Who is Yordenis Ugas, and why is he fighting Manny Pacquiao?


YORDENIS UGAS WAS silent. He was happy, soaking in the moment. The 35-year-old had just received an unexpected call, offering him an opportunity he’d long dreamed of.

The answer about whether or not he’d take a fight against boxing’s only eight-division champion, Manny Pacquiao, was never in doubt. Of course he said yes.

And when Ugas steps into the ring against Pacquiao on Saturday in Las Vegas, he’ll be defending his WBA “super” welterweight title against a 42-year-old living legend having only 11 days’ notice.

Both men were training for drastically different fights on the same card: Pacquiao against IBF and WBC world title holder Errol Spence Jr.; Ugas against Fabian Maidana. Both Spence and Maidana suffered eye injuries that knocked them out of those fights. Suddenly, Pacquiao and Ugas were set to headline a PBC on Fox pay-per-view at T-Mobile Arena.

“I was surprised,” says Ugas, ESPN’s No. 6 boxer at 147 pounds. “I had emotion running through [me], but I also knew I was prepared. This was meant for a reason.”

If Ugas seems unfazed, it’s because of everything he’s been through over the past decade in his professional career, and everything that led up to this point. He’s an Olympic medalist for his native Cuba, who defected to the United States to pursue his professional dreams. He spent two years (from 2014 to 2016), retired from the sport. And before he could even launch his professional career, Ugas struggled for years to get his feet underneath him.

The stars have finally aligned for Ugas. It’s been a long time coming.

TWO YEARS AFTER winning bronze at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, Ugas made the only choice available if he wanted to pursue his dream of winning a world title: He defected from Cuba.

“Imagine being in the open sea for two days, you’re in a small little boat so you’re all over the place with the waves,” Ugas recalled. “I thought at every moment I was going to die. It’s not something I would wish on anyone; it’s very dangerous.”

That small raft brought him from Cuba to Mexico. From there, he made his way to Miami, where many Cuban defectors have settled over the past few decades.

Living in the United States with a minimal support system and little money was difficult, and lonely. During those seemingly never-ending days, Ugas would head over to McDonald’s and order a dollar-menu apple pie. Not just one — sometimes as many as seven. It was comfort food, and the only meal he could afford that would offer any solace.

But Ugas’ pro career started well enough inside the ring. He recorded five wins in 2010, and that November, two key things happened: Ugas got his first up-close look at Pacquiao, when Pacquiao picked apart Antonio Margarito in a 154-pound title fight and became boxing’s first eight-division world champion. And that night, as Ugas was ringside at the home of the Dallas Cowboys, he met Bob Arum and laid the groundwork for his first promotional contract.

“Ugas was wearing a white suit, he had that Don Johnson look, no shirt on, and Arum f—ing falls in love with the look,” Top Rank Boxing matchmaker Brad Goodman recalled. “Arum thought he was the real deal.”

TOP RANK SIGNED Ugas and placed him on a February 2011 card against Carlos Musquez. Ugas won his first six fights with the promotion, running his record to 11-0 with five knockouts.

Then they stepped up the competition for Ugas with a fight against Johnny Garcia, on Showtime’s prospect-oriented series, ShoBox: The New Generation. It was a disaster for Ugas, who suffered his first professional loss via split decision. And that wasn’t all.

“His first showing to really showcase his skills, and he lost a split decision,” Goodman says. “He really didn’t go out there and shine like he was supposed to. We were just real down [on him] and we just released him.”

The release, Ugas says, was a psychological blow that took him years to recover from. He won four fights after parting ways with Top Rank, but then lost back-to-back fights against Emanuel Robles and Amir Imam in 2014. Following the unanimous-decision setback to Imam that May, Ugas suddenly called it quits.

His career hadn’t gone the way he planned; far from it, in fact. At 15-3, and just four years into his pro career, Ugas couldn’t handle losing. He had been one of the best amateurs in Cuban history, winning several national championships and a gold medal at the 2005 World Championships in Mianyang, China.

“Dark days back then, it was very depressing,” Ugas said, via translation from his manager, Luis DeCubas. “I’ve been competing in boxing over 20 years; never not been competing; never thought I didn’t have a future. Sitting in a room with no future, no money, no life: it’s pretty depressing. You think the worst things.

“I was retired, 100 percent out of boxing; wasn’t sure what I was going to do. I was confused. I didn’t know what I was going to do in life, period. … Bad time in my career; bad time in life.”

“He’s not a drinker, but [he was] hanging out until late, not taking things seriously, not running,” said DeCubas.

Ugas was living in New Jersey at that point, and to get by, he worked odd jobs to pay the bills — the first jobs he ever had outside of boxing. Hard labor.

Then Ugas received the call that “100 percent changed my life.” On the other line, along with DeCubas, was Aroldis Chapman, the future MLB All-Star closer. Chapman, a fellow Cuban defector and one of Ugas’ closest friends since they arrived in Miami, had signed a lucrative contract with the Cincinnati Reds in January 2010, and he was ready to offer Ugas a much-needed lifeline and a doorway back into boxing.

The message from Chapman: “I’ll give you the money to move to Vegas, but you better take this as your last opportunity.”

WHILE HE WAS living in New Jersey during that two-year hiatus, Ugas had plenty of time to think. He couldn’t wrap his head around it all. How had he reached this point?

He surveyed the boxing landscape and saw who was thriving. Terence Crawford? Ugas beat him when they met in the Pan American Games qualifier in Barquisimeto, Venezuela, in 2007. Sadam Ali. Darleys Perez. Jose Pedraza. Along with Crawford, all titleholders at that time. And all fighters Ugas had beaten as an amateur.

“These guys are champions; I’m not a champion?” Ugas recalls thinking. “I gotta be a champion.”

Determined to make the most of the opportunity Chapman placed at his feet, Ugas packed up what little he owned and moved to Las Vegas for a fresh start — linking up with trainer Ismael Salas, another Cuban, and reuniting with DeCubas. He changed his lifestyle and dedicated himself completely to his craft.

He also moved up in weight, from 140 pounds to 147, and witnessed the birth of his son, Yordenis Jr. — the two biggest factors in his dramatic turnaround, Ugas says.

During the second act of his career with DeCubas, in which he eventually signed with Al Haymon’s Premier Boxing Champions promotion, Ugas impressed as a reliable fill-in. Less than a year into his return, Ugas scored a second-round stoppage vs. Nelson Lara on two days’ notice in 2017. Later that year, he agreed to take on an even better opponent on one week’s notice, defeating Thomas Dulorme by decision.

“I could tell when he came out [to Las Vegas,] he wasn’t playing around,” DeCubas said.

“He just made a complete turnaround. He has all the ability in the world,” said Goodman, who considers Ugas’ inside game his best attribute. “… He’s very calm. He carries a lot of confidence. Nothing rattles him.”

By 2019, Ugas had put together eight consecutive victories, and lined up opposite Shawn Porter for a WBC welterweight title shot — the kind of opportunity he had long dreamed of. Despite being as much as a +400 underdog, Ugas went punch for punch with Porter, and in the minds of many in the boxing world watching that night, did enough to win. But the cards ultimately went against him, albeit narrowly in a split decision.

Besides the controversial defeat to Porter, Ugas’ résumé includes decision wins over solid fighters like Jamal James, Abel Ramos and Omar Figueroa Jr., as well as TKOs vs. Bryant Perrella and Ray Robinson.

None of those boxers, of course, come close to the legendary Pacquiao.



Manny Pacquiao shares his thoughts on his new opponent Yordenis Ugas, following Errol Spence Jr.’s withdrawal due to injury.

SEVEN YEARS ON from hitting the pause button in his career, Ugas, a fighter once labeled a bust, is on the doorstep of a life-changing opportunity.

“I never expected to fight Manny Pacquiao, especially at his age and how much more ahead [of me] he was,” Ugas said. “He’s such a great fighter and he showed [it] with what he did against Keith Thurman and Adrien Broner [in his two most recent fights]. What a great fighter he still is, even at 42 years old.

“He’s one of the greatest fighters of all time, there’s no question about it. It’s going to be a pleasure and honor to share the ring with a legend. But once the bell rings, all that goes out the window and it’s a fight. It’s not, ‘I’m fighting Manny Pacquiao.’ I’m fighting for my life.”

“He has to prepare for his future outside of boxing; these are the fights that do that,” DeCubas says. “And a win over Pacquiao sets him up for life.”

Ugas (26-4, 12 KOs) enters the fight against Pacquiao as the WBA champion, a position he was elevated to back in January. The old champ? Pacquiao, who won the title from Thurman in July 2019 but hasn’t fought since. Due to the long layoff, the WBA appointed him champion in recess. Pacquiao petitioned the WBA to be reinstated ahead of the Spence fight, but in a surprise decision, the WBA ruled last month to maintain Ugas as champion.

“Ugas is a champion because they gave him my belt,” Pacquiao said last week. “Now, we have to settle it inside of the ring. I cannot take him lightly because he’s the kind of fighter who will take advantage of that.”

Ugas is in a familiar position, both as a last-minute replacement and as a +280 betting underdog as of Wednesday morning at Caesars Sportsbook.

Given what he has fought through — defecting from Cuba, fighting back from a two-year hiatus and the disappointment of not getting the win over Porter, among many other challenges along the way — doubting Ugas’ chances Saturday is a risky position to take.

“If he’s overlooking me, he’s going to have a problem,” Ugas said. “I’m in the prime of my career. I’m a world champion; I’m fighting at the highest level I ever fought. You put the championship pedigree with the Olympic pedigree — I can’t wait for the fight.”

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