The Fundamentals With ... Ismael Salas

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A deep dive into the Sweet Science with the legendary trainer of Yordenis Ugas as Ugas prepares to face Errol Spence Jr. in a three-belt welterweight unification Saturday night on SHOWTIME pay-per-view.

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Errol Spence Jr. vs Yordenis Ugas FIGHT PREVIEW: April 16, 2022 | PBC on SHOWTIME PPV

This Saturday, April 16, a highly anticipated welterweight world title unification bout between WBC/IBF World Champion Errol Spence Jr. (27-0, 21 KOs) and WBA World champion Yordenis Ugas (27-4, 12 KOs) headlines at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, live on SHOWTIME pay-per-view (9 p.m. ET/6 p.m. PT).

That night, legendary trainer Ismael Salas will work Ugas’ corner for the 14th time. Salas, who like Ugas originally hails from Cuba, has also coached the likes of Felix Savon, Guillermo Rigondeaux, Jorge Linares, Yuriorkis Gamboa, and Rances Barthelemy, to name a few. 

In his own words, here is how Salas breaks down the fundamentals of the sweet science.

It All Starts with the Jab

“In the amateurs, they don’t use as many ways of throwing the jab. But in the professionals, which is what I introduced to Ugas, sometimes it’s a lazy jab, a double jab, a jab to the top, to the body, with the hook, or with the uppercut. We always do variation with the front hand depending on who we are fighting. We cannot do the same thing with Spence that we did with [Manny] Pacquiao. It’s two different styles, even though they’re both southpaws.”

Ugas’ jab played a critical role in his upset of the legendary Pacquiao last August.

“I knew Pacquiao very well because I used to live in Thailand and one of the fighters I trained (Boonsai Sangsurat) fought Pacquiao at flyweight and beat him,” Salas said.

“Why did Keith Thurman get dropped [against Pacquiao]? Because he didn’t do the proper homework. Pacquiao works with a double jab, then he throws the left to the body, and he ends with the right hook. Normally ‘the book’ says if you fight a southpaw, you need to go away from their left hand. Keith Thurman made the mistake of trying to stick to the book.

“With the plan we prepared, it was to go away from the book. We told Ugas, ‘Every time you see Pacquiao throw a double jab, he’ll throw the left and end with the right hook. So every time you see him throw a double jab, you move to Pacquiao’s left hand. You’ve got a longer reach, so your jab will come through first.’

“We did something different from everyone, and Ugas jabbed all night long. It was the key for that fight.”

Footwork and Positioning

“I divide the ring into sections: center, corners, and along the middle of the ropes. Depending on a fighter’s style, his positioning should be in a specific section during a fight. There are unfortunately not many trainers who train fighters where in the ring you should be in a fight, and where you should not be. 

“Normally Ugas’ middle-distance style has to be in the ring center. This means he can go in and attack, he can go to the side, and he can counter. The worst punch in boxing is the one you can’t see. 

“We get to this point through angles. I have a line (tape) everywhere in my gym. I love to work with the angles. When Ugas is moving from left to right or right to left, he tries to find the blind spot of the opponent. 

“It’s daily drills, daily repetition, and daily correction. Always a process. It’s not a one-day change.”

In Cuba, in the amateurs, no one can beat us—we have the top amateurs. Trainer - Ismael Salas

Protect Yourself At All Times

Salas’ fighters often do drills in the gym using a rope tied across the ring to bob and weave. Salas explained how these drills help his fighters.

“The main point of those exercises is creating muscle memory, or neuromuscular coordination. ‘Neuro’ because it’s coming from the brain, ‘muscle’ because it works the whole muscle, and ‘coordination,’ which is the most important part of the drill. In any sport, you must have coordination between your legs or your lower body, and your upper body. That’s why sport is so beautiful. It’s the highest expression of body coordination. 

“There are three kinds of defense: with the legs, like we used in the Pacquiao fight; with the upper body, slipping, weaving and side-to-side; and blocking with the arms. So when we go into any kind of fight, we define which kind of defense we will use for the fight. Like in his last fight, the kind of defense we used with Pacquiao was the step-aside.”

Control Distance

Ugas began working with Salas after his third loss as a pro and after a two-year hiatus. When they began working together, Salas suggested some changes. 

“We refined his boxing style,” Salas said. “Early on, he confessed to me he liked to be a fighter, a brawler. I said no, it doesn't match you because you have too long a reach. To have as long a reach as you have, it's an advantage if you can use the proper distance but you lose this advantage if you move too close. 

“Ugas is a classic middle-distance fighter. This means he can punch, but at the same time he can slip the punch and he can counter. When you have this kind of fighter, he can attack and defend and at the same time, counter.”

Champion Mindset

“If you’re born in a harsh environment, you must survive,” Salas said. “So you have to be very, very strong mentally, but at the same time, you have to be flexible. You have to adjust to new environments. In boxing, because we have the kind of sport where we have direct confrontation with someone, you need to be mentally strong but also you have to be very flexible mentally. You’re planning something, but in real time, you have to do another thing. You have to prepare plans A, B, and C. If something doesn’t work, you have to be flexible to change. 

“In Cuba, in the amateurs, no one can beat us—we have the top amateurs. But at the same time, socially, we are struggling. We have no social freedom. We don’t have so many things I’ve seen in capitalist countries. For example, my team from Guantanamo, like with Felix Savon, Joel Casamayor, and so many of them—believe it or not, they sometimes have to run without shoes because there aren’t any. They say sometimes when you’re struggling, you create. You become better.

“I left Cuba in 1989. I’ve been all around the world. In Japan, the fighters have all the facilities. Whatever they like to have, they have. Different mentality. In the United States, in Europe, in Germany, they have different mentalities. They have freedom. When a Cuban fighter comes to the United States, it’s a joke. To go from being repressed since you were born…It’s culture shock. It’s a difficult process. That’s why Ugas had three losses and he had a break for two years, because mentally he was broke. 

“Everybody has a dream and everybody tries to work for their dream, but when you face a kind of reality, when you fail, then you can see who you are. Are you a loser, or will you be a winner?”

For a closer look at Spence vs Ugas, check out our fight night page. 

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