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Rigondeaux starts a new chapter

It took junior featherweight champion Guillermo Rigondeaux just over a minute to end Saturday's title defense against Sod Kokietgym via first-round knockout, closing out the first act of the unbeaten Cuban's brilliant, yet difficult, career.

The decisive blows, a pair of swift and accurate shots to the head of a visibly groggy Kokietgym, were, in theory, no different than the thousands delivered by the emotionless Rigondeaux throughout his five years as a professional.

But this time, in the last fight of his promotional deal with Top Rank, the impact and timing of the shots seemed to hold more meaning due to the ruthless manner in which they were delivered -- just milliseconds after the fighters touched gloves following an unintentional head-butt that left Kokietgym worse for the wear.

It was a legal, yet morally questionable, move that drew instant comparisons to Floyd Mayweather Jr.'s 2011 sucker-punch knockout of Victor Ortiz. It was also out of character for the painfully reserved Rigondeaux (14-0, 9 KOs), whose in-ring brilliance has often been overshadowed by his inability to entertain.

Some on social media called it Rigondeaux's heel turn -- a term borrowed from pro wrestling to describe a fan favorite's defining switch to a villainous persona. For Rigondeaux, the crafty two-time Olympic gold medalist, the move had enough nasty undertones to warrant comparisons (as did his postfight comments of "Let's see who has the guts to come face me in the ring.")

The timing was apropos considering Saturday's fight marked the low point commercially for Rigondeaux's run as a recognized pound-for-pound talent under the Top Rank banner. Not only did it take place halfway across the globe in Macau, but it was left off the HBO broadcast, airing 11 hours later on tape delay in America on the Spanish language UniMas network.

As Rigondeaux, 33, enters a crucial stretch of his career over the next few weeks in search of a new promoter, the exciting and somewhat controversial ending likely couldn't hurt his future prospects provided a genuine change in philosophy or personality accompanies it.

"He was more dominant [on Saturday] and was making a statement like, 'All you animals -- you want me to fight? You want me to box? What do you want me to do?'" Rigondeaux's manager Gary Hyde told ESPN.com. "I firmly believe in the next couple of fights, you will see a monster."

Hyde believes Rigondeaux has built up a level of spite over the past year that he dubs "venom in his workmanship" in response to criticism of the general public and a feeling of betrayal toward Top Rank and HBO.

Assigning the proper level of blame for Rigondeaux's rock-bottom plummet as a box-office entity can be a gray area considering the fighter's unwillingness to alter his style and the questionable commitment level shown by the promoter and network.

But Rigondeaux's breakthrough April 2013 victory over reigning fighter of the year Nonito Donaire marked, without question, a turning point in the fighter's public perception. The fight featured alternating stretches of the brilliant tension that makes Rigondeaux fights so pleasing to hard-core fans, and the boring, glorified sparring so maddening to those who prefer action.

Yet Rigondeaux's victory over Donaire will also be remembered for comments made by Top Rank's Bob Arum at ringside directly after about the difficulty in marketing his style, along with subsequent (and often repeated) references to HBO's vomit-inducing reaction to hearing his name.

"It was disgusting, with [Arum] going on about HBO vomiting," Hyde said. "That was gut-wrenching, what he was saying after a career-defining victory. The only reason it was said is he was so heartbroken because there was a lot of money put into Donaire and we burst the bubble.

"But we paid the price [for it]. In any sport, when you beat the best, you become the best. But in this situation, you beat the best, and now you're avoided and you're shelved. That's just a disgrace."

The fallout left Rigondeaux inactive until he headlined a December 2013 HBO card in Atlantic City, New Jersey, against Joseph Agbeko on the same night of a more attractive card on rival Showtime in nearby Brooklyn, New York. Agbeko's refusal to engage mixed abysmally with Rigondeaux's contentment to allow it, as an increasingly hostile crowd left en masse halfway through, just as most viewers did at home.

Rigondeaux's entertainment value often suffers once his opponents realize the futility of stalking forward into his tangled web of clean and powerful countershots, where he holds all of the cards. As arguably the most decorated and talented amateur in history, his in-ring elegance has almost no peer, creating images of him as more of an artist than prizefighter.

"He's the best practitioner I've ever seen of the Cuban style," said ESPN The Magazine contributor Brin-Jonathan Butler, whose journey documenting Rigondeaux's career has spawned both a book ("A Cuban Boxer's Journey") and film ("Split Decision"). "But I think that what Rigondeaux sees as an immaculate performance has no corollary to what fans see as a perfect performance. In his mind, to make an opponent look terrible who has been lauded as exciting or favored against him gives him satisfaction."

Butler, who trained as an amateur boxer in Cuba and met Rigondeaux before his 2009 defection, credits contempt as a major factor behind the fighter's unwillingness to alter his style in the face of critics.

"It's the same thing you see with Michael Jordan or Lance Armstrong, or any of these guys who reach the stratosphere of their ability where they believe they are a one-in-seven-billion-people kind of talent," Butler said. "He believes that about himself. His attitude is, 'Who can beat me? You can criticize it and do anything you want, but you're still going to have to fight my fight, and you're going to lose and you're going to look bad.'"

Yet making his opponents look bad without attempting to finish them has fatally handcuffed Rigondeaux's earning potential, an ironic byproduct considering his search for riches and being paid handsomely for his sublime talents was the reason he left his family behind to attempt such a dangerous defection in the first place.

Rigondeaux is certainly handcuffed by boxing's broken system, where fighters showing a flair for danger and entertainment -- often times out of necessity -- earn more opportunity and reward.

The risk-averse nature at which Rigondeaux carries himself inside the ring, however, has much deeper roots.

"He came to the United States and didn't want to bring his wife and kids over because he said, 'What if I lose? This is a very dangerous sport. If I don't see one punch coming, my career is over. What do I do to support these people if I can't pay rent one month and they are out on the street?'" Butler said. "He said what's incredible about the United States is that you're given an opportunity to succeed that you don't have in Cuba. But if you fail, you are left to die in this country."

Rigondeaux's quiet and complex personality has left many to assume he's ungrateful or contemptuous. To Butler, the harsh realities of Rigondeaux's journey and the scrutiny of his critics have combined to create a deeply wounded fighter, defiantly unwilling to mold to anyone's system.

"He described the journey from Cuba to Cancun to the United States as the most traumatic of his life," Butler said. "So I think he must deeply resent some of the criticism that has been hurled against him for being risk-averse as to kind of say, 'What have you risked to get to where you are? I had to risk dying on the way over just to get a start, and I had to risk not seeing my family again for the rest of my life. In such an incredibly dangerous sport, who are you to say that to me?'

"What fascinates me about him in terms of boxing is there has never been anyone born who is more equipped to defend themselves, and he takes for granted that he's safer inside the ring than anywhere else in the world."

Despite Rigondeaux's unquestioned talent, his future remains a question mark until the right promoter, with connections to top opponents, puts him in a position to succeed. Hyde is currently talking with three promotional outfits (two in the U.S. and one in Europe) and expects to have a deal by next week, with plans to bring Rigondeaux back to the ring as soon as September.

"All I've got to do is get him with a promoter who will appreciate him," Hyde said. "He needs to be staying active, making fights and getting some of the action. It's just a pity we are in the wrong era. If we could be in there with the Barreras and Moraleses, then you would see a fight."

Hyde is willing to match Rigondeaux, the recognized champion at 122 pounds, as high as 130, provided the opponent weighs no more than 135 on the night of the fight. And one gets the sense that moving up in weight to create more danger might become a necessity should Rigondeaux continue having trouble drawing big-name opponents.

Short of altering his style to that of a headhunting knockout artist, a calculated and unapologetic heel turn could also do wonders for Rigondeaux's bottom line the same way it has for the similarly defensive-based Mayweather. However, it's fair to question whether "The Jackal," who doesn't speak English, has the personality to pull it off.

But what Rigondeaux lacks in flamboyant charisma, he makes up for in defiance and contempt. And he'll need to use both in order to avoid becoming another talented artist who wasn't quite appreciated until long after he's gone.