One man became the most expensive smuggled cargo in the world, the other is simply untouchable inside a boxing ring and this weekend in the basement at Madison Square Garden they meet in a fight that defies category.
Guillermo Rigondeaux is the tiny Cuban exile, once Fidel Castro’s favourite fighter, once adored on the streets of Havana but twice a defector and now one of the most avoided boxers in the business. Rigondeaux is unbeaten in 17 as a professional and lost just 12 times in 475 amateur contests. He won two Olympic gold medals, two world amateur titles, he has not lost since 2003 and amazingly starts Saturday’s fight as the underdog.
Vasyl Lomachenko is the Ukraine idol, a man blessed with such ridiculous physical agility, timing and speed that when he performs his routines in the gym it looks like sorcery. Lomachenko has lost just twice in a total of 412 fights, won a world title in his third professional fight and like Rigondeaux he has also won two Olympic titles.
He is naturally bigger, nearly eight years younger, taller, but has a reach disadvantage. Cuban children are not natural boxers, they are screened for their assets and reach is one of the factors crucial to their confinement inside schools where they are made into boxers during a decade of service.
In 2007 Rigondeaux went over the wall at a tournament in Brazil, gloried in his defection briefly and then went back to Cuba to see his family. His public humiliation was total, promises were not kept and he lost his right to fight and the meagre extra rations that come with such fame in a country devoted to its boxers.
Rigondeaux seethed in private, threaten to sell a gold medal to a holidaying gringo to pay for his daughter’s birthday party and it was not long before men from boxing’s darkest regions made contact in the Havana shadows. It was very secretive, bundles of dollars were left in hiding for the disgraced fighter and another, far more intricate defection was planned.
In 2009 Rigondeaux finally landed in Miami, leaving behind a family, a nation and a treacherous route away from a midnight beach in Cuba involving ransom, cartels, kidnap and death threats.
Rigondeaux has fought just 17 times in eight years as a professional, eleven times for a world title, but the real story and not a pretty one is the failure of Rigondeaux to make an impact on the boxing world. He is simply too good and he is also troublesome to deal with, seldom smiling and constantly at war with the various men that helped smuggle him to freedom.
He has been called ungrateful by the men pursuing him occasionally through the courts and boring to watch by too many at ringside who should know better. Cuba, remember, is not famous for its clown school and Rigondeaux’s escape was made possible by men devoted to making money from his fighting skills. It’s a dirty, bloody affair.
Lomachenko walked to freedom through a glittering phalanx of back-slapping converts, hailed as the future before his first professional fight; in fight number two he lost for the second time in his career when he fought for a world title against a veteran called Orlando Salido. It was a shock, but a brilliant victory for the old pro game, a game increasingly under siege by the exploits of the seasoned and brilliant amateurs from the old fighting axis known as the Eastern Bloc.
However, in fight three Lomachenko won his world title and in fight seven he added a second; little Vasyl has now fought ten times and nine have been for a version of the world title; nobody other than Rigondeaux has lived a similar, extreme boxing life.
They meet on Saturday for Lomachenko’s WBO super-featherweight title and that means Rigondeaux has to gain eight pounds to move from super-bantamweight, the type of substantial weight gain that very few fighters in the last 50 years have been comfortable with; when boxing had eight fewer weight categories the fighters had to jump up and down, securing important fights at much heavier poundage.
In the modern world few take the risk connected with stepping up unless they are being paid for making the move to slaughter. Rigondeaux has taken it, knowing a win changes everything for him.
It is unlikely to be a slugfest when the first bell sounds but just the opportunity to watch two men with a combined record of just 14 defeats in 904 fights, both with two gold medals hanging proudly in a room somewhere, should be cherished.
They each are capable of perfection inside the ring, comfortable with taking risks measured by millimetres and the only real edge is Lomachenko’s natural size; Rigondeaux will have to be the fighter we have seldom seen, an aggressive, risk-taker and if that transformation happens – we have seen brutal glimpses of it – he can win one of the purest boxing matches ever staged and it will be an event because quite simply there has never been a fight like it.