Photos by Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports
Tomorrow night Madison Square Garden will play host to a fight between two of the greatest boxers of the modern era. Between them they boast four Olympic gold medals, numerous world titles, and an armada of forum threads arguing over which man is the greatest pound-for-pound boxer today. Since the moment it was announced, this meeting between Guillermo Rigondeaux and Vasyl Lomachenko has been the must-see event of the fight fan’s winter season.
While it is technically true that this fight is taking place at Madison Square Garden, it is more accurately going to happen in The Theatre at Madison Square Garden—a considerably smaller venue. It is also being broadcast for free on ESPN rather than on pay-per-view—which would seem bizarre to those who know the quality of the fighters involved. Both of these decisions reflect the nature of the fight: it is one between the darlings of the hardcore fans and press, but it remains to be seen how much interest it can attract from outsiders. That might seem to be rubbing salt into the wounds in the year of "The Money Fight," but one cannot tell Guillermo Rigondeaux’s story without touching on his promotional woes and his status as perhaps the most under-appreciated fighter in combat sports today.
After winning a pair of Olympic gold medals, Rigondeaux defected from his native Cuba and went professional in 2009. Winning the WBA-NABA super bantamweight title in just his third fight, Rigo was picked up by Top Rank and the future seemed bright. In 2013 Top Rank was able to work him into a career making match up with super-bantamweight star, Nonito Donaire. It was the most exciting knockout artist in the lower weightclasses versus a slick ring tactician—what could possibly go wrong? Well, Rigondeaux won convincingly by being the defensive savant he was billed as. Many fans hated it, some of the press weren’t enamored, and even Bob Arum—owner of Top Rank and Rigondeaux’s own promoter—was struggling to work out what he was going to do with Rigo. Arum mused:“If Rigondeaux would stand and fight, [he] has a lot of power and a lot of skills, but running the way he does really makes it not a watchable fight.” Arum then foreshadowed Rigondeaux’s coming promotional woes by remarking: “I don't know what I'm gonna do […] I have to look for someone to fight him. He's one of the best defensive fighters I've ever seen, but it's not a very pleasing style. He's a very good fighter, but it's not pleasing, so we will have to see.”
The Invisible Champion
Two fights later Top Rank and Rigondeaux had gone their separate ways. Since beating Donaire for the WBA and lineal super bantamweight titles in April 2013, Rigondeaux has fought infrequently and to the applause of only those who work to seek him out. When he met Jazza Dickens, in his sole fight of 2016 at an ice rink in Wales with a capacity crowd of 3,000 people, it became abundantly clear that Rigondeaux is the worst promoted elite talent in boxing. It didn’t help that many of Rigondeaux’s more exciting fights ended under bizarre circumstances. An accidental headbutt turned into a Mayweather-esque glove touch to knockout punch against Sod Kokietgym. After a tentative two rounds against Jazza Dickens, the fight was called off unspectacularly on the stool between rounds as Dickens’s jaw was broken. And in Rigo’s most recent victory (now a No Contest), he hit Moises Flores after the bell in the first round and Flores paused for a moment’s consideration, before dropping to the mat and seeking the disqualification. It seemed as though even Rigo’s knockouts couldn’t please a crowd.Complaining that fans just don’t appreciate Rigondeaux’s style is old hat. A sportswriter is required to either call him a boring fighter who lacks killer instinct, or provide an impassioned rant insisting that anyone who doesn’t enjoy his fights clearly cannot know shit about boxing. The truth is, of course, that you can appreciate his genius and still wish he cared more about entertaining the crowds who could make him exceptionally wealthy if he were something more like Donaire.
For the fan trying to come to terms with what makes Rigondeaux so good: it is largely his sense of distance and his excellent left hand which seems to just go to openings without an effort from Rigondeaux himself. You will notice that it is very hard for fighters to effectively attack in combination against Rigondeaux because of his constant expanding of range when they attack, and stepping out the side door as soon as they get close. It is bread-and-butter boxing done very, very well.There are a couple of stranger quirks to Rigo’s game that come out from fight to fight. The first is his cross step. Cutting the lead foot across the rear one and then stepping deep to that side to change angle—a useful means of escape and of getting off to the open side to line up a left straight. It involves the fighter sacrificing balance and the ability to hit for a moment so you won’t see it much. Were the "pivot blow," as Bob Fitzsimmons called it, still legal you would see it more.Former Bellator light heavyweight champion Emanuel Newton used the cross step to set up spinning backhands in MMA.When he’s feeling flashy, Rigondeaux will also begin slowly shadow boxing in front of his opponent, then change up the tempo to hammer them with a real punch. This is similar to the concept of milling the hands before launching into a jab—the hands are already in motion and simply change speed when the fighter wants to strike, rather than performing a cold start.
Vasyl Lomachenko also owns two Olympic gold medals, making them rather blasé in this bout. Debuting as a professional six months after Rigondeaux defeated Donaire, Lomachenko has run his record to 9-1. Winning the WBO featherweight title in his third fight, Lomachenko stole the show on the undercard of Mayweather-Pacquiao as he boxed the ears of Gamalier Rodriguez. Lomachenko actually fought for the WBO title in just his second professional fight in attempt to do one better than Rigondeaux, but was roughed up by Orlando Salido in a performance which has been widely criticized as "dirty," or praised as "savvy." Salido introduced Lomachenko to the less than sporting world of the pro game, landing perfect right hooks and uppercuts to Lomachenko’s cup whenever Lomachenko’s back was obscuring the view of the referee.Since that Salido fight, Lomachenko has been flawless. A sharp jab and southpaw left straight are good weapons on the outside, but Lomachenko does his best work cutting angles and letting his hands go in mid-range. "Angles" is the most overused term in combat sports, but Lomachenko’s are as vibrant and in your face as they can get. Stepping outside of his opponent’s lead foot he will pivot around them—often accompanied by a slapping right hook—and hammer them as they turn. The left uppercut to the solar plexus or under the jaw is his best blow in this situation and it works a treat. The opponent turns with his hands high to avoid being blindsided, and eats a blow straight up the center of his guard as he does so. Often that same right hook will follow and in many of his fights Lomachenko will continue his step, turn, fire sequence two or even three times in a row against a panicked opponent.
Angles for Days
Another nice aspect of Lomachenko’s game is his control of the opponent’s head. Wrestling within boxing has always been an under-appreciated facet of the game but you only need to watch Floyd Mayweather’s bouts to realize that grabbing a hold of the opponent or leaning on them can hinder a fighter’s offense far more easily than attempting to block or slip each shot. Where Mayweather loves to lean on the back of his opponent’s head and then nail them if they slip out towards his armpit, Lomachenko will intentionally pass his opponent under his armpit at any time they duck down. Offensively, it can be used to line up punches as the opponent stands up. Defensively it allows Lomachenko to break away from his opponent and reset a few steps away.
Both Rigondeaux and Lomachenko are southpaws who enjoy surprising the many orthodox fighters they meet with unusual open guard looks: Rigo with his cross steps, Lomachenko with his pivots past the front foot. But both also hold vast wells of amateur experienced that they can draw on and are hardly going to be stumped for ideas when meeting another southpaw. Rigondeaux is three inches shorter, though he has a couple of inches in reach—ultimately meaning that neither man has a distinct natural advantage of range. What is interesting is that the bout is being contested at junior lightweight (or super featherweight, for the pessimists) which has a cut off of 130 lbs. Lomachenko has been competing at junior lightweight since last year, but Rigondeaux is coming up from super bantamweight (122lbs) where he is the champion. Rigondeaux looked undersized in some of his bouts in his home division—such as when he was dwarfed by Hisashi Amagasa, but has apparently been packing on some muscle for this contest.For Rigondeaux it seems likely that the strategy will be the same as it has been in almost all of his fights: limit the exchanges, maintain the range, and only close to land his one or two good shots before returning to range. A slower paced fight is more in Rigondeaux’s wheelhouse—though as he is a gifted counter puncher it is of course the threat of his blows which settles his opponents into a slower pace, rather than no one having thought to put the pace on him. If there is one thing that Lomachenko does well, it’s drive a high pace but as a result he rarely escapes his fights unmarked as Rigondeaux does.
The Match Up
The southpaw versus southpaw match up will give both men a lot more opportunity to play with their jab. In an open guard engagement work must be done to either move the lead hand or shoot inside or outside of it. The angles match up better for jabbing when both men are in the same stance. Conversely this makes it a little harder to land clean rear straights as the shoulder and back can be placed in the way where before the fighter was shooting into the open side. As Rigondeaux scores many of his points by pot-shotting with the left hand, it will be interesting to see what adjustments he makes against Lomachenko—whether he can force the left hand leads just as well or if he falls back more on the jab.Lomachenko might look to score with his jab on the outside, he does so decently against orthodox fighters, but his best blows always come after he has stepped into range and out of the side door. While going past the lead foot against orthodox fighters is his most common and colorful angle change, he has shown that he is happy to go both ways regardless of stance. In the few moments in his fights that Rigo gets nasty, he will often hold a collar tie with the right hand and blast in left uppercuts before breaking off with an overhand. Any time the two get close enough to exchange, it might well be worth Rigondeaux looking to grab the collar tie both to frustrate Lomachenko with rough-house tactics, but also to prevent him from stepping around to the side. That constant side-stepping is what forces Lomachenko’s opponents to play catch up in exchanges rather than work their own offense.
Continuing on that theme, Rigondeaux is hard to hit with a handful of rice but a couple of the occasions where he has been hit clean show a theme. Both Amagasa and Dickens were able to hammer Rigondeaux as he was standing up out of a crouch, and Dickens as he believed he was entering a clinch.Going to Rigondeaux with feints and double jabs, encouraging the slip and then leaning on him might be a smart move for Lomachenko. Releasing Rigondeaux and looking for the lead hook as he comes up, or using the rear uppercut to stand him up for the lead hook as he comes up, might provide some chances to crack the Cuban with a good punch. Either way, against an evasive opponent who leans deep, the double jab can be a life saver—keeping the advancing fighter relatively safe and uncommitted while drawing the intention out of the defensive fighter without the need for a power punch.Ultimately, each man’s ideal fight is the polar opposite of his opponent’s. If Lomachenko can drive the pace up and actually work some combinations and his brilliant bodywork, he stands a good chance of making the smaller, 37-year-old veteran tire. If Rigondeaux’s footwork and counter punches—along with the odd clinch entry to smother Lomachenko mid flurry—can prevent Lomachenko from working a pace effectively, Rigondeaux stands a great chance of outpointing Lomachenko. The chances are that Lomachenko’s perfect fight results in a more fan-friendly experience but if you have made it this far, the chances are you’re here for the sweet science and not so much the blood.Whatever happens Saturday night, the winner will probably be touted as the pound-for-pound best fighter alive for the coming years. Get back here on Monday and we’ll discuss how the fight went and all the fallout.Pick up Jack’s book, Notorious: The Life and Fights of Conor McGregor and follow him on Twitter @JackSlackMMA.