Despite all the talk of promotional apathy and network double standards, Guillermo Rigondeaux made his return to HBO last night, winning a unanimous decision over Joseph Agbeko before a sparse and steadily dwindling crowd at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
It was another masterful performance from Rigondeaux, who won every round on all three scorecards, but failed again to win the applause of people who watch fights to see fights. Rigondeaux, Miami, Florida, is a master of hitting and not getting hit. It is hard to criticize his wizardry considering both the years of work it took to perfect, and the stakes in a sport where trained fighters aim their weapons at each other. But when the crowd wants to hear about the man from Nantucket, you don’t go reciting “Four Quartets.” Rigondeaux has addressed his relationship with the audience before, staunchly refusing to make concessions to satisfy the bloodlust of the paying public. And really, why would he? Despite all the talk of him being unwelcome on HBO airwaves, Rigondeaux was back headlining a show against an opponent who had lost three of his last five fights, and fought just once in the past two years. There are worse ways to make a living, especially for a Cuban defector. Surely Rigondeaux knows this, which might explain why he does little more than what is necessary to notch a win, preserve his health, and line up another easy payday.
There is a touch of Arthur Schopenhauer about Rigondeaux. Schopenhauer scheduled his lectures at the University of Berlin to coincide with those of his rival, Hegel (whom Schopenhauer considered a charlatan). Hegel, however, was wildly popular at the time, and Schopenhauer often stubbornly delivered his lectures to empty classrooms. Unlike Schopenhauer, Rigondeaux does not perform in front of empty rooms, so much as emptying ones. But like the cantankerous philosopher, Rigondeaux’s stubbornness is rooted in his belief that his way is the right way, to hell with what people think; and the longer he goes underappreciated the more tenacious his grip on this belief. This not only puts him at odds with the audience—it puts him at odds on principle. The pride of a two-time olympic gold medalist is unlikely to relax simply because people who do not appreciate what he does were far more captivated by the undercard free-for-all between Glen Tapia and James Kirkland than the way Rigondeaux so easily disarmed Agbeko. Which is precisely what Rigondeaux did—in under a round.
Aware that he was not going to outbox Rigondeaux, Agbeko let his hands go early in the first round. Having seen it all before, Rigondeaux, 121, took a minute to appraise Agbeko’s lunges before ripping him with counter lefts to the body. By the start of the second round, Agbeko, Bronx, New York, was flinching at Rigondeaux’s feints, struggling with range, and the fight was ostensibly over. Unwilling to pay the price for his aggression, Agbeko spent the rest of the fight moving everything but his fists. Rigondeaux tried to open Agbeko up a bit, working left crosses to the body before hooking upstairs, and even stalking Agbeko in a few rounds, but Agbeko would not be goaded into vulnerability. Neither, of course, would Rigondeaux.
In the fifth round the number of people streaming for the exists rivaled the number of punches thrown, and the commentary spin job was in full effect. (The highlight of which was Andre Ward ironically suggesting Rigondeaux do a little more to get rid of Agbeko.)
Like Nonito Donaire, Rigondeaux needs the right style in front of him to entertain. Except Rigondeaux, 13-0 (8), is more polished than Donaire, and he makes fewer mistakes, which means aggression is even less likely to pay off against the Cuban. Agbeko, 121 1/2, had the style to make Rigondeaux work, but found out almost immediately that the risk was not worth it and was content to go twelve rounds free of any serious punishment, which suited Rigondeaux just fine. For Rigondeaux, the risk is never worth it, in part because there has been very little risk demanded of him. The question then, is who can present just such a risk?
Asked about a rematch with Donaire, Rigondeaux dismissed his former foe as traumatized by the beating Rigondeaux gave him in April, but said he was happy to beat him again. It is a rematch that makes a lot of sense: Donaire is the biggest fight available for Rigondeaux, and gaining revenge over Rigondeaux would help repair Donaire’s tarnished reputation. It is also a dangerous and difficult fight, which means, considering the fighters involved, it stands to be another less than scintillating affair. Caveat emptor to all who buy a ticket only to complain about the action. Rigondeaux is also open to fighting Vasyl Lomachenko, another two-time olympic gold medalist, who is being fast-tracked by his promoter.
What Agbeko, 29-5 (22), has left is hard to say, given that he was so unwilling to show it last night. Or maybe that reticence betrays all that remains of “King Kong”? He looked like a guy who didn’t want be there, which is a dangerous mindset to bring to a fight. Of course, getting ensnared by boxing’s other King, that bamboozling, murderous crook, can do that to you.