Wednesday, February 3, 2010
Freddie Roach Searches for Guillermo Rigondeaux’s Offense
At the Wild Card Boxing Club in Hollywood, CA, you will find one of the most dangerous, offensive fighters in recent memory, one Manny Pacquiao. During his training camp for his upcoming bout with Joshua Clottey, Pacquiao’s training sessions are closed to the public from 1 PM to 4 PM. However, if offense isn’t your thing, then come a little earlier and you will get to see one of the sport’s true masters ply his trade. Celebrated Cuban amateur star and now burgeoning professional Guillermo “El Chacal” or “The Jackal” Rigondeaux, 4-0 (3), makes his home here and trains under the guidance of veteran trainer Freddie Roach. It’s an odd match as Roach is known as a more offense-oriented trainer while Rigondeaux loves to make opponents miss, while not necessarily always making them pay. Just speaking with both men gives one the sense that while they both agree the bantamweight Rigondeaux can do big things in the sport in a short time, how he will do that is still a point of contention.
“He is a very challenging guy,” Roach told me after a recent sparring session, as Rigondeaux prepares for a February 5 bout with Adolfo Landeros, 20-12-1 (9), televised on ESPN2. “Very clever and all that, but I need him to be more offensive. He gets kind of stuck in the Cuban style, amateur boxing, where he scores points and don’t let you score back. He is very hard to hit. Anyone coming to brawl, he will eat up. But when someone comes to box, he is going to have trouble going forward. He is working on being more offensive and it’s going slowly.”
“Naturally I had to do some adjustments because of the styles,” Rigondeaux told me of the change from amateur to pro.. “A professional compared to an amateur is a little different so I had to change somewhat with my distance and with my short punches. So yeah, I have had to make some adjustments. In the professionals, it’s more about strength and give and take. That kind of style and you have ten fights and your career can be over.”
Rigondeaux is one of the greatest amateur fighters of all times. He boasts two Olympic gold medals in two separate Olympics and countless other awards. His amateur record is 374-12. The man knows fighting. In particular, he understands the art of hit-and-not-get-hit.
Watching him in the gym on this particular day, I saw him work with three separate sparring partners; an unknown Armenian kid who was rough, tumble, and too slow to get to Rigondeaux, Gerry Penalosa, who couldn’t hit him with a bucket of water, and Bernabe Concepcion, who made Rigondeaux pick up the pace both with his feet and hands in the final rounds of the session. It’s like watching a scientist in the lab. Rigondeaux is a southpaw who understands how to make that work for him. Always shifting his feet side to side, back and forth, but never in a hurry. Relaxed and calm in what he calls “the Cuban style” of holding his lead hand down in an “L” around his waist, ala Floyd Mayweather Jr., while picking off shots with his rear hand. Nothing is rushed; each movement is used to keep his opponent off-balance and unsure, and all of it worked on this day. I got the sense he wasn’t toying with his opponents so much as tweaking and testing his own style to see what would work and what wouldn’t.
When he is at his most effective is from the outside. Jabbing one or two at a time, baiting his opponent by not throwing the left, feinting, and then flashing that powerful left while getting out of the way of return fire. I saw him do this move over and over but each time, it was a little different. He’d move left first, or right, come back to center ring and leap forward with the left or right. He’s feint both punches then slip the incoming while diagonal stepping past an opponent and turn just in time to get off a beautiful counter. This is the guy you don’t want to see in a phone booth.
“Every day in the gym, I am coming up with different ways to improve my style,” said Rigondeaux afterward. “Nothing in particular, defensive skills. Just stuff that has worked for me for a long time. I plan to do some things different, but not much. My style has worked for me up to this point. I don’t see a need to change much up in it. I know I can change up my style when I want. I can fight on the inside or the outside. I just prefer to fight on the outside because that has been effective for me. So I don’t plan on changing much on it.”
Rigondeaux does not watch tape of his opponents, instead leaving that to Roach. He prefers instead to gather intel from his trainer and then get in the ring. His opponent will tell him the rest.
“Most of my thing is to get the other guy into my rhythm, my type of style, and that is boxing. That is what I plan to do,” explained Rigondeaux. “I just need to find my rhythm. Find the other guy’s rhythm and have that work for me. After that, I can figure out what will work for me and what won’t.”
At age 29, it’s hard to say if Rigondeaux can change his style much. While he is as versatile and as skilled a fighter as I have ever witnessed in the gym, at 370+ fights, he may be set in his ways. This is the challenge that Roach faces. Plus, when you’ve only lost 12 times in your life, it’s hard for anyone to tell you what you are doing is wrong. Still, this isn’t the amateurs. In the United States, where ESPN, HBO and Showtime are respective kings in the boxing world, entertainment is key.
“It’s hard,” said Roach of his efforts to get more offense from Rigondeaux. “You fight the same way for 375 fights, it hard. He’s getting better at it but I am not sure we will get to where I want. I told him he can be like Gamboa. He beat Gamboa in the amateurs. He does have that kind of power. The problem is, once people feel that power, they start moving and running away from him. Winning is one thing, but being a TV superstar is another. It’s why you’re here. That’s why he needs to be more offensive.”
The 122-pound super bantamweight division has seen some of its stars, as of late, leave for the more lucrative featherweight division. Juan Manuel Lopez and Yuri Gamboa are just two stars who have vacated Rigondeaux’s weight class, leaving him free to pick up vacant belts and make a quick move despite his few fights as a pro. The problem is getting anyone ranked to fight him.
“I feel very comfortable at 122 and before I move up to 126, I’d rather conquer all the titles at 122. After that, I will see if I can go up to 126.” said Rigondeaux. “Mostly everybody has gone up in weight leaving titles vacant. So I feel secure in fighting anybody at this weight. I’m just waiting for the opportunity. What happens, though, is that you get guys with 20-something fights and I only have four fights, their excuse is that I don’t have enough fights. They don’t want to give me a shot. I say, ‘Why not?’ The money is there so why not give me a shot? Who cares about how many fights I have?”
Despite his pupil’s confidence in his own abilities, Roach feels Rigondeaux needs a little more time adjusting his style to the pros. Proper matchmaking at this stage is key.
“I’d put him in with Israel Vasquez today,” said Roach. “But someone who can box and move a little bit? Those styles I will hold off on for a while until I get him more comfortable coming forward.”
For now, Rigondeaux has Landeros in front of him. At 5’ 6”, Landeros gives up an inch in height but is only a year older than the Cuban. With losses to also-rans or never-wases, it’s safe to say this fight won’t go many rounds. But dangerous foe or not, Rigondeaux is the consummate pro. He doesn’t make predictions and has no preconceived notions about the fight.
“I am not putting too much thought into the fight. Meaning, I’m just focusing on winning and then getting ready for the next fight.”
Whether it’s an offensive fight or a defensive show, Rigondeaux’s considerable skills will be on display this Friday on ESPN’s “Friday Night Fights.” Judge for yourself whether he needs more offense or not; one way or the other, the skills are undeniable. What he does with them remains to be seen.
“In the States,” said Roach, “it’s about entertaining people. And that’s by knocking people out. [Rigondeaux] has knockout power for a little guy. He just has to use it.”