The WBA Welterweight Champion is primed for the moment he steps inside the ring at AT&T Stadium in Texas to face unbeaten Errol Spence Jr. in a three-belt welterweight unification live on SHOWTIME pay-per-view.
The history of boxing is filled with poignant tales of men and women overcoming steep odds to achieve greatness in a sport where it’s mano e mano for up to 36 minutes of hit-or-be-hit fury.
It’s something those of us who’ve never set foot in the squared circle can only imagine.
Perhaps none, however, has overcome greater odds to reach the pinnacle of his chosen sport than the most recent welterweight champion.
By now, most knowledgeable boxing fans and, well, probably every Cuban on the planet, are familiar with the story of the incredible persistence of Yordenis Ugas, the Cuban fighter who, aching for freedom, attempted to escape Fidel Castro’s communist regime not once, but six times. He failed each time and each time was thrown into prison without food for days.
Finally, in 2010, in his lucky seventh try, Ugas reached the shores of Texas and has never looked back.
“I spent two days on a boat with rain, wind and thunder, it was very ugly,” Ugas explained on SHOWTIME’s All-Access program. “It was a very bad experience. Thank God I arrived at the land of freedom.”
Ugas, who won a bronze medal for Cuba at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, was far from an overnight sensation as a pro. After losing two consecutive fights in 2014, Ugas took a 27-month hiatus.
“I believe I was lacking focus going into that fight,” Ugas said through interpreter Marcelino Castillo. “After the loss, I had time to reflect on my career and got the fire back. I was just trying to find my way in life during that time off. That’s why I took all those fights on short notice. I knew I was a champion caliber fighter."
Indeed, he was and is. In his comeback bout in 2016, Ugas handed Jamal James his first career loss, fighting for the first time with highly respected trainer and fellow Cuban expat Ismael Salas in his corner.
With Salas guiding him, Ugas has won 12 of 13 fights, the only blemish a split-decision loss to Shawn Porter three years ago.
“(The James fight) was the start of me coming back stronger than ever,” said Ugas. “After that win, I knew I was going to be champion one day. I believe I beat Porter, so in many people’s minds I’m undefeated since my time off.
“Everything changed for me that night and it’s all led up to this.”
“This” of course, began with Ugas’ monumental upset of Filipino legend and WBA welterweight champ Manny Pacquiao last August that sent Senator Pacman into retirement and catapulted the Cuban to the top of the 147-pound heap.
More important, it set him up for Saturday’s highly anticipated three-belt welterweight unification bout with WBC and IBF champion Errol Spence Jr. (27-0, 21 KOs) at AT&T Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys (SHOWTIME pay-per-view, 9 p.m. ET/6 p/m. PT).
Ugas’ relationship with Salas, one that goes beyond boxing, worked from the get-go.
“The fact that he’s Cuban and a great trainer, we just clicked,” Ugas said. “He’s very knowledgeable about the fundamentals of boxing and I like that. He keeps things simple.
“Outside of the ring he’s like a second father, someone I can talk to about anything. He always has had trust in me since day one.”
“ I’m looking forward to fighting in front of that massive crowd. I was born for this. ” WBA Welterweight World Champion - Yordenis Ugas
But Salas knew it would be far from easy turning Ugas into a champion-caliber fighter.
“It’s been a process for Ugas to get back to this point. He had to regain his confidence when he first joined our gym,” Salas said. “We had to make a transition from the Cuban style and make him more aggressive. Yordenis Ugas is a master of the middle distance. He knows how to make you miss and make you pay.”
That was never more evident than in the Pacquiao fight, which was supposed to be contested between Pacquiao and Spence Jr. But the Texan suffered a retinal tear 12 days before the fight, and Ugas accepted the assignment on a mere 11-days notice. That decision changed his life.
“Anytime you are victorious against a boxing legend like Manny Pacquiao, thing will obviously change,” Ugas said. “People recognize me now more than ever. I embrace the newfound fame by being humble and respectful.”
Ugas began boxing in Cuba at age six and went to a scholarship school when he was 12. But there was no dreaming of being a professional boxer at that time. “In Cuba you only dream about amateurs, because amateurs is all there is in Cuba.”
While Ugas came to America alone, he has his own family now in Miami. He is engaged to Dayanara Leon, a model who was born in Cuba and defected years ago. He also has an autistic son, Yordenis Ugas Jr., who will turn seven on May 6. He calls the boy his greatest motivation and has said the autism has made him a better man.
“I miss him all the time,” said Ugas, who has been training, as always, at Salas’ gym in Las Vegas. He misses his mother as well.
“I haven’t been back to Cuba since 2019, but I met my mom in Panama once earlier this year, and once last year,” Ugas said, adding that at some point he would like to become a U.S. citizen.
If the 35-year-old Ugas (27-4, 12 KOs) can defeat the yet-to-be-beaten southpaw Spence in what is only the 12th unification bout in the glorious history of boxing’s welterweight division, he would become the first Cuban to unify three belts.
“It would be the greatest night in Cuban boxing history,” said Ugas, who has not lost to a southpaw since a split-decision defeat to Emanuel Robles in 2014.
Salas says the Ugas team has its work cut out but remains confident his charge can unify the belts.
“We’ve had a long camp and now we’re in the period where Ugas is starting to make the adjustments that he’ll need to be ready for what Spence brings,” the trainer said. “I want to face the best Errol Spence Jr., because I want the fans to get a great show. This is one of the biggest fights of the year. If he’s in top condition, Ugas is going to be ready to give him a hell of a fight.”
Ugas is pumped about fighting in AT&T Stadium. “I’m excited to be fighting at Cowboys Stadium. I’m looking forward to fighting in front of that massive crowd. I was born for this.”
For a closer look at Yordenis Ugas, check out his fighter page.