The longer you hang around boxing, the more you realize how complicated it is. At first it seems as straightforward as a punch in the nose. But it turns out to be a multifaceted ritual that says as much about the spectators as it does the participants. They mirror one another, reflecting the best and worst of the human condition in an ever-shifting cultural mosaic.
For example, Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko's immense popularity in Eastern Europe baffles American fans, while the folks who fill football stadiums to watch them box don't understand our lack of enthusiasm. After all, the brothers take their profession very seriously, win on a consistent basis (more often than not by knockout) and are upstanding ambassadors for the sport. What's not to like?
The answer is usually a resounding, "They're boring." But what the critics really mean is, "They are boring us." There is no one-size-fits-all definition of what makes a good fight or a good fighter. It's all a matter of personal preference, a characteristic derived from an intricate mix of nature and nurture that governs what appeals to us -- and what doesn't.
Unfortunately for junior featherweight Guillermo Rigondeaux, who will fight Joseph Agbeko this Saturday in Atlantic City, N.J., he's on the wrong side of North America's current boxing ethos. A maestro in the land of garage bands, the gifted Cuban proves yet again that George Foreman was spot on when he famously said, "Boxing is like jazz. The better it is, the less people appreciate it."
There was, however, a time when jazz was all the rage in the land of its birth, a time that happened to coincide with a greater appreciation of the finer aspects of the Manly Art of Defense. That's not to say the Klitschkos would have been a massive hit on the western side of the Atlantic in decades past. But Rigondeaux's graceful art surely would have garnered more approval back when everyone wore a coat and tie to the fights and all the photos were black and white.
Even when I began to attend fights in the mid-1960s, the audience was more attuned to the nuances of the craft. Nobody booed when a boxer made a deft defensive move. There were frequent bursts of applause when, for instance, a fighter who was trapped on the ropes bobbed and weaved under a barrage of blows, then spun away and scampered out of harm's way. It was the same when a boxer adroitly deflected a punch by rolling his shoulder, just as Floyd Mayweather Jr. does today. And therein lies a great irony.
How has a boxer known for his masterful defense and disinclination to take chances become the sport's No. 1 box office star, while Rigondeaux, who possess a similar skill set, struggles to find a receptive audience?
In Mayweather's case, it comes down to his public persona, which only began to work to his advantage when he decided to emphasize the more ostentatious and flamboyant sides of his character. It struck a chord with a new generation of boxing fans whose values were shaped by a celebrity-obsessed society in which shameless self-promotion and conspicuous displays of wealth aren't only acceptable but are considered de rigueur.
Rigondeaux, on the other hand, seems remote, bordering on morose. Part of that undoubtedly has to do with the language barrier, but it seems unlikely that speaking perfect English would turn Rigo into a captivating figure. All he has going for him is his athleticism and technical expertise, which are rarely enough on their own to transform a consummate boxer into a superstar. By and large, the great ones need something extra to climb to the top of boxing's food chain.
Willie Pep is often cited as an example of a defensive boxer who made it big, but his success wasn't entirely built on fighting during a time when more fans enjoyed the scientific approach. Pep wasn't just the guy who allegedly once won a round without throwing a punch. He glided around the ring in an aesthetically pleasing manner, not only evading most of his opponent's offerings, but also peppering him with a busy array of punches. What made it even better was that "The Will o' the Wisp" wasn't afraid to go on the offensive, confident he could escape any jam in which he might find himself. Pep's something extra: He was fun to watch.
On occasion, a boxer can go in and out of style and, once in a great while, back in again.
At his middleweight prime, Bernard Hopkins fought with a measured aggression that saw him dispatch such worthy adversaries as Felix Trinidad, Glen Johnson and John David Jackson in a manner reminiscent of Marvin Hagler. But as Hopkins aged and grew more circumspect, fans wearied of his increasingly cautious style. Sure, he was winning, but his prefight trash talk was usually far more entertaining than the fight itself.
Still, Hopkins persevered and eventually emerged as boxing's favorite curmudgeon/elder statesman, his place in history sealed when he became the oldest fighter to win and then defend a major title. B-Hop's something extra was an obsessive mindset that drove him to outlast his contemporaries and a big mouth that kept us interested even when his fights did not.
What happens inside the ring isn't the only path to popularity. Fans relate to boxers in various ways, and a sense of kinship often creates the strongest bond. It doesn't really matter whether it's a shared ethnicity or calling the same country, city or neighborhood home. There is an instinctive urge to root for one of your own, regardless of other qualifications or lack thereof.
Neither Indonesian featherweight Chris John nor Argentine junior bantamweight Omar Narvaez (of stink-out-The Garden-with-Nonito Donaire infamy) is considered an exciting fighter, but both are beloved on their home turf. In cases like theirs, the something extra is a steady diet of home cooking and understanding that being a big fish in a small pond is sometimes the smartest way to go.
Although he's arguably the best 122-pounder in the world, Rigo appears to have the deck stacked against him: He's a political refugee unable to take advantage of his natural constituency, boxing in an era when admiration for the subtleties is waning -- and that's just for starters. He also lacks a colorful personality or a gimmick and, to top it off, his matches can be excruciatingly boring to watch.
To a dedicated cadre of fans, Rigondeaux's cerebral style and the precision with which he employs it is a marvel to behold. The problem is that there are nowhere near enough of them to propel him to stardom, and there probably never will be.
Some would question the fairness of the situation, particularly in light of the fact Rigo is a special talent. But that point of view assumes that the ultimate in Darwinian sporting endeavors begins and ends in the ring. The truth is that the struggle to land the big fights can be just as fierce as winning them. It's the kind of contest where everything is in play, and the winners are ultimately those popular enough, for whatever reason, to be the ones who generate the most money.
As far as boxing consumers are concerned, it's pretty much the same as buying a new car or a loaf of bread. You spend your money on merchandise you like, and if you prefer Manny Pacquiao to Mayweather and have limited discretionary income, you're going to buy the PacMan pay-per-view.
True, there are some things about this capitalistic system of doing business that rub the wrong way. The reluctance of subscription networks to give fighters in the smaller weight classes a chance to show their stuff is a shortsighted practice and hurts the sport. The trading of favors between power brokers that results in mismatches is another.
Nonetheless, there's a lot to be said for giving people what they want, and if a fighter such as Rigondeaux suffers in the process, it's really no different than a Miley Cyrus concert outselling the opera. It's simply a matter of supply and demand.
To date, the demand for Rigo has been limited, and whether his showing against Agbeko will bolster his brand remains to be seen. Just to be safe, HBO has surrounded Rigondeaux-Agbeko with a trio of 10-rounders, the most anticipated of which is the latest comeback of troubled puncher James Kirkland versus undefeated but untested Glen Tapia.
The entire state of affairs reminds me of what Gene Courtney, then-boxing writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer, said when promoter J. Russell Peltz told him his next card was a doubleheader.
"If you've got a doubleheader," Courtney deadpanned, "it means you don't have a main event."
In the immediate aftermath of Rigo's April victory over Nonito Donaire, Bob Arum confessed that he didn't have any idea how he was going to promote the safety-first technician. But he owed "El Chacal" a fight, and the Agbeko match was apparently the best Top Rank could come up with.
The card seems to be playing second banana to a potentially superior one on Showtime on the same night, and it has the feel of a consolation prize designed to tie up a few loose ends before the New Year. The hope, of course, is that the winners, especially Rigondeaux, will shine brightly enough to enhance their appeal.
But regardless of what happens against Agbeko, when Rigondeaux wakes up on Sunday morning, he will still be subject to boxing's most demanding mistress: the rule of the marketplace.