Best Of :: Sports & Recreation
His fists are worth $750,000. And his smile is gold — literally. After winning two medallas de oro fighting for the Cuban boxing team at the 2000 and 2004 Olympics, Guillermo "El Chacal" Rigondeaux returned to the island, resumed his ascetic training schedule, and lived like a common campesino. He was a national hero. He was even — according to another Cuban boxing legend and two-time Olympic champ, Héctor Vinent — "the greatest boxer who ever lived." But he was still broke. And his prize medallions were worth only a couple hundred pesos. So Guillermo settled on fixing his teeth. "I melted my Olympic medals," he once explained, "into my mouth." A few years later, though, finally fed up with a life of poverty and the lack of opportunity in Cuba, Rigondeaux decided to defect. And just like so many of the island's fighters over the past six decades (not to mention several world-class Cuban contemporaries, including Yuriorkis Gamboa and Erislandy Lara), he moved to Miami. But already 29, Guillermo was turning pro at an advanced age. And unlike Gamboa's and Lara's careers, Rigondeaux's was starting slow. Despite being widely recognized as one of the best amateur fighters of the past half-century, Rigondeaux stands only five feet five inches tall. He weighs 122 pounds. And he isn't a headhunter. He is, however, a preternaturally skilled boxer with serious punching power. So over the past couple of years, he quietly compiled a perfect 12-0 record. He won the WBA Super Bantamweight belt. And then he broke out, methodically maiming Filipino-American champ Nonito Donaire (a WBO titleholder who's been almost universally heralded as a top-five pound-for-pound fighter) over the course of a 12-round bout in April. He won the unanimous decision. He cashed a $750,000 check. He flashed that gold smile. And even the naysayers were forced to admit that "El Chacal" is most definitely the real deal.
Let's face it. This year's Miami Marlins have about as many high points as the pancake-flat state of Florida. But the silver lining of the Marlins selling all their best players during the offseason is that they also got to replace the hot-garbage train wreck known as Heath Bell at closer. With Bell shipped off to Arizona, the closer's role opened up for 26-year-old Steve Cishek, who came in with guns blazing. Drafted by the Marlins in 2007, Cishek was a skinny kid whose fastball topped off at just 82 mph. But thanks to a growth spurt and some seasoning through college, Cishek — who uses a baffling, near-submarine delivery — now breaks the radar gun at 95 mph with a nasty fastball that gives opposing hitters the hives. Stepping in as the closer late in 2012, Cishek proved that Marlins fans need not worry about at least one position. The six-foot-six, gangly flame-thrower converted 13 of 14 save opportunities over the season's final three months for Miami, allowing opposing batters to hit a paltry .183 average with runners in scoring position during that time. Cishek was also the one lone bright spot for the monumentally disappointing Team USA during this year's World Baseball Classic. So playing with a losing team and having success should be nothing new to him. The Marlins have plenty of problems going forward, but the closer ain't one. That is, of course, until they decide to trade Cishek for another crop of no-names.
Fear the tilde. Consider: Before he moved to Miami to take the reigns of the long-neglected Hurricanes basketball team, the former head coach at George Mason was just plain ol' Jim Larranaga. Then, in his arena a few miles from Little Havana, the coach rediscovered his Cuban roots. His grandad, after all, was born on the island, and back then the family surname was "Larrañaga." So this year, it was Jim Larrañaga stalking the sidelines, and damned if that tilde didn't rock college ball to its core. By the end of the season, the Canes had won their first ACC title and earned a No. 2 seed at the big dance, while Larrañaga was named National Coach of the Year by both the AP and the U.S. Basketball Writers Association. The power of proper punctuation, y'all.
He was supposed to be a choker. A guy who shrank in the big moments. LeBrick. And after roughly a billion articles disparaging him after the Miami Heat lost in the NBA Finals in 2011 to the Dallas Mavericks, it was apparent that the "LeBron James will never be Michael Jordan" argument was settled for good. Then the 2012 NBA playoffs happened. And LeBron showed the world he had the coal-fire balls to carry a team into the finals and obliterate into a fine powder all haters' hopes and dreams of watching him fail again. LeBron was an absolute freight train of devastation with his basketball prowess, littering the court with the decaying corpses of the Knicks, Celtics, and Thunder, and telling any and all who doubted him, mocked him, and otherwise said ridiculous things about him to go fornicate with farm animals. With a primal intensity usually reserved for professional assassins and lions pouncing and gorging on a herd of caribou, LeBron came through with what was quite possibly the single greatest one-man performance anyone has ever witnessed in NBA playoffs history. He has carried his godlike powers into the 2013 season and won a fourth MVP award, which is something Michael Jordan never did. Grace and violence. Beauty and devastation. Poetry and triumph. LeBron James is a walking epic poem.
Little-known fact: Red, the inmate played by Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption, was a Miami Dolphins fan. Think about it. When Andy Dufresne tells him that no matter how bleak it gets, it can never touch the hope that resides in us all, Red counters that hope "is a dangerous thing." As a Dolphins fan, Red would know that lesson all too well. Like all Fins fans, he's been primed full of hope that every new hotshot quarterback coming into Sun Life Stadium is the heir apparent to Dan Marino. But ever since No. 13 retired, the Fins have plowed through no less than a dozen signal-callers, all of whom fizzled out and were thrown back into the hot, fetid garbage heap of failure. But now there's Ryan Tannehill, Miami's 2012 first-round draft pick, who has taken up the hope mantle and will try to bring that elusive thing called "winning." In his rookie season, Tannehill threw for 3,294 yards — more than Marino threw in his rookie year. Tannehill also chucked 12 TDs and finished the season with a respectable 58.3 completion percentage. More important, he's shown he possesses the moxie and badassitude we haven't seen since Marino roamed the field and annihilated NFL defenses. Going into the next season, the Dolphins re-armed with weapons such as receiver Mike Wallace and tight end Dustin Keller. So Red, and all other Dolphins fans out there, can stop worrying. Ryan Tannehill is the hope that Andy Dufresne was talking about.
The Florida Panthers have been an absolute mess. Injuries, bad breaks, and poor play have made the most irrelevant of all local pro teams fade even deeper into the ether. However, if there was ever a reason to pay attention to the Cats and ready that bandwagon, it's their goal-scoring, point-amassing, defense-obliterating rookie sensation, Jonathan Huberdeau. The Panthers selected Huberdeau third overall in the 2011 NHL draft (one of the benefits of being consistently stinky), and the results have been consistently kick-ass from the word "go." In his first year with the minor-league Sea Dogs, Huberdeau scored 15 goals, and added 20 assists for 35 points in 61 games. In 2011, he led all scorers at the Memorial Cup (the Canadian junior-league championship), signaling he was more than ready to throw down with the big boys. Huberdeau is a virtuoso with a hockey stick in his hands. He can finesse a pinpoint-accurate pass one minute and turn a puck into a lethal heat-seeking missile that annihilates nets the next. In his first pro season with a depleted Panthers team, Huberdeau was a star. He tied for the NHL lead among rookies with 31 points on the year and was top five in goals and assists. The Panthers are stuck in the muck of mediocrity. But their future is bright with Jonathan Huberdeau igniting the NHL ice with his awesomeness.