Guillermo Rigondeaux trying to do what most other Cuban defectors have not

Kevin Iole
Yahoo! Sports

Paying amateur athletes millions of dollars to compete as professionals is fraught with peril, even for those with the greatest scouting systems and access to every morsel of information that might indicate future performance.

For every sixth-round pick in the NFL who turns out like Tom Brady, there are five JaMarcus Russells.

It's worse, though, for boxing promoters and managers who want to sign the many exceptional Cuban amateur fighters. Many have gone broke sinking their fortunes into star-studded Cubans who were unable to parlay their extraordinary amateur success into huge paydays in the professional ranks.

Guillermo Rigondeaux, a two-time gold medalist for Cuba who defected on a speed boat in 2009, is one of the few who has managed to come close.

Rigondeaux, 32, is 11-0 as a professional and holds the WBA super bantamweight title. On Saturday at Radio City Music Hall in New York, he'll meet Nonito Donaire in an HBO-televised bout for the WBA/WBO belts.

Donaire, though, is a solid favorite and there remains plenty of skepticism about whether Rigondeaux will fulfill his vast potential.

His manager, Gary Hyde, knows full well how dangerous the investment in a Cuban boxer can be. He's signed four, all of whom were spectacular amateurs with talent to be exceptional pros, but Hyde candidly admits that only Rigondeaux has the drive to succeed as a pro.

"It's really simple when you think about it," Hyde said. "In Cuba, they have to do it. They have no other choice. If they fight and they succeed at it, they eat the best food. They get the best clothes. They get to travel the world. They're treated so much better than the rest of the population. If they didn't do it, they'd be out in the fields cutting sugar cane. So they had no choice but to box.

"But then they come to America or wherever else they might go [after defecting] and it's different. They don't have to torture themselves. They don't have to go run these great distances so early in the morning. They don't have to get beaten up. They have a choice now."

Few of the many Cubans who have defected since Fidel Castro assumed power in the 1950s have gone on to an equal level of professional success.

[Related: Boxer Nonito Donaire Jr.'s latest obsession is being a good father]

In modern times, Joel Casamayor did, and Rigondeaux and Yuriorkis Gamboa are doing it now.

Rigondeaux was a Castro favorite and would dine with the Cuban leader multiple times a month.

"They were close," Hyde said of Rigondeaux and Castro. "Rigo was [Castro's] favorite sportsman."

Rigondeaux's world travels for amateur boxing competition opened his eyes to the life he could be living. Though as a star athlete he had favored status in Cuba, he was only making 20 pesos a month and never could dream of improving his social status.

He would have been better off than most, but not as good as he could be somewhere other Cuba. And that's why Rigondeaux never hesitated when he had a chance to defect.

It was, he said, definitely worth the risk.

"Absolutely, that's why I risked my life," he said. "I couldn't live the life I had been living."

He's had success as a pro, as witnessed by the fact that he won a world title in just his seventh fight. But he hasn't looked as dominant as one would expect of a man in his prime with his kind of talent. He was rocked several times by the talented but relatively inexperienced Roberto Marroquin.

Top Rank's Bob Arum said he's not sure if Rigondeaux fully understands what he may face on Saturday when he takes on Donaire.

"The answer is no, he doesn't fully [grasp the challenge he faces on Saturday]," Arum said of Rigondeaux. "You've got to understand, you're not dealing with someone who comes from a culture that is even remotely like ours. Manny [Pacquiao] at least did come from a culture that is at the least remotely like our Western culture, capitalistic system, etc.

"He comes from that communist system and as an athlete, was treated way better – way, way better – than the normal citizen who lives in Cuba. He had special privileges and perks. So he comes from a different place. He comes from a place where, in his own mind, where he looks at himself almost like royalty."

Rigondeaux, who has been very defensive in most of his pro fights, has promised he'll put on an exciting show against Donaire, one of boxing's best offensive fighters and one of the two or three most complete.

Rigondeaux fully believes in his talent and insists he's not forgotten what it takes to be successful. He wants to make a statement, not only by beating Donaire but by doing it at Donaire's own game.

"I will try to engage more than I have in the past," Rigondeaux said. "I want to give the fans what they want to see. Nonito is an aggressive boxer and I will be coming for him. I expect the same from Nonito. He is a great boxer and a great technician. I think there are going to be a lot of fireworks."

If he does it, it will be proof that though he has left Cuba, Cuba hasn't entirely left him.

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