When two highly skilled, not-necessarily-crowd-pleasing fighters are getting set to square off, expectations are managed by comparing the often thrilling sport of boxing to the rarely thrilling game of chess. It's an odd choice for a euphemism. But it certainly applied to Guillermo Rigondeaux's junior featherweight championship showdown with Nonito Donaire. We knew it would be more chess match than street fight.
And as it turns out, Donaire doesn't play chess nearly as well as Rigondeaux.
The Cuban defector and amateur legend fought the style of fight that gave him the best opportunity to win, Donaire failed to turn it into the sort of fight he needed it to be, and though he said "check" once, he never quite put his pieces in position to say "checkmate." Amidst intermittent boos from the mostly pro-Donaire crowd at Radio City Music Hall, Rigondeaux boxed, moved, and frustrated Donaire and took an upset unanimous decision to establish himself as the top 122-pounder in the world.
Donaire's "check" moment came in round 10 when, finally, Rigondeaux stood still in front of him, ate a big left hand, and tumbled to the canvas. In a fight that had been difficult to score at times, it seemed, with a 10-8 round in his favor, Donaire was in a position to possibly rally and win. But Rigondeaux got right up and completely controlled the last two rounds. In the end, judge John Stewart scored it 114-113, Tom Schreck had it 115-112, and Julie Lederman saw it 116-111, all for Rigondeaux. And there were many in the ringside media who scored it far wider than Lederman did.
Donaire, the consensus 2012 Fighter of the Year and a man riding a 12-year, 30-fight winning streak, seemed to be making a superstar turn coming into this bout, and his ring entrance, complete with energetic dancing atop the Radio City balcony, furthered that impression. Star power, however, doesn't win fights (the occasional bad decision aside). Rigondeaux didn't care about pleasing the crowd. He was intent upon circling away from Donaire's most dangerous weapon, his left hook, and managing the pace-in other words, throwing very few punches but making sure Donaire couldn't set himself to throw many of his own.
"I made him look the way he looked, which was bad," Rigondeaux (12-0, 8 KOs) said afterward. "I was moving, he was frustrated. ... He's an excellent fighter, got a great punch, but with one shot, you just can't win a fight."
Rigondeaux knocked "The Filipino Flash" off balance with a left hand in the first round, setting the tone. The Cuban boasted superior speed, a scenario with which Donaire was unfamiliar. Donaire couldn't decide whether to try to box with Rigondeaux or more recklessly let his hands go, and for the most part, he did neither. There were occasional rounds, such as the fifth and seventh, that Donaire might have carried simply by displaying offensive inclination while Rigondeaux backpedaled and kept his hands in his pockets. The fourth round probably belonged to Donaire thanks to a left hand behind the head that seemed to wobble Rigondeaux just a bit. But otherwise, the superior boxing of Rigondeaux was beyond dispute.
That is, until the 10th round. The Cuban's legs appeared to be growing just a bit weary, and Donaire took advantage, particularly to the body. Then, with Rigondeaux pulling backward out of a partial clinch, Donaire clipped him with the left hand he'd been looking for all fight. But Rigondeaux wasn't particularly hurt, and Donaire couldn't come close to replicating the moment.
In the 12th, as Donaire was throwing a left hook, Rigondeaux countered with a left hand that landed flush on his opponent's right eye. The eye swelled immediately, and Donaire spent almost the entire remainder of the fight with his right glove pinned to the eye. In the final 10 seconds, Donaire beckoned Rigondeaux to stand and fight him in a more manly fashion, but it was far too late. Donaire couldn't ask or even tell Rigondeaux to fight him that way. He needed to physically force him to, and he was unable to do that.
"The last two rounds I got stupid, I got too carried away, I wanted to take him out so bad, I fell in love with that," Donaire (31-2, 20 KOs) said. "I have much respect for Rigondeaux for the beautiful boxing that he gave me ... I didn't do my job, which was to throw the jab. I just wanted to take him out, I fell for that power. No excuse, he beat me tonight, I thought it was a very, very close fight. But we need to go back to the drawing board and be better."
Rigondeaux, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, is among the greatest amateur fighters of all-time. He has a long way to go before he's regarded similarly in the pro ranks, but this much is clear: He's among the finest practitioners in the pro game today. It wasn't especially crowd-pleasing, but he took a top-five pound-for-pound talent, a man who'd barely been challenged in recent years, and defeated him convincingly. He won the chess match. And with it, he won the fight.