From Cuba to Pacquiao: The rise of Yordenis Ugas

From humble beginnings in Cuba to WBA champion via a controversial loss to Shawn Porter and now sharing the ring with Manny Pacquiao: The long, hard-fought rise of Yordenis Ugas

  • Yordenis Ugas is to fight Manny Pacquiao instead of Errol Spence Jr on Saturday
  • Ugas, 35, was drafted in after Spence Jr’s shock withdrawal with an eye injury 
  • He is the WBA Super welterweight champion, which he took from Pacquiao
  • From amateur success in his homeland, Ugas has made it to the boxing big-time
  • A proud Cuban, he is a public critic of the Castro regime and a vocal dissident

It certainly isn’t the fight that was intended. For eight-division legend Manny Pacquiao, the prospect of returning to the boxing ring after two years away could only be envisaged if he was fighting someone of great stature.

The undefeated WBC and IBF champion Errol Spence Jr fit the bill perfectly, until fate stepped in and changed the fortunes of two men.

First Spence Jr, whose retinal tear in his left eye means he won’t be, possibly, the last person to fight the great Pacquiao. 

Cuban boxer and WBA champion Yordenis Ugas is set to fight Manny Pacquiao on Saturday

Ugas takes on Pacquiao (left) after Errol Spence Jr (right) dropped out of the fight due to injury

But also, the man who has stepped in to fill Spence Jr’s shoes on Saturday night and go toe-to-toe with the 42-year-old Filipino: Cuban WBA champion Yordenis Ugas. 

While perhaps not regarded as being on the same level as a Spence Jr or Terence Crawford, Ugas’ last-minute drafting into this contest contains a tantalising back story that could add some spice to the fight at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.  

He was elevated to WBA Super welterweight champion after Pacquiao was stripped of the very same title for more than 20 months’ inactivity, meaning Ugas’ first defence of his new title is against the legend he took it from. 

But where did Ugas come from to be the stand-in for Spence Jr, and deemed a worthy opponent to one of boxing’s greatest?

Humble beginnings

Ugas grew up in Santiago, Cuba and comes from a rich history of amateur boxing excellence in the country. Like so many before him, he found focus, discipline and enjoyment in the sport. 

The 35-year-old dreamt big from the start, hoping to become an Olympic champion, the highest accolade a boxer based in communist Cuba can aim for unless they leave to pursue a professional career. 

Ugas’ promise turned into global success early on when he became the under-17 world champion in 2003, but lost the title the following year to a certain Amir Khan of Great Britain. 

Ugas came from humble beginnings in Santiago, Cuba, and was a promising boxer early on

Undeterred, Ugas continued honing his craft and was rewarded by winning gold at the 2005 World Championships and then bronze at the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

Having proven he could mix it with the best of the amateur circuit, Ugas took the unsurprising decision to pursue a professional boxing career and in March 2010 moved to America to fulfil his dream. 

Moving up the ranks

Ugas’ professional career got off to a flying start, with the Cuban winning his first 11 fights on the trot before losing on a split decision to Johnny Garcia in March 2012. 

He spent the next seven years finding relative success in mid-tier boxing matches, until he made the sport stand up and take notice with a demolition of Ray Robinson in February 2018 after knocking the American out in the seventh round. 

The nature of the contest drew attention to Ugas’ huge power, which the Cuban used to devastating effect against Robinson.

Ugas (right) lands another punch on Omar Figueroa in a one-sided unanimous points victory

Two more successive victories followed and saw Ugas land his first world title fight in March 2019 against then WBC welterweight champion Shawn Porter. 

A bruising encounter saw Ugas make good use of his power. Though Porter showed tremendous grit, the Cuban finished the fight the stronger of the two, only to suffer what is widely regarded as a highly controversial split-decision loss. 

Two judges scored the fight in Porter’s favour 116-112 and 115-113, while the other gave the contest to Ugas 117-111. The crowd in the arena booed resoundingly as the result was announced. 

Ugas (right) boxing in his first world title fight with then WBC champion Shawn Porter (left) 

Ugas lost a controversial split decision to Shawn Porter (right) in their WBC title fight in 2019

Fortunately, Ugas didn’t have long to wait for another title shot after easing to dominant points victories over Omar Figueroa and then Mike Dallas Jr. He fought Abel Ramos for the vacant WBA welterweight title in September last year, and once again dominated proceedings. 

For many Ugas had shown that he deserved a place at boxing’s top table after the Porter fight, but here he made certain by taking the WBA belt despite some questionable scoring once more that made it a split-decision victory. The wider consensus is that Ugas won comfortably, whatever the judges thought. 

Role model and dissident

Now, Ugas sits on the precipice of boxing history with the opportunity to take down Pacquiao and write his name into the history books. 

For all the hype and pressure that comes with posing for fight photos alongside the Pac-Man, Ugas has remained steadfastly humble, as he has throughout his boxing career.

He didn’t show much anger after the Porter debacle, instead eager to move on at the time, though earlier this week he did post footage from the fight and wrote: ‘For most, I had to become a world champion in March 2019’, referring explicitly to the Porter fight.

After being confirmed as Pacquiao’s new opponent instead of Spence Jr, he was quick to write a public tribute to the American, who he was initially slated to fight before the Filipino made his interest known. 

Ugas said he is ‘honoured to be fighting a legend like Manny Pacquiao’ and is eager to win

A post shared by Yordenis Ugas (@yordenis_ugas)

Even his pre-fight patter has been respectful, with Ugas saying: ‘I’m so honoured to be fighting a legend like Manny Pacquiao. I am really looking forward to stepping inside the ring on Saturday night.

‘It would mean a lot for me (to retire Pacquiao) because if I am the final guy that steps foot inside the ring with Manny Pacquiao, I want to make sure that I brought everything and got the best out of him. I know together we will make a great fight.’

As a world champion boxer, Ugas is one of the most famous Cubans on the planet, and in between social media posts about the sport and heart-warming messages to his mum on her birthday, he has become a vocal critic of the Castro regime in his homeland. 

He has dedicated Saturday’s fight against the Filipino to all the Cubans who protested against the regime on July 11, with many suffering brutal consequences. 

‘I am a fighter not only inside the ring, but outside I also fight for the freedom of my people,’ Ugas told reporters at a pre-fight press conference earlier this week. 

‘That is the most important thing to me. I hope that all those who fight for freedom in Cuba are safe and know that I will fight for them on Saturday.’

It may be foolish to bet against Pacquiao, even after two years away from the ring and at the age of 42, because the Filipino legend has seen and done pretty much everything in the ring over his long, illustrious career. 

But it may also be wrong to write-off Ugas, a fighter who has climbed up boxing’s ladder from the very bottom to the very top, and carries the weight of an expectant, hopeful nation on his shoulders. 

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