The Cuban fighting spirit is alive and well in WBA World Welterweight Champion Yordenis Ugas who, with a victory over the legendary Manny Pacquiao Saturday night on pay-per-view, would give the country give its greatest win in their rich boxing history.
When Juan Budinich was a fourteen-year-old cadet in his second or third year at the Chilean Naval Academy, he knocked out a superior officer who had been harassing him.
That type of offense would get you court martialed and dishonorably discharged in today’s Army but, back in 1895 Chile, the penalty was a bullet. To avoid getting shot, Budinich stowed away on a ship sailing north. It was there that he was introduced to boxing.
Once the coast was clear, Budinich returned to Chile and opened the country’s first boxing academy. A few years later, he changed his name to John and sailed to Cuba and did the same there, opening Cuba’s first ever boxing gym in the courtyard of the El Havanero newspaper.
A few years later, a national boxing commission was formed and a long line of outstanding boxers that included Kid Chocolate, Kid Gavilan, and Jose Napoles formed. We get to witness the continuation of that line when WBA World Welterweight Champion Yordenis Ugas of Cuba faces Manny Pacquiao Saturday, August 21, at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, live on YouTube pay-per-view and FOX Sports pay-per-view (9 p.m. ET/ 6 p.m. PT).
Perhaps fittingly, Ugas, like Budinich a century ago, was also forced to leave behind his homeland.
“I’ve wanted to be free my whole life. I want to be able to provide for my family (back in Cuba) and the only way that it is possible is to succeed here with something I love to do,” Ugas explained.
After several unsuccessful attempts and the prison stints that followed those attempts, Ugas finally made it to Mexico, then, in 2010, the United States. The Cuba that Ugas fled from was not the same one that Budinich landed in exactly 100 years earlier.
In 1962, Fidel Castro banned professional boxing. Many boxers left behind their belongings and settled in Mexico, Europe, or the Unites States. Those that remained saw their careers disappear. The focus in Cuba shifted to their amateur program and within a few years, Cuba became a dominant force in international competitions.
Those who left the country to continue with their pro careers, and their freedom, went on to win titles and competed in some of the biggest matches in history. Luis Rodriguez, a skinny welterweight who moved around the ring as if he was on a pogo stick, scored wins over the like of Emile Griffith. Jose Napoles also beat Griffith and challenged Carlos Monzon for the middleweight title in a super fight.
A victory over Pacquiao would put Ugas in the conversation of greatest Cuban boxers. It may even be the biggest victory ever by a Cuban.
“ I have full confidence in myself and my ability to get a victory. ” WBA World Welterweight Champion - Yordenis Ugas
Among the legends who have lost to Cubans include Ezzard Charles, Carmen Basilio, and Ike Williams. And the men who beat them, Kid Gavilan and Kid Tunero, rate among most lists of best Cubans. Ugas can add his name to that list if he can score the upset.
“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.”
Ugas also knows that Pacquiao will be coming to the ring with similar confidence. “He’s going to be ready. I have prepared to face the best so that I can become the best.”
But for Ugas, this is about more than boxing. “I’m aware of the history,” Ugas said regarding the significance of a win over Pacquiao. “I’m a fighter not only inside of the ring, but outside of the ring. I fight for the freedom of my people. That’s the most important thing to me.”
On July 11, 2021, thousands of Cubans took to the streets of Havana in anti-government protests. Young and old marched in front of the capital chanting “Freedom,” “Enough” and “Unite.”
There’s a food shortage in Cuba. There’s a surge in coronavirus cases. The authorities in Havana arrested hundreds and rumors have spread about dozens of “forced disappearances.” People are being tried 12-at-a-time in summary trials without evidence according to local journalists.
This is not the same Cuba that Budinich found. It’s not the same Cuba that Ugas left more than 10 years ago. There’s a long way to go before we see Ugas’ dream of a free Cuba but, there appears to be more hope of it being realized. As for his other dream – of being in a mega fight – it’s about to become a reality.
Ten years ago, when he could only afford to eat from the dollar menu, the likelihood of him headlining a super fight while the citizens of Cuba protested the government was an unlikely prospect. But Ugas doesn’t just dream.
“This is the kind of fight I’ve worked towards since I started boxing in Cuba,” Ugas said. “I wasn’t sure if it was going to be Pacquiao, but I always knew I would be in a fight of this magnitude. Hard work always pays off.”
He thought for a second then added, “I’m dedicating this fight to all my fellow Cubans fighting for freedom every day. I want to make history for my legacy and for all the Cubans around the world. This will be huge for the entire Latin community.”
For a closer look at Yordenis Ugas, check out his fighter page.
- Yordenis Ugas