RING EXCLUSIVE: How Yordenis Ugas reclaimed his career
Yordenis Ugas thought his sunglasses would be enough to hide his face. They didn’t. The WBA welterweight titlist jumped into the back seat of a Las Vegas cab late last Saturday night, Aug. 21, still feeling the celebration of his greatest triumph, the dominance of Manny Pacquiao hours ago.
As they drove to Ugas’ hotel, the cabbie kept looking in his rearview mirror. They would drive a few blocks, and the cabbie would peak back again, and again. Finally, Ugas playfully nudged his sunglasses down his nose, tilted his head toward the rearview mirror and winked at the cabbie.
The cabbie smacked his forehead and exclaimed, “You’re him, you’re him, you’re Ugas!”
A year ago, Ugas admits, not many would have recognized him. Certainly not a Vegas cabbie on a big fight night.
In a few weeks, Ugas (27-4, 12 knockouts) will be honored with the key to the city of Miami by the mayor. In a few more months, he’s hoping to be in the ring again against IBF/WBC welterweight champion Errol Spence Jr., or some other welterweight name.
The stage Ugas has reached is an upward arcing culmination of how he reinvested in himself, and how a group of people headed by Al Haymon, manager Luis DeCubas Jr., esteemed trainer Ismael Salas and New York Yankees’ Cuban superstar relief pitcher Aroldis Chapman, among multiple others, came together to resurrect his career.
Four years ago, Ugas was taking fights on less than a day’s notice. Last Saturday night, he became a prime target of many 147-pounders’ wish list after dispensing the legendary 42-year-old Pacquiao (67-8-2, 39 KOs).
In 2014, Ugas suffered consecutive losses to fighters he should have defeated, Emanuel Robles, by 10-round split-decision, a fight in which many thought Ugas won, and to Amir Ahmed Iman by eight-round unanimous decision.
The Cuban expatriate was down. He lost faith in himself. He lost discipline. He took a few years off and questioned whether or not he should continue boxing.
“The birth of my son, Yordenis Ugas Jr., on May 6, 2015, changed everything,” Ugas admitted through a translator in an exclusive with RingTV.com. “I looked down on him in his crib and I decided I had to do something to provide for him. My son is autistic, and this gave me motivation. I had to work.
“I started to believe in myself after I beat Jamal James (in August 2016). I was supposed to be the guy who was picked to lose that fight. I had to feed my son. I had to become a world champion. My son is autistic and I have to be there for him. My bond with Al, Luis, with Chapman, with Ismael, they all believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself.
“But I’m the one who had to do the work. I had a long, long camp training for (contender Fabian) Maidana. I had to improve my focus and my determination. I still think I can be better than how I beat Pacquiao.”
DeCubas Jr. was reluctant to take any praise for Ugas, but it was DeCubas who made the move to step in on 10 days’ notice to replace Spence, who on August 9 was forced to pull out of the Pacquiao fight with a detached retina in his left eye.
It’s not the first time DeCubas pulled off such a wise move. When Jarrell “Big Baby” Miller failed three drug tests to fall out of his June 2019 title shot against then-undefeated WBA/IBF/WBO heavyweight titlist Anthony Joshua, DeCubas offered Andy Ruiz Jr. History took place when Ruiz, a 25-to-1 underdog, upset the British Adonis.
Ruiz had come off a previous fight and was in shape. Ugas had been preparing for Maidana when his game plan changed. DeCubas saw an opening and took it, as he did two years ago with Ruiz and the same result—his fighter on top.
DeCubas began streamlining Ugas’ team. He was one of the most decorated Cuban amateurs of all-time, winning 12-straight national titles. DeCubas fed Ugas ideas, and Ugas began listening. If an opportunity presented itself, DeCubas would push Ugas to take it.
While Ugas was in his rebuilding process, a chance came up to fight Nelson Lara in April 2017, just two months after Ugas beat Levan Ghvamichava by 10-round split-decision. Ugas was training with Salas that day in the gym when DeCubas reached him. Ugas left for Tunica, Mississippi, with nothing but a plane ticket and the clothes on his back. His wife had to fly to Tunica the next day with his trunks and shoes. Four months later, he took on Thomas Dulorme on nine-days’ notice. He knocked out Lara in two rounds and got off the canvas to beat Dulorme by unanimous decision.
“I think a huge thing was Ugas moving to 147 pounds, because it was a struggle for him to make 140,” DeCubas said. “Ugas never told me no and never questioned anything. He changed his attitude. I called for short-notice fights, like the time with Lara. I remember calling him and asking if he wanted to fight tomorrow. Yordenis started laughing. He thought I was joking with him. I wasn’t.
“Yordenis took that fight with less than a days’ notice. With Pacquiao, we happened to be in the right space at the right time. I was hesitant to put Andy in his fight against Joshua, but David Garcia kept pushing me to do it. David really thought Andy could beat him. I can’t take all of the credit. Sometimes you have to take risks.
“I remember going to Ugas about fighting Pacquiao. People need to understand Yordenis is a real warrior. I like to say that comes up from Cuban breeding. No fighter is ever 100 percent for these fights. Three, four weeks ago, he was having problems with his biceps and the swelling never went down, but Yordenis was able to fight with it.
“These Cuban warriors are not afraid to fight. I heard about Pacquiao’s age, but it wouldn’t matter if Ugas fought Pacquiao in 2021, or 2009, he still would have beat him. Yordenis is too big and too long for Manny. Ugas wants to fight the best, and the fight that makes the most sense is Errol Spence, when Spence is 100-percent healthy.”
DeCubas, who also represents Caleb Plant and Mario Barrios, along with Ruiz and Ugas, said Salas, Chapman and strength coach Angel Heredia played huge roles in Ugas’ resurrection.
“The bottom line is that Yordenis was willing to listen and trust,” DeCubas said. “You can have a fighter who has the greatest team in the world around him, it’s still up to the fighter to do the work. Yordenis did the work, and that’s why he deserves this.”
Chapman was working that night with the Yankees when Ugas beat Pacquiao. Chapman’s wife passed along the news to her husband, who got a little emotional when he heard.
Right now, Yordenis Ugas fears no fighter at 147 pounds. But he does hold out one fear.
“Getting into the batter’s box against Chapman,” Ugas said, laughing. “I’d rather take punches. I’m lucky Aroldis is my brother. He’s on my team.”
Team Ugas presently looks unbeatable.
Joseph Santoliquito is an award-winning sportswriter who has been working for Ring Magazine/RingTV.com since October 1997 and is the president of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be followed on twitter @JSantoliquito.