Guillermo Rigondeaux lands a left to the head of Teon Kennedy during their… (Kevork Djansezian / Getty…)
LAS VEGAS — Guillermo Rigondeaux's focus is on the future. So don't bother asking him about the past.
"Forget about that. I'm not in Cuba, I'm here now," the Cuban defector, waving his arms wildly, shouts in Spanish. "Everyone wants to talk about that. I'm here now."
The display is partly for show. The two-time Olympic champion, ranked as one of the top amateur fighters in history, was a favorite of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. So the wrong words at the wrong time could mean trouble for the wife and two sons he left behind.
But it's also partly sincere. Because after fighting nearly 400 amateur bouts in Cuba, Rigondeaux finds himself, at 31, having to completely remake his style. The amateur ranks, where fights last just three rounds, reward style and technique and knockouts are rare. In the pro ranks, where title fights are scheduled for 12 rounds, the emphasis is on stamina, showmanship — and knockouts.
And Rigondeaux took another big step in putting that amateur past behind him Saturday, retaining his WBA super-bantamweight belt by stopping Philadelphia's Teon Kennedy 1 minute 11 seconds into the fifth round of their bout on undercard to the Manny Pacquiao-Timothy Bradley showdown at the MGM Grand.
The fight was one-sided, with Rigondeaux using a strong left to batter Kennedy, sending him to the canvas four times before referee Jay Nady stepped in and stopped it. It was exactly the kind of performance promoter Bob Arum was hoping to see after watching Rigondeaux (10-0, 8 knockouts) run away from Ricardo Cordoba 19 months ago to protect a lead and win the WBA title in his seventh pro fight.
"He was in with a tough Panamanian and he felt that you win the fight the way you do in the amateurs, stinking up the joint," said Arum, who had trouble landing Rigondeaux a televised bout after that fight. "Now he understands. He's got to fight like a professional."
While the defections of such Cuban baseball stars as Livan Hernandez, Kendrys Morales and more recently Yoenis Cespedes and Aroldis Chapman have been widely publicized, the exodus of the island's top boxers has gone largely unnoticed. Yet it was heavyweight Jorge Luis Gonzalez, a two-time Pan American champion, who became the first big-name Cuban athlete to defect from the Communist regime when he sought political asylum in Finland in April 1991, three months before Rene Arocha walked away from the national baseball team in Miami. And between 2007 and 2010, at least 20 boxers fled to the West — including four who won Olympic titles in the 2004 Athens Games.
Yuriorkis Gamboa, an Olympic champion and a former two-time world featherweight champ who won all 21 of his pro fights, is the most accomplished of that group. But he hasn't fought in nine months after falling out with Arum, his promoter. That's opened the door for the 31-year-old Rigondeaux, who defected in February 2009, to become the top pro to come out of Cuba since the Castro-led revolution closed off the island in 1959.
"He's a tremendous fighter," Arum says. "He's very fast. Punches well. He's going to be a force in what is probably the strongest division in boxing, 122 pounds."
Not surprisingly, Rigondeaux's Florida-based manager Luis de Cubas, who has worked with several defectors including Gonzalez and former world champion Joel Casamayor, agrees. But he also agrees with Arum that Rigondeaux will ultimately rise or fall on his style in the ring as well as his success there.
"He's a special fighter," de Cubas says of the left-hander, who knocked out Rico Ramos in the sixth round his last time out. "Now everybody wants knockouts. It's a different game.
"Guillermo, he gets it now. He gets what he's got to do."