LAS VEGAS (AP) — This is the life Yordenis Ugás imagined when he decided to leave Cuba.
He wanted to be in a boxing ring with somebody like Manny Pacquiao under the Vegas spotlight, fighting for a championship belt in front of the whole world.
Ugás wanted this future so badly that he attempted to defect six times. He says he was sent to prison after the failed attempts, even though he won an Olympic bronze medal in Beijing.
He finally got to Mexico in 2010 after two perilous days in a small boat. He eventually made it to Miami, yet he still paid another price: He couldn’t see his family, including his mother, for nine years.
“This has been a long road for me,” Ugás said through an interpreter. “Obviously it was short notice that I learned I was fighting Pacquiao. But I’m thankful for the opportunity, and I’m ready to take advantage of it.”
Indeed, the 35-year-old Ugás’ two decades of hard work and sacrifice finally paid off in a flash earlier this month.
Errol Spence Jr., the vaunted welterweight champion slated to fight Pacquiao in a pay-per-view show Saturday night at T-Mobile Arena, discovered he had a detached retina during a pre-fight physical.
Spence needed surgery, and Pacquiao (62-7-2, 39 KOs) quickly needed a new opponent before he got back to his day job, which probably includes an imminent run for president of the Philippines.
Ugás (26-4, 12 KOs) was scheduled to fight on the undercard, and he already held a welterweight belt that had been taken away from Pacquiao by the WBA. He was finally in the perfect place at the ideal time to get a fight and a payday with the potential to change his life.
Too often in his life and career, Ugás had been in the wrong place. Now that he has the break he chased for so long, Ugás is determined not to waste it.
“There are no excuses heading into this fight,” Ugás said. “I’ve been in this position taking a short-notice fight before, although obviously never against a fighter the caliber of Pacquiao. I have no concerns, though.”
Although Ugás has found it painful in the past when his life didn’t fit the future he had imagined, he has been through enough to appreciate an opportunity like this without allowing it to consume him.
His pro career has moved on swells and troughs. He started 11-0, but Top Rank unceremoniously released him in 2012 after his first professional loss, a split-decision defeat in which he didn’t look sharp enough for Bob Arum’s promotion.
Ugás then stepped away from competitive boxing for two years from 2014 to 2016 after back-to-back decision losses that he found unfair. He says he was depressed and living in New Jersey, eating ramen and struggling to figure out what to do after failing at boxing.
He found salvation from Aroldis Chapman, the baseball closer who loves boxing and informally sponsors defector fighters from their mutual homeland. Ugás says Chapman paid for him to move to Vegas to resume his training, and he returned to the ring in August 2016 with the first of eight straight wins.
A debatable split-decision loss to Shawn Porter in 2019 prevented him from winning the WBC welterweight title, but only improved his stock in the boxing world. He is with Premier Boxing Champions, which has given him regular platforms — and thanks to Spence’s unfortunate injury, he was in position to take the biggest stage of all.
There are plenty of reasons to believe Ugás has more than a puncher’s chance against the Filipino senator. Pacquiao is 42, and he is coming off the longest layoff of his quarter-century in pro boxing.
“I have prepared for 12 hard rounds,” Ugás said. “If this is Pacquiao’s final fight, then he’s going to be up against a guy who brought his best and who is a world-class fighter.”
But no matter what happens, Ugás will be glad he was in the ring.
After two decades of ups and owns, Ugás is now a successful fighter with a comfortable life and a loving family in Florida. He dotes on his 6-year-old autistic son, Yordenis Jr., and he speaks out on social media about his still-simmering dislike of the Cuban government, saying, “in our country you cannot progress, you cannot think and you cannot live.”
When he stands across from Pacquiao, he will finally be in position to punctuate all of his struggles and work with a performance that would stun fans from Manila to Havana. If he succeeds, he’ll be thinking of how far he traveled to get there.
“More than anything, I am a fighter who represents my country of Cuba,” he said. “This fight is dedicated to all the people who are fighting for freedom in Cuba, I’m fighting for all of them.”
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