when they encounter this type of freedom, which I hope we sustain, they really go whole-hog on it and take advantage of it."
Another constant in the lives of Cuban boxers in America is Luis DeCubas, who has seemingly played a role, in one capacity or another, in just about every boxer that has defected from the Castro regime, starting in the early ‘90s with mercurial heavyweight Jorge Luis Gonzalez. DeCubas, whose company promotes Rigondeaux, agrees that Cuban fighters have a hard time adjusting to the freedoms of the U.S.
"Without a doubt," he told Maxboxing last week. "It’s very difficult because they come here and they have nothing. So it’s difficult for them to adjust. But, at the same time, for the number of Cubans fighters that have landed here, the percentage of world champions were pretty great. Casamayor became a world champion; Diosbelys Hurtado became a world champion and Juan Carlos Gomez became a world champion. So out of that six-tier group that were here, the first two tiers, three of them became world champions. So it’s a pretty good percentage. This batch now, I think a lot of them are going to be world champions."
For every Casamayor, there was a Ramon Garbey, who simply became lost in the excess of American opportunity. Unlike “El Cepillo,” Garbey never could commit himself fully to training or spending large amounts of time away from Miami. But DeCubas believes that the newest crew of Cubans has learned from these cautionary tales. When it comes to leaving South Florida, one size does not fit all.
"It would [be beneficial] for certain fighters; for certain fighters, it isn’t," he stated. "This new batch that came over, the 2004 Olympic team from Greece, [Yuriorkis] Gamboa, [Odlanier] Solis, Rigondeaux, Yudel Jhonson, Yordanis Despaigne, they’re all different guys. Some would be better off outta here; some guys are better here. It depends on the personality and how they can adjust. This 2004 team, they’re all great guys; they train hard. It’s different than the Casamayors and the Garbeys and the Jorge Luis Gonzalezes and Hurtado. They had a little more difficulty training here in South Florida than these guys do."
Another gifted Cuban is junior middleweight prospect Erislandy Lara, who is being moved quickly up the ranks. According to his manager, the noted Shelly Finkel, there have been no real headaches associated with his southpaw. "No, it’s fine; he just spends too much money," he said, laughing. "I haven’t had any of those problems. Maybe because there was a group that came over first and went through a lot of that. But no, he’s been pretty together." Finkel believes that the biggest disappointment, as it relates to this group of boxers, is that despite their natural abilities and the amount of Cubans in South Florida, "is that none of the Cuban fighters get a following. It doesn’t seem as though their own support them. They don’t draw big crowds."
But when it comes to discipline, Finkel told Maxboxing, "I felt that the Cubans were the best natural boxing athletes, but somewhat of a disappointment when they get here. They are lauded as stars and they are distracted by a lot of things. I know it from the Florida experience. I can’t say if they go somewhere else. They suffer for so long over there, under such hardship and they come here and it’s like a liberation, but it’s not, because they still haven’t made enough money to retire."
In recounting his stretch at the Wild Card Boxing Club, Roach says of Rigondeaux, "He worked hard and he was very disciplined about what he did, I guess, unlike a lot of the Cubans that have come here in the past. He came here; he wanted to train here; wanted to live in L.A. when he’s training because he wanted to get away from that night life and the environment he had in Miami. So I thought maybe he was something different. But again, I’m only interested in him if he’s with a major promoter, because the people that are controlling him in Miami aren’t looking out for his best interests."
In the case of Rigondeaux, the problems seem to run much deeper than just a questionable work ethic or geography. Currently, Rigondeaux is the basis of a contentious tug-of-war for his services between his original manager, Gary Hyde, and the Miami faction. Author Brin Friesen is currently working on a book (“The Domino Diaries”) that chronicles Rigondeaux’ recent journey.
"I met him in 2007; I’ve been going to Cuba since 2000. He just seemed to embody, to me, why boxing is so relevant in that place," said Friesen on Friday afternoon. "Both as a product of the revolution- and with this guy, because he was really rural; really in the middle of nowhere and these guys recruit like no other country in the world- and yet, he turns his back on the state. The first thing they did when he tried to defect in 2007, they seized the car that they had given him after his second gold medal. So then, he escapes. It’s just been a nightmare since he’s been in the United States."
Friesen says that the pull of Miami isn’t just about the nightlife or culture.
"A lot of Cuban fighters are held more hostage in the United States than they are in Cuba," he states. "And I think the factors that are at play are things like having a full refrigerator- they all gain 15 pounds as soon as they seemingly touch American soil. In the case of Rigondeaux, he was going to be the exception. And then, he basically had a sparring session just before the April 10th fight and he was beat up by a 15-year-old."
Like many young baseball players who come from foreign lands, these individuals become nothing more than commodities. And those who should be protecting them oftentimes become nothing more than enablers or those who continuously exploit them. Goossen says, "In some cases, yes. I would say that, in a majority of cases, they do."
Friesen, who says he has been in contact daily with Hyde (who just recently received legal confirmation of his managerial rights to Rigondeaux), believes that what goes on with Cuban boxers is akin to human trafficking.
"Of course, there’s no question about that. In the case of Rigondeaux, his manager (Hyde) was the first to go over there and get a contract signed in Cuba and arrange to get him out,” said Friesen. “And then you’ve got the whole DeCubas side and his financial backers, as well, who they all seem to migrate to as soon as they arrive, I think, trying to have that camaraderie with all the other Cubans. Most of them are friends; many of them have lived together. Gamboa used to live with Rigondeaux. So I think that sense of camaraderie really is their downfall, because you look at some of the management on that side of things, they don’t really have the firepower, politically, in boxing to get them title shots."
According to Friesen, Hyde- who has another two years on his contract with the fighter- told him, ’If I did this for the money, I would’ve gone for a baseball player from Cuba, not a boxer.’ I totally see that," said Friesen," Gary Hyde wanted to be ringside at a title fight for this kid. Gary Hyde was in his corner from the beginning and he wanted glory for this kid. It was not about the money; he’s a millionaire already; he’s a multi-millionaire. There was not a better guy for this kid."
Hyde, in reaffirming his status as Rigondeaux’ manager, stated in a press release a couple of weeks ago of his preference to have him train under Roach’s guidance. And during the course of the interview with DeCubas, it was revealed that DeCubas Presents had reached a verbal agreement to co-promote Rigondeaux under the Top Rank banner. It was believed that the original offer a few months ago from Top Rank was contingent on Roach training Rigondeaux.
"I’m the one who brought him to Freddie to begin with," DeCubas pointed out. "I’ve known Freddie 20, 25 years; I have tremendous respect for Freddie. I brought him Yudel Jhonson. You can ask Freddie; I stayed there three weeks. What happened was when I sent the kid back- according to the kid, now- Freddie had a lot of fighters and he wasn’t giving him [Rigondeaux] any time. This is what the kid said. That’s the reason why he didn’t want to train there anymore. To me, the move was Freddie Roach; he was the guy. He was the hot trainer, at the time, everyone was talking about and I thought they worked good together."
Soon, Amir Khan would come into camp, followed shortly by the announcement that Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. was Roach’s newest charge, and the recent addition of prospect Jose Benavidez.
"The kid felt that he was the seventh, eighth guy on the team and he needed a guy- a hands-on guy," continued DeCubas. "That’s the reason why he went to Alejandro Torres, the guy that used to train Daniel Santos, Juan Urango and Juan Carlos Gomez. He’s had three world champions and they knew each other from Cuba. That’s where he decided to train."
Roach hasn’t counted out a reconciliation. "I’m only interested if he signs with a major promoter. Let’s face it; he’s not going anywhere without a major promoter. At his age, he needs to be on a fast track. So he needs to sign with somebody that can get him a title fight."
Roach has a point; Rigondeaux is 5-0 and 29 years old. "The thing is, I told Gary Hyde, do one of two things: move him to L.A. permanently; let him train here; get ready for his fights here or sell him to those guys who want him, the music people that are behind him in Miami. Not that they’re bad guys or anything like that, but they don’t know boxing. They think he can get ready for a fight in two weeks. They have no clue."
As I stated before, there are many more layers to this subject than what I touched on, and Friesen’s book, “The Domino Diaries” will focus on them through the travails of Rigondeaux. Speaking of the great Cuban boxers of the past like heavyweight Felix Savon, he says, "Those Cubans stood up to the money and stayed in Cuba. Which I think really solidified a lot of the pride of why some of these guys are fighting; certainly for the country as a whole. Boxing is their way to attack capitalism; it’s certainly been Castro’s tool all along. And he just views them as traitors as soon as they leave. And I think it’s a lot more complicated."
As for the book’s completion? It’s contingent on one of two outcomes in the near future.
"He [Rigondeaux] wins a title or he gets knocked out," said the writer. "And I think he’s on the brink of both. If he loses a fight, regardless of being knocked out, the kid’s done. I think he’d be dead in a couple years because his mother just died last week and he left his family behind; he left his wife; he left his kid. The torment they must be facing, as a result, the reputation you get in the press in Cuba for leaving, especially when you’re the captain of the national team the way he was.
"So the biggest question for me is the real character of who this guy is as a person,” added Friesen. “It’s really hard for me to get a sense of it, despite the fact I’m interviewing all these people around him. When he was sparring that 15-year-old kid, he wasn’t in shape. And I can’t figure out why he wouldn’t be in shape at the biggest moment of his life."
Just a few things that popped into my mind as I watched from home...
- If you can’t back up Miguel Cotto, even now, you’re gonna have a loooong night at the office. Because if he’s allowed to come forward unfettered, he still has heavy hands, as Yuri Foreman found out. Foreman was never able to halt Cotto’s momentum with anything significant.
- Foreman might have been one of Bob Arum’s greatest promotional jobs. Think about it; you have a kid whose style can be best described as “negative” and yet, he gets him to an HBO fight at Yankee Stadium and has more than a few people (ahem, cough, cough…like me) picking him to beat Cotto. “Stadium Slugfest” wasn’t a great fight, but it was turned into an event. And if Yankee Stadium becomes a semi-regular player for boxing, then it was a huge success.
- From what I’m told, there were far more Puerto Ricans there in the Bronx, than those of the Jewish faith. I’ll say it again; I don’t think that the Jewish community has come out in large numbers for boxing since the days of Barney Ross and Benny Leonard. As for the Puerto Ricans, they love themselves some boxing. And Cotto’s win was big for the business; bottom line, he is still one of the game’s biggest draws- especially in the East Coast.
- Thought HBO did a great job on the telecast this weekend. They really did a nice job in capturing the essence of the history of Yankee Stadium and the sport of boxing (Nice job in including Larry Merchant; he was perfect for that piece). It was HBO production and storytelling at its very best.
- Finally, I was a bit puzzled by referee Arthur Mercante Jr., who, after the towel was thrown in on Foreman’s behalf (after Foreman’s knee gave out), decided to wave the fight back on. Isn’t the referee’s job to protect the health and safety of the fighters? And in the case of Foreman, take away “The Runnin’ Rabbi’s” legs, and you take away what he does best. If he isn’t a puncher on two good pins, he certainly won’t be one, hobbling around the ring like a wounded animal.
I’m just wondering, in an era where we see timeouts for cuts (when ringside doctors come onto the ring apron and even work on them for a period of time), why didn’t anyone from the New York Commission at least take a look at Foreman’s injury?
Also, in terms of who threw the towel in…well, last time I checked, outside of Pittsburgh Steelers games, spectators usually don’t bring in their own towels to sporting events. Later on, it was admitted by Foreman’s corner that it was them that tossed it into the ring.
And it was at that time when the fight should’ve been halted.
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