by Cliff Rold
Lineal Jr. featherweight king Guillermo Rigondeaux (18-1, 12 KO) didn’t make any new fans when he surrendered in the corner after six rounds against Vasyl Lomachenko last December. His trip to Jr. lightweight was well promoted, drew a nice crowd at the arena, and succeeded in terms of television ratings.
In the ring, it was a nightmare for perception of the cerebral Cuban. On his biggest stage in years, what was witnessed was, for many, largely dispassionate with a finish too rational for what is often an irrational endeavor.
Considering the years he’s given to the game, first as an amateur phenom, one would assume it’s not the lasting memory the 38-year old Rigondeaux would want to leave behind. To his fortune, the division that has been his professional home since defecting to the free world is heating up at the perfect time for a twilight run.
After the Donaire fight, none of the rest of the best at 122 lbs seemed all to interested in finding out whether they could be the very best in the class. It paid fine enough, and there were enough other hard nights around, not to chase that riddle.
As BoxingScene’s Jake Donovan reminded earlier this week, one can view Rigondeaux-Ceja as far more than a sanctioning body eliminator. The Cuban has never lost at 122 lbs. Significantly, Rigondeaux is 6-0 in the division since he defeated widely recognized world champion Nonito Donaire in their April 2013 unification match.
In a purist sense, every time Rigondeaux competes at 122 lbs. he is defending his historical claim to the crown. A win over Julio Ceja (32-3, 28 KO) on Sunday night (8 PM EST) would mark seven defenses for Rigondeaux. It also sets the stage for a shot at one of the best in his class right now: WBC titlist Rey Vargas (33-0, 22 KO).
That’s only one of a few vibrant options that could emerge for the admittedly aging Rigondeaux who is now boxing under the PBC umbrella. Here are five possible fights out there that could give Rigondeaux a chance to polish his run at Jr. featherweight, perhaps replace the image of the Lomachenko loss, and breathe new life into the Cult of Rigo.
1. Rey Vargas: As noted, if Rigondeaux gets by Ceja on Sunday, he will be the mandatory to Vargas, assuming Vargas gets by a title fight with Tomoki Kameda in July. Vargas is well regarded, ten years younger, and would present some dimensional issues for Rigondeaux in terms of height and reach. If Rigondeaux could give Vargas his first defeat, it would give teeth back to a lineal claim that is for now easily overlooked or disregarded by many.
2. Daniel Roman: Whether a Rigondeaux-Vargas fight could actually happen remains to be seen. Vargas-Kameda will be on DAZN, the same outlet that aired unified WBA/IBF titlist Danny Roman’s unification win over TJ Doheny. Roman (27-2-1, 10 KO) is having a hell of a run even if he remains one of the more unknown multi-belted men in recent years. Roman-Vargas might actually be easier to make but Roman’s style might mesh with Rigondeaux better than Vargas’ would while giving Rigondeaux a chance to regain the WBA belt that has been taken from him more than once without losing it in the ring.
3. Emmanuel Navarrete: The 24-year old Mexican (27-1, 23 KO) emerged from the pack to win the WBO belt against Isaac Dogboe and is an unlikely foe for Rigondeaux. Top Rank had an incentive to make the Lomachenko fight but might have other plans as Navarrete builds his place. That said, Navarrete is huge for the division, strong, and brings it in a way that he would force a fight and could be enhanced by a win over the Cuban. Maybe there is an incentive after all…
5. Luis Nery: For the last two foes, we look down the scale and, of all the men listed so far, this could be the easiest to make. The former WBC bantamweight champion still hasn’t shaken the cloud of a failed PED test and then losing his title on the scale but Nery (29-0, 23 KO) has the sort of eye-popping talent to keep putting it farther behind. Nery is one of the Mexico’s best fighters right now and looked like an emerging pound-for-pound elite. PBC is putting him on cards with eyeballs and a Rigondeaux win would elevate him in the US…if he could get by the old man. A Nery win, given his age, would be highly impressive for Rigondeaux.
6. The WBSS Winner: This might be the most intriguing option of all for Rigondeaux, no matter who wins. The finals of the 118 lb. tournament are set: WBA titlist Nonito Donaire (40-5, 26 KO) versus IBF titlist Naoya Inoue (18-0, 16 KO). It’s not certain the politics of boxing could allow for Rigondeaux to face the tournament winner but let’s ponder in a vacuum. If Donaire wins, you’d have a rivalry come full circle with a rematch no one expected and suddenly alive with value again. If Inoue wins, there is a chance for Inoue to see if he could take his prodigious power up one more division and be the first man to stop Rigondeaux. There is also a chance for Rigondeaux to shock a much younger fighter who, if he wins the WBSS and even before in some corners, is flirting with the top of the pound-for-pound charts.
Some of this might not be possible regardless of what happens Sunday night. None of it will be unless Rigondeaux gets by Julio Ceja.
Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene, a founding member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, and a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at [email protected]