The Fallacy of Effective Aggression, and other thoughts on Rigondeaux-Donaire
Even those of us who thought Guillermo “El Chacal” Rigondeaux would defeat Nonito Donaire in Saturday’s hotly anticipated 122-pound title unification bout couldn’t have foreseen a whitewash.
And lets not kid ourselves. If you gave Donaire more than two rounds on Saturday you either work for Top Rank, or you might as well. Yes, I realize both fighters compete under Bob Arum’s banner, but if one of them is the heir to Top Rank cash cow Manny Pacquiao it’s Donaire, who hails from the same hometown and has received a similar promotional push from Arum and HBO.
And none of it helped him against an opponent with a solid game plan and the confidence and skills to execute it. Rigondeaux neutralized Donaire’s thunderous left hook, stung him with powerful and precise counters, and forced one of the sport’s most dynamic and self-assured performers to second-guess every punch he threw. Rigondeaux, now undefeated in 13 fights, survived a 10th-round knockdown to re-assert control over the contest, sealing a thorough boxing lesson by battering Donaire in the 12th.
The win launches Rigondeaux into a place just behind Floyd Mayweather and Andre Ward in the pound-for-pound rankings, but does it make him a star?
Rigondeaux style is compulsively watchable for purists (like me), but is far too defensive and calculating to sell to the mainstream.That crowd wants action; Rigondeaux delivers tactical and technical brilliance. A Rigondeaux boxing master class and a close-quarters slugfest between Brandon Rios and Mike Alvarado are both highly entertaining, but the brawl entertains in a way that makes money.
It’s like the difference between Lalah Hathaway’s smouldering vocals and Rihanna’s sex-soaked pageantry. Both are engrossing, but to different crowds and for different reasons.
But whether or not you find it exciting, Rigondeaux’ blend of defensive wizardry and authoritative counterpunching is relentlessly effective. And in the aftermath of his career-defining win over Donaire, three factors stand out to me.
1. Rigondeaux’ amateur background paid big dividends
By the time he left Cuba in 2008 Rigondeaux was considered the best amateur boxer ever. He won Olympic gold in 2000 and 2004, and among his reported 400 amateur bouts lost just 12. His track record highlights his immense skill and savvy but also hinted at a problem heading into a bout with a pro as accomplished as Donaire.
After a lifetime spent with amateur boxing’s four-round bouts and computerized scoring, could Rigondeaux tailor his style to a pro fight game that rewards body blows, knockdowns and laundry list of intangibles?
Turns out Rigondeaux has adjusted just fine, and dismantled Donaire partly because he still employs select amateur tactics.
Chiefly, whenever Donaire landed a clean blow Rigondeaux would answer almost immediately, like fighters do when they’re aware every landed punch means a point. Amateur bouts aren’t about taking a few shots while building a case with a stronger overall round. They’re about grabbing a lead and not allowing your opponent to pull away. When he scores you need to score, lest you find yourself trailing.
So when Donaire connected, decisive replies from Rigondeaux came instantly, sometimes even before Donaire’s lead had landed. By countering like a man trying to please a computerized scoring system Rigondeaux repeatedly deadened any momentum Donaire hoped to build, showed judges he remained in control, and established the general theme for the evening.
“We fought the Cuban boxing way, hit and don’t get hit,” trainer Pedro Diaz told reporters afterward. “We made Donaire look very bad.”
2. Not calling Team Donaire liars, but…
…I’m struggling to digest the post-fight excuses. He wasn’t just injured but distracted. And not just injured and distracted, but he neglected to do any film study on Donaire.
Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated calls that last detail an admission.
I call it a claim.
Donaire’s profession in general and style of fighting in particular demand a bulletproof self-belief, but entering the biggest fight of your career against the trickiest fighter in your weight class without bothering to watch video on him? That’s confidence bypassing hubris and heading straight to stupidity.
And I don’t think anybody in Donaire’s camp is stupid.
Just a little embarrassed over Saturday’s showing.
So to save face they make a series of “revelations” detailing just how unprepared Donaire was for the fight.
I think Donaire was fully prepared for the bout; he just wasn’t ready for Rigondeaux’ brilliance.
3. If you thought the fight was boring, you’re probably blaming the wrong guy
Since the final bell plenty of observers — hardcore and casual fans alike — have criticized Rigondeaux’s style, a defense-first approach that’s part Pernell Whitaker, part Floyd Mayweather and all Cuban sandunga. Rigondeaux’ critics say he came to run and not to fight, but the numbers say his hands were more active than Donaire’s:
Punches thrown, Rigondeaux — 396.
Punches thrown, Donaire — 352.
And the bruises on Donaire’s face tell the story more emphatically. Rigondeaux punched plenty.
So remind me again which guy wasn’t busy enough?
You could argue that Donaire made the fight by moving forward, but moving forward without punching should win neither rounds nor moral victories. Boxing judges reward effective aggressiveness, and stalking without throwing isn’t effective. If you don’t believe me look at Donaire’s face…
And then look at Rigondeaux’.
If Donaire wanted exchanges with Rigondeaux he needed to shrink the ring and force his man to trade punches. It’s not on Rigondeaux to go toe-to-toe any more than it’s Mariano Rivera’s job to throw fastballs over the fat part of the plate… you know, because cutters lead to groundouts and groundouts are boring.
We don’t ask any other athletes to make an opponent’s job easier — unless you’re that rare sports fan who thinks giving up more home runs would make Rivera a more compelling pitcher. Yet we deride defensive-minded boxers as “unwilling to take risks.”
And people want to use Saturday’s fight to add Rigondeaux to that list, except for this:
The guy who was “forcing the action” refused to let his hands go for an all too logical reason: whenever Donaire threw Rigondeaux would stun him with sharp counterpunches. The less Donaire threw, the less he got hit in return, so he let his punch output diminish.
Which makes perfect sense, since even pro fighters tire of getting smashed in the face.
But it should also make you reconsider which fighter was unwilling to take risks Saturday night, and which one was rewarded for actually making the fight.
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