Yordenis Ugas glides around the boxing ring inside the Salas Boxing Academy in Las Vegas one spring Thursday afternoon.
With white boxing gloves tied to his hands, red Adidas boxing shoes laced to his feet, an unrelenting, stoic look cemented to his face and unified welterweight supremacy etched into his mind.
He punches and punches, each blow thudding precisely into the center of the mitts on Ismael Salas’ hands the way he hopes they’ll thud into Errol Spence Jr.’s face and body on Saturday night.
But first, he drops to his knees in the corner of the ring and bows his head in prayer.
“The faith is keeping me alive,” the 35-year-old Las Vegan by way of Cuba says through a translator after pensively recollecting the circumstances of his career. “The faith gives me the strength to pass through my struggles.”
Ugas (27-4, 12 knockouts) maintained his faith. In God, himself and the beloved sweet science. The WBA welterweight champion nearly quit the sport he loves so deeply a few years after a dangerous defection from his native Cuba.
Instead, he’s fighting on Showtime pay-per-view at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, to unify his title with Spence’s IBF and WBC championships, having reached the pinnacle of the only profession he ever considered.
“Just being in this position, it’s crazy to me,” said Ugas’ co-trainer, Carlos Velazquez. “It’s crazy. How do we say it? It’s a miracle. A miracle.”
A minor setback
He was born into boxing. Into Cuba’s storied amateur boxing system in his hometown of Santiago de Cuba, where sport doubles as refuge. The country barred professional boxing in 1961, its government keen on validating its socialist ideals through Olympic successes. Ugas knew by the time he was 6 that he, too, wanted Olympic gold.
By 12, he’d earned attendance to one of Cuba’s boxing scholarship schools, where the instruction and training intensified around an equally trying academic schedule. Every day, Ugas would study in the morning and train in the afternoon and evenings, cultivating the seeds of the skillful style that would propel him to national championships, international championships and most importantly the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
Ugas rolled through the lightweight division, only to lose in the semifinals and settle for a bronze medal. Wanting gold, he departed depressed, dejected and in search of the glory that eluded him in China.
The professional kind. With money and championships that he’d obtain only by defecting from Cuba.
Six times, Ugas tried defecting. Six times, he was captured and jailed. Conditions weren’t torturous, Ugas said, and stints wouldn’t last more than a week or deter him from subsequent attempts at securing freedom.
“That’s the price you need to pay if you want to be a free person,” he said. “You need to balance the risk. … Every time I thought ‘I want to be a free man.’ That’s why I kept trying.”
Finally, Ugas fled unabated alongside 20 like-minded countrymen. They left by raft and endured two days of wind, rain, thunder and lightning before reaching Mexico, where he’d finally began to feel free.
He settled in 2010 in Miami, a hub for Cuban defectors, and resumed boxing again as a professional — winning five times that year en route to a promotional contract with Top Rank. He won the ensuing six fights.
But an untimely loss on March 23, 2012. to Johnny Garcia triggered his dismissal from Top Rank and preceded an eventual premature retirement in 2014 after six additional fights and two more losses.
“I was surviving like a normal person. Without boxing,” Ugas said. “That was a hard time for me, but I kept in my mind that I’d be back.”
A major comeback
Without professional boxing, Ugas relocated to New Jersey, where he had a network of friends and felt some sense of comfort in the face of his perceived failures. He worked menial jobs and shared an apartment with three other fighters, training — and eating — whenever he could and contemplating his future with friend and confidant Aroldis Chapman of the nearby New York Yankees.
The two maintain the friendship they formed as teenagers in Cuba and had “plenty of conversations, long late-night conversations” about how Ugas could reclaim his boxing career.
“Basically in one of those conversations, I told him ‘I’m going to help you out. I’m going to take care of whatever needs to be taken care of but in exchange, you really have to focus,’” a translator said for Chapman, who once dabbled in boxing and still has a passion for the sport.
Salas said their first order of business was restoring Ugas’ confidence after two years of inactivity and a move from 140 to 147 pounds. A subsequent victory over Jamal James on Aug. 12, 2016 did just that. He won the first eight fights on his comeback tour, losing only a controversial decision in 2019 to Shawn Porter.
Three additional victories propelled Ugas forward and onto Manny Pacquiao and Spence’s undercard the night of Aug. 20. Or so he thought. An eye injury to Spence thrust Ugas into the main event at T-Mobile Arena opposite the legendary Filipino fighter.
On 11 days notice.
“When he came to the arena, packed full of Filipinos — even Americans in favor of Pacquiao. The commission was in favor of Pacquiao. Referee and judges in favor of Pacquiao,” Salas said. “Everything was against him. But it doesn’t matter when you’ve got a dream. It doesn’t matter when you like to succeed.”
Ugas ended Pacquiao’s career that night with a unanimous decision victory, retaining via upset the WBA title he’d earned the fight before. The win placed Ugas atop the welterweight division alongside Spence and WBO titlist Terence Crawford, proving the ends did indeed justify the challenging means.
“The Pacquiao fight was a great night for me. After that fight my life changed in even more ways,” Ugas said. “But I’ve always kept myself humble. I showed everyone who the WBA champion was. I have my eye on continuing to make history.”
Ugas would do just that by beating Spence (27-0, 21 KOs) and becoming the first Cuban boxer to unify three titles. Spence, 32, and long regarded as one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in boxing, poses Ugas’ most difficult challenge to date.
He’s the underdog, yet again.
A perpetual underdog turned champion — inside and outside the squared circle.