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If boxing were a card game, junior featherweight titlist Guillermo Rigondeaux would have one heck of a poker face.
It's not just the soft-spoken, stoic nature of the Cuban-born fighter that has created such an air of mystery around him. Ultimately, it's the unanswered questions about the limits to Rigondeaux's sublime ability that have experts so divided entering Saturday's title unification bout against 122-pound champion Nonito Donaire in New York.
Just how good of a hand the two-time Olympic gold medalist is holding has been up for debate ever since Rigondeaux (11-0, 8 KOs), widely considered one of the greatest amateur fighters in history, turned pro in 2009. The ensuing three years have produced inconsistent efforts that have fueled wildly divergent opinions of his standing.
What has never been in question is the physical tools that Rigondeaux, 32, brings to the table as a textbook counterpuncher with unparalleled technique and haunting power, evidenced by his 2012 knockouts against Rico Ramos and Teon Kennedy. That said, unexciting and lackadaisical efforts in which Rigondeaux's chin and focus were called into question in title fights against Ricardo Cordoba and Robert Marroquin have given his critics equal cause for concern.
Whether Rigondeaux is a pound-for-pound level talent who has simply played down to the level of competition or whether he actually is too old, unproven and one-dimensional for a dangerous and dynamic fighter like Donaire (31-1, 20 KOs) is a question that will finally get answered on Saturday. As will questions about whether Rigondeaux has the right makeup and demeanor to walk through the fire and be as great as his talent suggests he can be.
Rigondeaux holds all of the cards that will decide whether this meeting between the top two fighters below 135 pounds can live up to its stark potential as a high-level classic between two pure boxers who can throw bombs. If the fight is a defensive and dreary bore, the blame will fall on him. Ditto should Donaire walk through his defenses and blow Rigondeaux away in the early rounds.
One thing that has come out of the prefight buildup is how much the normally reserved Rigondeaux detests the criticism of his detractors: "Look, when are they going to see my talent? I train hard, I work hard, I'm ready to fight and I do my job," he told ESPN.com. "My trajectory and my track record [as an amateur] speaks for itself." And when the topic turned to Donaire, some of Rigondeaux's pent-up hostilities began to spill over.
"Donaire is just another fighter," he said. "He doesn't have four hands. He's got two hands and two feet just like me. So he's just another fighter."
Rigondeaux took it a step further in a separate interview with ESPN Deportes, saying: "I will shut that big-headed Filipino's mouth and I will unify my title."
Most attempts at getting Rigondeaux to confirm a lack of motivation for lesser opponents or acknowledge the criticisms of his detractors were met with flippant remarks. But Rigondeaux did have this to say about his recent performances: "Styles make fights. Not all opponents are the same. You have to adjust and you have to take one at a time."
Donaire is just another fighter. He doesn't have four hands. He's got two hands and two feet just like me. So he's just another fighter.” -- Guillermo Rigondeaux on his fight against Nonito Donaire on Saturday
What makes the Donaire fight so challenging is that Rigondeaux can't simply rely on his defensive and countering skills alone to produce a routine victory. If Rigondeaux is going to get over that hump once and for all and vault himself into the pound-for-pound conversation, it's going to have to be by taking the fight to Donaire at key junctures and being able to endure heavy counterfire in between.
Being able to execute his game plan under such dangerous conditions, according to trainer Pedro Diaz, is a mental battle that can be won in training camp.
"We cannot forget that the training process is a bilateral process, it's a psycho-pedagogic process," Diaz said. "I believe that a great competitor has to train not only his body, but also his mind. He has to train his brain. He has to be prepared from a mental point of view to face a great battle in order to be on a great stage such as New York or Las Vegas. I believe Rigondeaux has learned how to perfect all this."
Rigondeaux has described the challenge Donaire faces in fighting him as "not the same to play a guitar as a violin." But to stay with that theme, it's clear Rigondeaux has yet to compose the signature song of his short professional career. His recent reunion with Diaz, who guided the Cuban amateur program during Rigondeaux's memorable run, could be the missing ingredient. There's clearly an element of familiarity with Diaz that has brought comfort for Rigondeaux, who was forced to leave his family behind in order to twice defect from Cuba (his first attempt was unsuccessful) to chase his professional dreams.
"Pedro is somebody that knows me from the amateurs -- I grew up with him," Rigondeaux said. "If anybody knows me, it's him. He knows what I need in the pros to take it to the next level. He pushes me to the limit and wants me to be the best I can be."
Diaz, who also trains Miguel Cotto, admitted that Rigondeaux was in a position to benefit emotionally from their reunion, saying: "Experience is the mother of all sciences. I have experience working with Rigondeaux and this has allowed me to have good communication."
Hall of Fame trainer Freddie Roach has referred to Rigondeaux, who once walked into his Wild Card Gym in Los Angeles, as the best counterpuncher and one of the greatest talents he has ever seen. Diaz doesn't disagree.
"I'm going to tell you something clearly so that you can put it out to the world," Diaz said. "I have the same opinion as Freddie Roach, who is considered the best trainer in the world: Rigondeaux is a great boxer -- a multilateral boxer, a very technical boxer, a very strong and fast boxer. He has all the ingredients to be a great champion. On [Saturday] all those who doubted Rigondeaux's talent will be able to appreciate what it is that he has to be considered one of the best fighters in the world, despite his very short professional career.
"When [Rigondeaux's critics] see him fight -- when they see him using his brain, when they see Rigondeaux's legs shining and his great hand coordination -- then the public opinion and the boxing experts and sports fans in general will know what we're talking about."
Neither Rigondeaux nor Diaz was willing to comment on what Donaire brings to the table or what kind of performance it will take to defeat him. They view this challenge as just another stop on Rigondeaux's journey to the top.
"At the end of the day, it is very simple," Rigondeaux said. "There's much better talent and much better fighters out there that should be ranked where [Donaire] is ranked. It's like anything else. Anybody can get decisions and get moved up into the rankings. We know how this business is. At the end of the day, just remember this: I'm working my way to the top from the bottom. I have never said no to anybody; I will fight anybody. And anybody can have a good run, but [Donaire's] kingdom is going to end. Bottom line: He's going to find out, and he ain't going to be able to run from that."
Only Rigondeaux really knows how good he can be and what kind of cards he's holding up his sleeve. On Saturday, he will finally be forced to go all-in and show his hand.