Rigondeaux's lonely success story

The first time Brin-Jonathan Butler met Guillermo Rigondeaux, a two-time Cuban Olympic gold medalist, he didn't recognize him. In the small, outdoor Rafael Trejo Gym in Havana, a disheveled figure stood at the doorway, black cap perched on his head, designer knock-off T-shirt hanging over his slight frame. Butler, who had come to Havana to film and interview other famed Cuban boxers, asked Hector Vinent -- himself a two-time gold medalist and a trainer at the gym -- who the man was, assuming Rigondeaux to be a local.

"That's the greatest boxer who ever lived," Vinent said.

Rigondeaux, polite and all smiles, approached to shake hands. Gold teeth glistened brightly from his mouth. Making small talk, Butler casually asked about the origins of his brilliant dentures.

Said Rigondeaux: "I melted my Olympic medals into my mouth."

Cuban athletes are the most expensive human cargo in the world. Behind the red communist veil is an island nation capable of producing some of the greatest boxers and baseball players the world has never seen -- shining diamonds that are rarely removed from a closely guarded mine.

Guillermo Rigondeaux is one such diamond, cut and polished by the Cuban state. Like the best of his boxing countrymen, he sat atop the bejeweled crown that Cuba and Fidel Castro had worn proudly for decades in the realm of amateur boxing. But the story of Rigondeaux -- or "Rigo," as he's known by those closest to him -- is more complicated than that.

Rigondeaux (9-0, 7 KOs), 31, is set to defend his junior featherweight title against Teon Kennedy (17-1-2, 7 KOs) on the undercard of Manny Pacquiao's bout with Timothy Bradley Jr. on Saturday, and his reported $103,000 haul for the fight will be a sum beyond the wildest dreams of all but a handful of his countrymen. When he steps into the ring at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, it will be because he bolted from a system in which so many Cuban athletes remain captive. It's a system that makes them national heroes, but gives them no freedom. A system that celebrates their talent, but suffocates it all the more. A system that demands an athlete to stay, but gives him almost no choice but to leave.

Some choose to remain, forever entangled in the system. When Muhammad Ali was in his pomp, three-time Olympic gold medalist Teofilo Stevenson was offered $5 million to defect and fight. Stevenson's response? "What's a million dollars compared to the love of eight million Cubans?"

Felix Savon, another three-time Olympic gold medalist, got a similarly astronomical overture from Mike Tyson's people. Savon declined.

Vinent, who won gold at the 1992 and 1996 Olympic Games, also turned down the cash, all for the belief in the Revolution. Today, Vinent trains only children at the Rafael Trejo gym.

But Rigondeaux bolted the system for a chance at a new life, a different future. And he has been ostracized for it ever since.

Butler, who is currently filming a documentary on the fighter, recalls how Rigo was "completely radioactive politically" on that day in the Havana gym. Nothing could endear him to his boxing compatriots.

"His was the saddest face I had seen in Cuba in my time there," Butler said, "and that country had a lot of sad faces."

Butler's film chronicles the alternately heroic and tragic journey that Cuban boxers embark on when they defect. It paints a landscape not of black-and-white ideals and morals, but rather the sea of grey that Cuban boxers are forced to navigate long after they've stepped off the smugglers' boats.

Originally in Cuba to train as a boxer, Butler, who has an amateur background, became intrigued by the amount of Olympic training talent readily available to him for as little as $6 a day. But this was quickly superseded after his first meeting with Rigo and his realization of the political storm surrounding a fighter many consider to be one of the greatest amateurs of all time.

"I wanted to understand why the coaches were not talking to him and looked so scared that he had even stepped into the gym, given his great reputation," Butler said. "I consequently found out that summer Guillermo was a national soap opera, he was on the news daily, and that Fidel had spoken out about him as a traitor."

Four months prior to Butler's encounter with Rigondeaux in Havana, the fighter had attempted to defect while participating at the Pan American Games in Rio de Janeiro. On July 22, 2007, Rigondeaux and teammate Erislandy Lara (now a highly ranked professional junior middleweight) disappeared ahead of their scheduled weigh-ins. Discovered by Brazilian authorities, they returned to Cuba three days later disgraced, ostracized and begging for forgiveness, little of which was forthcoming.

"Betrayal for money is one of the favorite weapons of the United States to destroy Cuba's resistance," Castro said in the week after Rigo and Lara's defection attempt. "They were simply knocked out with a blow to the jaw, paid for by American dollars. There was no need for a count."

At the time of the defection, Cuban trainer Roberto Quesada told the Miami Herald that "from experience, they will be treated like soldiers who deserted from the army. … They may not realize it, but as boxers they are dead."

Later that week, Fidel Castro used the exact same analogy.

Rigondeaux and Lara would not box for Cuba again.

"If I had my way, I would send ships to take everybody out," Gary Hyde said.

Hyde is Rigo's manager. A former amateur boxer living in Ireland, Hyde realized, like countless others before him, that Cuba was a rich marketplace to shop for talent. After esteemed Cuban amateurs, including Yuriorkis Gamboa, defected in 2006 and signed with Arena Box Promotions under promoter Ahmet Oner, Hyde knew the formula could be copied and that a marquee name like Rigondeaux could be bought, brought over and managed.

So in March 2007, Hyde went to Cuba in search of his diamond. There, he formally met Rigondeaux, someone he had become infatuated with since their first accidental meeting, at the 2001 World Amateur Boxing Championships in Belfast.

"Everyone was looking over their shoulders," Hyde said. "Everyone is watching you, the secret service, everyone is paranoid, which then makes me paranoid. And it makes me paranoid, too, because someone like myself, who is in there [Cuba] on something half-dodgy, of course, makes you paranoid, doing something you shouldn't be doing in the country."

Rigo chose not to defect for Hyde in 2007. The timing wasn't right. But Hyde did succeed in signing Rigo to a five-year professional management contract. The fighter's decision to stay was then made worse by his failed defection in Rio de Janeiro later that year. Help that time had come from Oner's Arena Box Promotions. The EFE news service reported that as much as $500,000 was spent on Lara and Rigondeaux's attempted extraction. Competition for the Cubans was stiff.

By the time Rigondeaux decided to defect again, in 2009, Hyde had already established the necessary connections to successfully extricate world junior champion Ismaikel "Mike" Perez from Cuba. And it was those same connections that helped Hyde finally get Rigo to the United States.

"Money makes the world go 'round, and those people make money from customers," Hyde said of the human smugglers. "So all I had to do was become that customer, which I am, and get the people who are giving the service to trust me."

Hyde started his quest to find Perez a way out of Cuba in Cancun, Mexico -- a known hot spot and midway point for human trafficking between the United States and Cuba. After a week of walking through various Cuban restaurants in the city looking for a lead, he eventually found a man who said he was third from the top in a trafficking cartel that could help him.

The price: $50,000.

Too high, Hyde thought. He decided to work around the middle man.

"I realized that I needed to speak to the Cubans in between this process," Hyde said. "I sent a fisherman into Cuba, and he was in an apartment with Mike Perez."

Worried and sensing that it might lose a customer, the Cancun cartel called with a lower price.

"The people in Cancun got in touch with me and said, 'Hey, look, what's going on? What's going on? We can do it.'

"So I asked how much."

The new price: $16,000.

"Once I knew it was $16,000, I told them, 'You make sure you look after my boy. You make sure my man gets through to Cancun safe and sound, and I don't want any harm to him.'"

Hyde was told to call back in five days. Instead, Hyde insisted he would be in Cancun within 24 hours of Perez landing ashore.

"I got a call telling me he is in international waters, he's out of Cuba. That's how Mike Perez got out."

Rigondeaux was next.

"I called my connection in Mexico because I had heard a rumor that Rigondeaux was ready to come," said Hyde, who had given "Mike" as his first name to avoid being tracked.

"Listen to me, Miguel," Hyde's contact told him, "there is no one, even if it's Jesus Christ, who will get their hands on Rigondeaux. He is your fighter."

After a few weeks' waiting period, Hyde found out Rigo had reached Miami safe and sound -- but on someone else's dime. By that time, he had already signed with another manager in Miami. But it isn't uncommon for Cuban fighters who have defected, whether uncertain about the process or merely seeking out their own windfalls, to sign with multiple managers.

Hyde, who had the contract with Rigo, knew that the fighter was his diamond. And after litigation, he got to keep him.

Freddie Roach knows about talent.

For more than a decade, he has trained pound-for-pound great Manny Pacquiao. He speaks fondly of the first time the Filipino great walked through the doors of his Wild Card Gym and engaged in a mercurial session with him on the pads. Few fighters have come close to replicating the feeling Roach got working with the Pinoy idol and his gifts in the ring.

That is, until the trainer met Guillermo Rigondeaux.

"He's the best counterpuncher I've ever seen," Roach said of Rigondeaux, speaking by phone from his gym in Los Angeles. "When I did the pads with him, I simply could not get through his defense. I tried. I couldn't, though.

"On his first day in the gym, he wanted to spar with Manny Pacquiao," Roach laughed. "I didn't allow it. I don't want Manny getting that kind of work in sparring. Manny is a bit big for him, but he's an offensive guy and with countering like that, he was more work than I needed.

"He's one of the greatest talents I've ever seen," Roach said of Rigo.

Then the trainer pauses, considering his words.

"Probably the greatest talent."

When Joel Casamayor won the 1992 Olympic gold medal, he received a check for $20,000. When he arrived home in Cuba -- as Enrique Encinosa, a former Miami matchmaker, manager and promoter tells it -- the government asked Casamayor to sign over the check.

The fighter's cut: $300.

What's worse, Casamayor thought he would at least be rewarded with a car for winning gold, much like Teofilo Stevenson and, later, Rigo were. Instead, waiting outside for him was a Chinese bicycle.

"Casamayor won't know who Milton Friedman is," said Encinosa, referring to the "Capitalism and Freedom" author, "but let me tell you, in that moment, nobody had to explain to him that he was getting screwed."

Encinosa knows too well that money in boxing rules all, and money mixed with fighters can often be a dangerous cocktail. It's all a part of an ecosystem where it's commonplace for Cuban fighters to essentially sell themselves, thinking it's the only way to escape the Revolution and fulfill their professional and financial dreams. And for a potential benefactor hoping to ride another's coattails to athletic glory, a fighter is a modest, if volatile, investment.

As Encinosa explains: "You cannot afford to buy a baseball team or a football team. But I bet you could afford a fighter."

And what about those who do buy Cuban fighters?

"You can spend $300,000 on a fighter, and all of a sudden he gets married and his wife decides she wants him driving a cab rather than getting hit in the face." Encinosa said. "You're hoping you can move him fast enough, well enough and match him incredibly enough to get them big-money fights so that they can pay you as a manager, help pay off the promoter and pay off for him, too."

Within this ecosystem, rumors abound of meager double-figure contracts, of criminal connections and broken promises, of infighting and backstabbing. But the managers who bankroll boxers -- most of them operating in a space between morally questionable and Machiavellian -- are, by and large, no more self-serving than the boxers themselves.

Encinosa says giving Cuban fighters boatloads of money is like "taking a human and putting him on Saturn."

"They don't know how to spend their money," Encinosa said. "Gamboa went out and bought a Bentley. I went into the gym one day and he had chunks of gold around his neck. He wears so much gold, he should get a hernia."

In a land where money's importance is supposed to fall a firm second behind the Revolution, cash is king on Cuba's boxing landscape, even for those who care not to admit it.

"Stevenson and Felix Savon will praise the pieties of the Revolution until the cows come home," said Butler, who filmed extensive interviews with the former Olympians in their homes in Havana. "But as soon as the cameras are off, they want money to tell you about how they don't care about money. Both are the true person.

"Their American athletic counterparts sign contracts for hundreds of millions of dollars, often saying money is not the factor but rather the purity of the game. But Cubans actually live it. They live with the repercussions after the offer is no longer there."

And so it seems that regardless of whether a boxer chooses to stay or leave Cuba -- regardless of whether he eschews the Revolution or becomes a Castro confidant -- money clearly has meaning even in this environment.

Money is what paid for Rigo's banana-yellow Mitsubishi as a reward for Olympic gold. Money is what purchased that one-way ticket across 90 miles of water, far away from the Revolution. And money is what will ultimately determine whether escaping Cuba proves worth it to the fighter.

What's the price of a man's freedom? What's the cost to those he loves? What do you sell when you choose to buy the chance to achieve your life's goal?

On Nov. 13, 2010, Guillermo Rigondeaux fought in front of 42,000 people at Dallas Cowboys Stadium on the undercard of Manny Pacquiao's demolition of Antonio Margarito. Even the zenith of his amateur career could not compare to that night in Texas. After the fight, Butler met Rigo in the parking lot and offered him a ride back to the hotel. Belt wrapped around his small frame, Rigondeaux, according to Butler, looked isolated. Tragic, even.

"I said, 'You looked alone and you had no sense of gratitude toward the people around you,'" Butler recalled. "Before I could finish asking him, he said 'Well, wasn't I alone?'

"That's a really tough thing to take in," Butler said. "I asked myself, Where are his friends? Where is his family, his kids, his neighborhood that he had to sacrifice to succeed at his dream, and every person around him you would think he would want to share that experience with?

"His mother died while he was in the United States, his father disowned him for being disloyal to the Revolution, his child was sick during the Dallas fight."

Meanwhile, 1,100 miles away, close to Jose Marti International Airport, on the outskirts of Havana, is a small green duplex that sits below azure skies. One half of the humble dwelling is occupied by a woman and two boys. They are Rigondeaux's wife, Farah Colina, and the couple's sons. The house, adjacent to a government building, has two cameras trained on it 24 hours a day.

As planes fly overhead, carrying free people out of Cuba, life goes on for the wife of Castro's prized diamond, the gem that got away. Colina and her boys live and wait. And wait. Waiting for a life they hope to share again with Rigo one day.