LAS VEGAS — The allure of Manny Pacquiao’s story is where he came from, a bony kid who hawked donuts on the street in order to try to provide for his poverty-stricken family.
Of course, that pre-teen, who was so desperate for money that for his first professional fight he had rocks in his pockets so he’d be sure to hit the minimum required weight, went on to become one of the greatest boxers in history.
He’s a recognized champion in a record eight weight classes and one of the highest-earning boxers of all time.
Yordenis Ugas, who on Saturday will face the legendary Pacquiao at T-Mobile Arena, is neither rich nor famous.
He has seven weight classes to go if he’s going to catch Pacquiao in titles — and the one he has is highly questionable because of it's gift from the WBA — but his story is no less dramatic.
And like Pacquiao, he’s a guy who is not hard to root for once you get to know him and understand what he went through to escape the tyranny in his native Cuba.
He attempted to defect six times, and was caught and sent to prison after each failure. He finally defected in 2010 after winning a bronze medal for Cuba at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, China.
He’s had modest success, going 26-4 with 12 KOs, but he’s mostly known for a good performance in a 2019 loss to Shawn Porter. Hardly the stuff of legends, though he made a legendary, Herculean effort to get out of Cuba and to freedom.
And though he’s now nearing the top of his profession — a fight against Pacquiao will make him a lot more rich and a lot more famous, as well as a lot more black and blue — he hasn’t forgotten the Cubans who are left at home, unable to escape the oppression in their homeland.
“I’m a fighter not only inside of the ring, but outside of the ring I fight for the freedom of my people,” Ugas said. “That’s the most important thing to me. I hope everyone fighting for freedom in Cuba is safe and knows that I’ll be fighting for them on Saturday.”
The challenge is massive. At BetMGM, Pacquiao is a -375 favorite and rising, while Ugas is +295. Pacquiao has beaten six men who are in the Hall of Fame, two more who seem like locks and is a cinch to make it himself the first time he’s eligible.
Ugas’ most noteworthy victims are Brandon Figueroa and Thomas Dulorme, nothing like the names Marquez, Cotto, Thurman, Bradley, Morales, Barrera, De La Hoya, Mosley and Hatton, among others, who dot Pacquiao’s résumé.
He doesn’t have to have a better career than Pacquiao to get the win, though; If that were the case, the fight wouldn’t make sense holding. Rather, he just needs to be better for 12 rounds or less on Saturday.
And he’s confident that he’ll upset the odds. Since hiring Ismael Salas as his trainer several years ago, he’s been a lot more like the guy who was the gold medal favorite at 139 pounds in Beijing in 2008 than the one who lost three times in a seven-fight period over two years from 2012-14.
“I’m well aware that Pacquiao is the favorite,” Ugas said. “But at the same time, I’m a champion. Since I came back five years ago, I’ve overcome so much. I’ve faced so many strong opponents in order to get to where I am today. I have full confidence in myself and my ability to get a victory.
“When I went away from boxing, I was focused on family and spending time with my son. At that time, I never thought I would be defending a title against Manny Pacquiao. But for the past five years I’ve been one of the most active and successful boxers out there and I’m ready to prove myself once again.”
He’s proven his grit and resilience for years, time after time, far away from the ring. Toughness — real toughness — is being willing to leave the only life you’ve ever known behind and literally risk your life to make it to freedom in order to be able to chase a dream.
That is who Yordenis Ugas is, not just a guy who was given a phony title by a questionable sanctioning body.
And when he makes the walk to the ring on Saturday, he’ll do so having overcome just as much in his life as Pacquiao.
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