A Lunesta Fiesta may or may not take place tonight when Guillermo Rigondeaux makes his first start since nearly whitewashing Nonito Donaire last April when he faces veteran dangerman Joseph Agbeko at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
Except for suffering a knockdown in the 10th round, Rigondeaux outclassed Donaire, who bizarrely decided to scrap professionalism just before facing his most dangerous opponent. Last year Julio Cesar Chavez, Jr., chose the same vexing approach against Sergio Martinez—just add a little cannabis and some Cocoa Puffs to the mix. Is it possible that this kind of lax preparation is a psychological distress signal? Entering a fight with a load of built-in excuses certainly makes it easier to lose, and Donaire seemed completely lost against Rigondeaux. Needless to say, Rigondeaux, a master boxer whose balance, accuracy, and ring IQ are extraordinary, is not the kind of fighter you train yourself for.
After toying with Donaire—and drawing the ire of many who believe an action sport should have a little action in it—Rigondeaux seemed to find himself right back where he was in 2010 when he stunk out the joint so badly against Ricardo Cordoba that his next fight was broadcast in the U.S. from Ireland via the internet. Neither Bob Arum nor HBO seemed much interested in Rigondeaux after he pulled the plug on “The Filipino Flash,” and like Orson Welles after the arty one-two combo of Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, Rigondeaux was persona non grata in the boxing equivalent of Hollywood—Premium Cable Land. It was exile redux for Rigondeaux. Although Donaire had turned in his share of humdrum performances as well, he had the advantage of possessing showstopping power and the narrative continuity that came with years of HBO branding.
Of course, criticizing Rigondeaux for being dull will only get you accused of barbarism—at least by those who can spell it—or some sort of sporting philistinism. What is troublesome about Rigondeaux, however, is his attitude to the (theoretically) paying public. Between rounds against Donaire in New York, Rigodeaux heckled the booing audience and in a post-fight interview with Max Kellerman, Rigondeaux defiantly stated that he did not care what fans thought. Sviatoslav Richter once said, “I don’t play for the audience. I play for myself.” This attitude is fine for a pianist; he can write his nocturnes in the privacy of his own home, practice on his Steinway all by his lonesome, and give recitals in small halls to a handful of friends and enthusiasts. But a prizefighter being contemptuous of his audience is an iffy proposition. In fact, boxing might very well be one of the few pursuits in America where you can heap scorn on the crowd. Well, there was GG Allin, of course, whose punk-cum-sociopath stage antics included hurling feces at patrons and crashing through plate-glass windows. Or Ann Liv Young, a contemporary performance artist liable to go from threatening an audience member to urinating in a cake pan. But fighters have traditionally generated their own fortunes by attracting a following, not repelling one. These days, however, purses and even careers are often produced out of thin air by network executives bedazzled by cockeyed infatuations, bamboozled by fantasy rankings, and beholden to influential advisers. Singling out Rigondeaux may seem bizarre but not necessarily unjust, even by the Kakfaesque standards of the Sweet Science.
To muddle things up a bit more, Rigondeaux, 12-0 (8), knows a mismatch when he answers the bell in one and takes care of business with grim professional zeal when that happens. To put it simply, second-raters stand no chance against him. Rickety wee Willie Casey was bombed out in one at the City West Hotel in Dublin; Rico Ramos was wrecked before a throng of 384 paying customers; and Teon Kennedy looked like a wobbly advertisement for the AMA after Rigondeaux was through with him.
Will Agbeko, with only five fights in three years, fall into that category for Rigondeaux?
After 15 years as a pro, Agbeko, 29-4 (22), has developed a slightly jaded look over his last few starts, and seven consecutive fights have gone the distance going back to 2008. He was competitive against Abner Mares in their infamous “Sack Tapping” bout in 2011 but was outboxed in the rematch. Then came the inactivity and the lawsuit against Don King, whom Agbeko has accused of creative accounting. If the stories about King and Agbeko are true, then “King Kong” is entering the ring against Rigondeaux under some of the bleakest reasons possible: dire necessity. Agbeko, now 33, has been lost in a Don King wormhole for years. Going back to at least “The Lost Generation” of 1980s heavyweights, King has been a great demoralizer of fighters, and if Agbeko has been laid as low as so many others before him have, then his chances of succeeding are worse than the oddsmakers believe they are. Climbing out of a pitfall in boxing usually means grabbing hold of the short end of the stick with greased palms, and fighting a virtuoso southpaw like Rigondeaux seems less like an opportunity than an act of desperation.
At this stage of his career, Agbeko, the Bronx via Ghana, is likely too moth-eaten to trouble Rigondeaux much. In addition, his lack of foot speed will likely cost him against a fighter as mobile as Rigondeaux. If he resurrects his odd double-right leads, Agbeko may be able to catch Rigondeaux, 33, by surprise once or twice. But Agbeko, while still a cagey junk artist, is too deliberate to discomfort Rigondeaux, Miami by way of Santiago de Cuba, for long. It will take a dedicated pressure fighter with firepower to outhustle Rigondeaux, and the last time Agbeko set a breakneck pace was against William Gonzalez in 2008. Rigondeaux ought to be able to outpoint Agbeko as he pleases in Atlantic City tonight. Whether he does it smoothly, like a man lost in a danzón , or with verve, like a man playing timbales in an after-dark jam, is probably the only question of interest once the opening bell rings.