Ronnie Shields talks Guillermo Rigondeaux, Sweet Pea, and the nature of fighters By Gabriel Montoya, MaxBoxing (July 22, 2010) Special to Doghouse Boxing
One of the most celebrated amateur fighters in the history of boxing, Guillermo Rigondeaux turned pro last year. He left his homeland of Cuba, boasting a record of 374-12 with gold medals won in the 2000 and 2004 Olympics, for the warm confines of Los Angeles where he trained under veteran Freddie Roach at his famed Wild Card Boxing Club. It was an interesting marriage between Roach’s offense-heavy style and Rigondeaux’s pure defensive tendencies. Though the Cuban national has great pop in both hands that shows itself in his fights which generally end in explosive body shot knockouts, his tendency in the gym and, somewhat in his fights, is to fight defensively until the moment presents itself.
Despite being an older-than-usual prospect, his experience and skills had Rigondeaux on the fast track with his handlers claiming he would get a title in ten fights or less. However, managerial issues held up his career this year and the 29 year old southpaw pro (5-0 with 4 KOs) watched as the wheels ground to a halt.
Now that has passed as the issues were resolved and Rigondeaux finds himself en route to Houston’s Savannah Boxing Gym to work with veteran trainer Ronnie Shields who has worked with Pernell “Sweet Pea” Whitaker, Juan Diaz, Tomasz Adamek, Vernon Forrest, David Tua, and many more. He is also developing southpaw Cuban Erislandy Lara, who is a former Cuban teammate of Rigondeaux’s. I spoke with Shields on Wednesday as he prepared for the arrival of “El Chacal” (The Jackal) sometime later this week.
“I got a call from his [Rigondeaux’s] lawyer about a month ago and he asked me if I was interested in the job,” Shields said when asked how this came about. “I told him yes, I was, and so we discussed our times and everything and [put] it all together.”
Rigondeaux comes to Shields with a serious pedigree but sight unseen, save for some tape. Shields made it clear that while he understood the defensive talent Rigondeaux possesses, who he truly is as a fighter won’t be revealed until they work together in the gym. One thing Shields does understand already is that changing a fighter so established in his style is not necessarily needed. Rather, enhancing the strengths and finding the weaknesses is the key.
“I looked at [Whitaker] as a great defensive fighter,” Shields said when asked about his thoughts on his most famous southpaw charge. “He wasn’t a puncher but he was a guy who would throw his punches when he had to. He sized a guy up first and then he would work off of that. I think Rigondeaux is probably going to be the same way. I think he likes to size you up. But the only thing is Rigondeaux can punch. He’s a good puncher. Where Pernell couldn’t get you out, this guy can knock you out. And I understand what he is doing and I really understand that. But until I get him in the gym and see what he is doing, then I can tell you better. I can’t say ‘I will make him this or that’ until I see him. I can’t make him anything until I see him. I may like the way he goes about things. That may work for me. But until I get him in the gym, it is hard to say if I need to do more than what he is already doing.
“I’ll just work with the style that he has already,” Shields continued. “Just try and add to his style so he can be comfortable with what he is doing. In no way in the world would I try and change anything that he is doing because I already like the way he fights. He already has a lot of experience. I have experience too working with one of the best southpaws ever in ‘Sweet Pea’ Whitaker. So for me, being with a southpaw is anything I am not used to.”
If Roach had a complaint about Rigondeaux, it was that he didn’t let his hands and the power in them flow nearly enough. “El Chacal” could spend what felt like hours between punches in the gym, making opponents miss in a variety of ways and dancing gracefully and economically out of the way. But knowing that power is there along with excellent speed and a delivery system but watching it not happen can drive a trainer nuts. Though Roach and Rigondeaux split amicably, the thought is there that, at 29, “El Chacal” might be who he is. Shields plans to take a wait-and-see approach.
“You adjust the program,” he said. “I have fighters right now who I’d love to throw more punches. It’s like pulling a tooth, you know? They don’t want to do it, you know? At some point, you have to make them realize they have to make an adjustment. I haven’t had anybody in the gym yet so basically it’s going to be hands-on learning for both of us. He has to learn my style and my technique and I have to learn his. We have to put them together and see what we come up with. I’m not worried about him right now because the thing about it is this kid knows how to win. He’s had over 400 amateur fights. Two Olympic gold medals. So what does that tell you? That tells you he’s a winner. He knows how to win. I just have to see what he looks like when he gets here and just take things accordingly.”
Speaking with Shields on the subject of southpaws and what many consider the next great fighter, the talk inevitably must turn to Whitaker, who became a star using a style predicated on defense which is a rarity these days. I asked Shields what his favorite memory of Whitaker is.
“My favorite memory…I guess when he moved up to welterweight and we fought James ‘Buddy’ McGirt,” said Shields. “When we fought him in New York. We beat him there in a good fight and we turned around and fought him again in Norfolk, VA. The first fight, I don’t know; they say something was wrong with Buddy or whatever. So Pernell said ‘OK, let’s do a rematch.’ So we did a rematch and, hands down, Pernell just won the fight. There was doubt about that fight. The first fight was a close fight but everyone, including I, thought Pernell won. But Pernell almost stopped Buddy after the 11th and 12th round. But as great a fighter Buddy was, he was able to hold on and finish the fight.
“But with Pernell, man,” Shields continued, searching deeper, “I guess a lot my memories come from the gym because of how hard this guy worked. This guy did it the way he was supposed to do it. The way all fighters are supposed to do it. People knocked him about his life outside of boxing but let me tell you something; this guy didn’t get to where he was by not training. And that’s what he did. He put training before everything. And I never forget that and I try to instill that in all of my guys.”
Is having a work ethic like that in the gym contagious?
“Absolutely!” Shields exclaimed. “Everybody copies it. Everybody copies what the best fighter is doing. And still, today in the gym, that’s the way it is. People want that to rub off on them. I can say that in our gym right now. With guys looking up to Juan Diaz, they see how this kid works his butt off in the gym every day and that’s a great thing to have in the gym.”
During Rigondeaux’s time here in L.A., I had the pleasure of watching Rigondeaux work in the gym. A defensive master at just five fights, the years he spent as an amateur show in how relaxed “El Chacal” is in the ring, a place he clearly feels is not just home but his kingdom. Sparring partner after sparring partner came at him during one session and he would move slightly to the left or right, making the opponent miss widely and then come back with something ugly. Over and over, he could stay in front of an opponent, create an opening and then exploit it. Shields explained that, like Whitaker, Rigondeaux’s ability is natural-born; something innate that cannot be taught.
“That’s something that you can’t teach,” explained Shields. “You can’t teach that. You can show a guy that over and over and they’d never get it. That’s something that they are naturally born with. Seriously, these guys are unnatural athletes. And that is what it takes for someone to be able to pick something up, do it right then and right there when you first show it them. And then, all of sudden, they start doing different things and they start making it their own. Fighters are born with that. Guys are born with that. That is not something that is teachable. I have other southpaws and I have shown them tapes of Pernell, tapes of stuff we did in the gym and stuff like that and try and show them how to do it. They can never do it. Talented as a lot of fighters are, they can never do it. Like with Pernell, sometimes he would drop his hands in front of a guy and dare the guy to hit him. Dare the guy to hit him and the guy swings at him and BOOM! He’d hit the guy with three or four or five hard shots and then not be there to come back with. You can’t teach that. That’s a natural thing. I love fighters like that. But he didn’t just stop it there; you know what I’m saying? It was always something different with him because he wanted to be the best. So he always came up with something different and that’s what separated him from a lot of fighters.”
With fighters like Rigondeaux and Whitaker, there is a perfect marriage between innate ability and dedication to the craft of boxing. This allows for a creativity to manifest itself in a way few fighters ever experience.
“Absolutely,” agreed Shields. “Absolutely, without a doubt. That’s it; that’s right. They live in the moment of the round.”
As Rigondeaux and Shields’ journey, now beginning, continues, we will go further into the development of one of the most intriguing prospects in the world.