Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Boxiana book club: Butler’s mesmerising journey

A Cuban Boxer’s Journey: Guillermo Rigondeaux, from Castro’s Traitor to American Champion by Brin-Jonathan Butler (Picador e-book, June 2014)

Boxiana rating: 4 ½ stars

Boxiana is currently on holiday (you’ll have noticed something was up from the sporadic posting recently) and one of the joys of being on holiday is, of course, reading. So while seemingly everyone else in the resort where I’m staying in Morocco is getting lagered up or being hyped into a swimming pool frenzy by a tiresome holiday rep with a too-loud microphone, I’ve been sat by the pool glued to my Kindle and whizzing through a succession of books - some of them, although not all, boxing related. (The only time I countenance using a Kindle is on holiday, by the way, and only because of the space it allows me to save in my luggage).

First up on this trip, boxing-wise at any rate, has been the above title by Brin-Jonathan Butler, a young writer I wasn’t previously aware of, until I found this title while browsing through Amazon. On the basis of this impressive debut, Butler clearly has talent in spades and is a writer to keep a close eye on. I hope he continues to write about boxing, and particularly look forward to his forthcoming documentary on Cuban boxing entitled Split-Decision.

Anyway, this book traces Cuban master boxer, two-time Olympic Gold medallist and now World Super-bantmanweight Champion Guillermo Rigondeaux’s amazing back-story from the streets of Havana to Dublin, Dallas and many places in between. It proves to be both a thrilling and illuminating journey, with all the tension one would look for in an airport-bookstore thriller, only with far better drawn and more compelling characters.

After a brief, but crisply written contextual survey, which combines Cuban political history with post-Castro boxing history, Butler locates the enigmatic and moody Rigondeaux moping around Havana in 2007 after a botched defection attempt in Brazil while at the Pan-American Games. Thereafter, Butler becomes immersed in Rigondeaux’s life and career, as well as the plotting and planning of his on-off manager Gary Hyde. It’s a fascinating tale of speedboat facilitated defections, familial angst and cultural re-adjustment. At one point, Butler even stakes his last £1,000 on Rigondeaux winning a particular fight in a particular round – I won’t spoil the surprise by revealing whether he’s successful or not.

Complementing the fascinating subject matter, Butler’s prose is taut and, at times, lyrical and poetic, but never over wrought or pretentious. Similarly, he manages to tread a fine but skilful line between emotion and sentimentality – giving us plenty of the former and none of the latter. His ability to sniff out a story and a contact are also impressive, as evidenced by the fact that he manages to elicit the thoughts of, among others, Bob Arum, George Foreman, Teófilo Stevenson and Félix Savón.

The only faults, for me, with this book are its length and its format. In terms of the former, with the amount of great material he has assembled, I was left wishing that Butler had written more – the last couple of chapters, in particular, which see Rigondeaux widely outpoint Nonito Donaire, seem a little rushed and lacking in detail. Meanwhile the final chapter, although apt and appropriate in its sentiments and conclusions, as well as being beautifully written, is also far too brief.

I suspect that the short length of the book has something to do with its other chief fault – which I presume has nothing to do with Butler – which is the fact it is only available in ebook format at present. Not only is this a gross insult to a book of such quality, depth and insight (which quite simply demands a print edition) but this digital exclusivity also prevents a large amount of people from being able to read it. I suspect this is part of the reason why Butler didn’t spend a bit more time fleshing out the ending of the book – doubtless he has a crust to earn and other projects to move on to.

It’s a particular shame that A Cuban Boxer’s Journey is only available as an ebook, as anyone with an interest in either Cuba, boxing or Guillermo Rigondeaux should consider it an essential purchase. As for Butler he is definitely, if you’ll excuse the tiresome cliché, ‘one to watch’.

Luke G. Williams

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